Why Sydney's appetite for vegan dining keeps growing

Otto's vegan menu includes an impressive egg-free pavlova made with the leftover brine from cans of chickpeas.
Otto's vegan menu includes an impressive egg-free pavlova made with the leftover brine from cans of chickpeas. Photo: Nikki To

If you thought vegan dining meant being at the mercy of your local health food store, you'd be wrong. In the  past year, a vegan "fish" and chip shop, sushi joint, "mylk" bar and dairy-free coffee venue have all opened in Sydney, while a popular pizzeria (Gigi), burger place (Soul Burger) and gelateria  (Gelato Blue) ditched animal products, switching to menus that no longer require launching an interrogation:  "Is there cheese/egg/butter in this?" Hatted restaurant Otto even offers a vegan cheese plate and the bestselling item at Ghostboy Cantina is the vegan fried cauliflower taco with macadamia cashew cream (which is excellent, by the way). Sydney's vegan game is strong and getting stronger. 

Even the most diehard steak fan would notice a cultural shift. 

Sam Miller, Noma's former sous chef, has started doing regular vegan dinners at his Silvereye restaurant.
Sam Miller, Noma's former sous chef, has started doing regular vegan dinners at his Silvereye restaurant. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Coconut yoghurt is a cafe  menu staple, and whereas you might have once received an eye roll for  requesting soy, it's no longer a big deal to ask for almond milk in your latte – even McDonald's offers coconut, soy and almond options with its coffee at The Corner by McCafe. 

Not only have animal-product-free menus become more accepted, the pop culture perception of vegans is more well-rounded – the sour-weakling-on-lettuce stereotype that may once have prevailed has been countered by a red carpet of wide-ranging ambassadors for the diet, from the Grand-Slam-blitzing Williams sisters to Miley Cyrus  and Bill Clinton, even if he occasionally slips in doctor-ordered salmon. Fans even recently petitioned The Simpsons creators to make Lisa Simpson a vegan. 

Business pages are paying attention – name-checking Bill Gates' investment in Beyond Meat and Hampton Creek (start-ups experimenting with plant-based versions of meat and eggs). There's even the emergence of a vegan lobby, with the launch of the Plant Based Foods Association in the US. "The associations representing the meat, egg and dairy industries wield a lot of power in Washington. Now vegan voices have a seat at the table," says Katrina Fox, author of Vegan Ventures: Start and Grow an Ethical Business. "This marks a massive cultural shift in regards to vegan eating and dining and I expect to see Australia following suit with a similar association at some point."

Of course, you needn't indulge in House-of-Cards-style power plays to notice that vegan dining is more of a big deal. It helps that it has a far better rep than it used to – thanks to places like Gigi and Soul Burger (which are good argument-enders for anyone who thinks vegan food can't be delicious or will leave your hunger springing back after an hour) and high-end restaurants such as Otto, Bentley, Quay and Silvereye offering inspired takes on plant-based menus.

And the sweet-tooth angle has helped bust the myth that being vegan ensures a lifetime of being patrolled by the dietary fun police. Instagram-ruling cakes, made without a swirl of butter or cracked egg, surely act as more enticing gateways to the vegan cause than blocks of tofu have in the past. Seeing a chai and salted caramel cake with raspberry coulis and Turkish delight on My Little Panda Kitchen's vegan-menu-showcasing Instagram counters the idea that cutting animal products from your diet is all joyless restraint. 

All these profile boosts might explain why Google Trends shows that interest in the "vegan" search term is the highest it has been in a decade; Australians  at present conduct the second highest  number of "vegan" searches worldwide.

And eateries are an "important" part of this change, Soul Burger's Amit Tewari says. "They're making plant-based food options readily available to people," he says. "And they don't taste like cardboard either! This is food that, pound for pound, can be tastier, healthier and more nourishing than meat-filled food."  

And while Tewari  could mount an environmental, ethical or health case for turning Soul Burger vegan, it was animal welfare that inspired  him to make the change in December. Tewari was also prepared for this move to backfire, business-wise. But the bottom line surprised him. "It's actually increased, which I really didn't expect," he says. "The irony is, when Soul Burger started, we started pretty broke. I was a 22-year-old medical student with a seriously small amount of cash, who worked seven days at this burger joint, and never paid my rent on time. After three years we built it up to this pretty prominent flexitarian brand. When I reasoned we could do more for animals by going completely plant-based, I resigned myself for another close call with bankruptcy. But it didn't work out that way – we've been booming since and doing better than we used to do."

Not everyone has been a fan of the move, though. "We had a staff member almost attacked at one point!" he says. 

And while some people have said they'll eat elsewhere, because of the meat-free direction, "we've got testimonials from customers who talk about Soul Burger sparking a change in their diets, and that's huge for us". 

"The majority of our customers are meat eaters, which is great! I'd much rather have meat eaters hit up Soul Burger and love the food, it means we're doing something special and making a bigger difference." 

When Gigi pizzeria – which is certified by the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana – became the first prominent eatery to go vegan last September, the response was hysterical, particularly online. Yet, the result was not the tofu-on-pizza apocalypse that people had assumed. In fact, the pizzas are even better than before and, straight after the change, the queues stayed l-o-n-g. Still, some people were mystified by owner Marco Matino's choice to run a cheese-free pizzeria. 

For him, it was clear: "I could no longer contribute to the unnecessary cruelty, pain and suffering of innocent animals purely for pleasure and profit." He's now looking to add another vegan eatery to his portfolio – a pasticceria is on the cards. 

You're seeing more plant-based eateries these days, as people are "making more ethical lifestyle choices," he says.

The appetite for vegan eateries is definitely expanding. 

When Maz Valcorza opened Sadhana Kitchen four years ago, there was little to choose from. "That's part of why I quit my job to open Sadhana Kitchen, I really wanted this food to be as accessible as possible." Her career as a vegan chef might seem unlikely, as she grew up enjoying Spam from the can and smashing double servings of food-court fried chicken (with a double cheeseburger on top), but training to be a yoga teacher inspired her transformation.   Demand means she's opened a second Sadhana Kitchen outlet and released a cookbook called The Naked Vegan.

Joseph Pagliaro, who runs vegan cafe  Zeitgeist Cuisine, also expanded recently, with Bondi Coffee – a specialty coffee roaster that happens to be dairy free (your options are to go black or ask for the house-made nut milks) – and Zeitgeist Mylk Bar, which sells its own coconut, cashew and almond-macadamia milks, desserts and shakes (like Apple Pie & Custard). 

The fine-dining world is also paying attention. 

"We did a vegan dinner at Bentley, which was part of Good Food Month in October. It sold out within minutes," chef Brent Savage says. This event inspired him to turn another restaurant he co-owns, Yellow, into a high-end vegetarian restaurant, with a dedicated vegan menu.  

Otto has been at the forefront of this direction. It's offered a vegan menu for nearly a decade – with dishes such as fig carpaccio, beetroot ravioli and cashew cheese and an impressive vegan pavlova. One regular diner is a vegan with many allergies. "We're still winning, because she's been coming back for eight years," chef Richard Ptacnik says. 

Three-hat restaurants, such as Quay and Rockpool, can also offer vegan menus with advance notice. Chefs Peter Gilmore and Phil Wood draw on a  multitude of ingredients and tricks – fermentation, koji, intense vegetable stocks, miso, seaweeds – to create choruses of flavour without butter or eggs. 

After a collaboration with vegan chef Alejandro Cancino, Silvereye is doing bimonthly vegan dinners, starting on April 26. Chef Sam Miller previously looked after diners with dietary requirements at Noma, which "pushes you to approach things with a different mentality". His vegan menu for the Alejandro Cancino event included a mango disc on caramel almond-milk ice-cream with frozen apples and a malt cookie folded through. ("The food was so beautiful," says Maz Valcorza, who attended.) 

"It's excellent that they're accommodating these customers," Pagliaro says. "I'm just waiting for one of these establishments to go vegan, because it's only a matter of time.  In the next year you'll see a big name go totally vegan, like a Jamie-Oliver level. Put it this way, Jamie Oliver isn't going to start saying you should be eating more meat or dairy – it's only going to go the other way. One of these guys is going to go, 'you know what, vegan is the way, I'm going to make the move'."