Across a two-block Newtown strip that's punctuated by pawn shops and vape stores, restaurants are doing the kind of business other "eat streets" can only dream of. It's King Street's vegan mile and it's becoming more popular by the week.
"The vegan community is a very passionate crowd," says Peter Martinez, who opened the plant-based Vandal Taqueria on the southern end of King Street 12 months ago.
"I thought we would be stuffed when COVID hit, but people immediately embraced the restaurant and supported us over lockdown like I couldn't believe. I've run venues for 25 years and I've never seen enthusiasm for a restaurant like it."
Technically, the vegan mile is about 200 metres, bookended by Golden Lotus Vietnamese restaurant near Enmore Road and Bloodwood near Holt Street in the south. (Bloodwood, it should be noted, is omnivorous in its a la carte offerings, but the restaurant's vegan set menu is one of the most booked banquets in town.)
Husband-and-wife team Carl Coyle and Michelle van Rensburg opened vegan cheesemonger La Petite Fauxmagerie in January, joining nine other plant-based operators in the zone, including Gigi Pizzeria, Lentil as Anything and Suzy Spoon's Vegetarian Butcher.
Van Rensburg says the mile is growing because vegans love to eat and experiment with different cuisines.
"Having a collection of multiple food outlets, where people can shop, dine-in or go for a drink, is bringing a lot of people here. Our customers aren't just locals either – we have regulars from Cronulla and Bankstown."
People may choose a vegetarian or vegan diet for health, environmental or animal welfare reasons, or a combination thereof. According to data from research company Roy Morgan, 2.5 million Australians (12.1 per cent of the population) in 2018 said their diet was all, or almost all, vegetarian, up from under 2.2 million people in 2014.
Further, analysis of Google search data by global food website Chef's Pencil found Australia was the second most popular country for veganism in 2020, behind Britain. Online searches for vegan restaurants and recipes are also made twice as frequently as they were five years ago.
For Gigi Pizzeria founder Marco Matino, the figures support his view that plant-based eating is a movement, not a fad. "Most Sydney restaurants now have a range of vegan options, whereas five or six years ago you would be lucky to find one plant-based main on a menu," he says.
"There were a few Buddhist restaurants focused on vegan food, but that was about it. Now people who are looking to make a lifestyle change to vegan eating know that they can come to the south end of King and there are loads of dining options."
Matino says the quality of imitation meats and cheeses has skyrocketed in the past six years, too, greatly helping the plant-based cause. "A lot of our non-vegan customers can't tell the difference between our cheese and traditional mozzarella."
Peter Martinez agrees. "We've had customers visit three or four times without realising all our food is vegan. The past 12 months have been truly eye-opening."
The vegan mile is poised for further expansion. Comeco Foods opened its doors one block down from the main strip in May and there is a queue for its plant-based doughnuts most weekends. Meanwhile, vegan ramen store Lonely Mouth opened nearby on Australia Street in March, and Vegan Fried Chick'n and Soul Burger are flying plant-based flags on other blocks in Newtown.
Buoyed by his success with Vandal, Martinez will open a vegan supermarket on Enmore Road mid-year.
"Whether it's asparagus or shampoo, everything we sell will be ethically sourced," he says. "Customers can expect a vegan sushi train and robata restaurant hidden in the storeroom too."
A field guide to Newtown's vegan mile
Golden Lotus Vegan 341 King Street
From Saigon-style spring rolls to plum sauce "duck", the menu at this local Vietnamese hero lists more than 70 items. It's all about the life-giving pho, however, teeming with tofu and powered by slowly simmered vegetables.
Gurdy's Newtown 349 King Street
Your friendly neighbourhood small bar that is ideal for margaritas in the afternoon and a $48 set menu in the evening. Try the barbecued watermelon with smoked corn if it's going.
Blossoming Lotus 367 King Street
Loved by students at the top end of King for the past two decades, this stalwart migrated south last year. All the Thai hits, including vegan curries in every traffic-light colour, and a fiery papaya salad.
Gigi Pizzeria 379 King Street
Who says pizza needs cheese? Gigi's blistered-crust marinara with San Marzano tomatoes is certified authentic by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – the Italian organisation on a mission to protect "true" Neapolitan-style pies. Pizza endorsement from the highest level.
Neko Neko Newtown 381 King Street
With natural wine, noodles and not a pork bone in sight, Neko Neko is another Newtown restaurant that opened in March and survived the pandemic due to vegan community support. A spicy tofu ramen bursts with chilli, miso, beetroot and wood-ear mushrooms, and it's the kind of soup that makes you feel healthier just by looking at it.
Lentil as Anything 391 King Street
Newtown's branch of the charity restaurant chain famous for its "pay as you feel" model has been supporting vulnerable and marginalised people since 2014. It also rocks a damn fine dahl.
Vina Vegan 395 King Street
Family-operated since 2009, Vina serves vegan riffs on Vietnamese classics. A double order of summer rolls seems like the right thing to do.
Suzy Spoon's Vegetarian Butcher 397 King Street
Come for the herby, plant-based sausages; leave with a shopping bag full of vegan schnitzels, relish and lasagne.
Vandal Taqueria 403 King Street
The vegan set menu at this Los Angeles-inspired taqueria offers a lot of bang for buck. We're talking $25 for guacamole, a quesadilla, grilled corn, croquetas, a cheeseburger spring roll and your choice of taco. Young Henrys pale ale is on hand to ride shotgun.
La Petite Fauxmagerie 412 King Street
Vegan cheese is made using similar ferments and processes to the dairy-based stuff, but often with cashew, almond or soy milk instead of animal products. Fauxmagerie hosts free tastings on Thursday nights.
Comeco Foods 524A King Street
A button-cute business tremendously popular for its vegan sushi, rice bread and sourdough doughnuts. Those "sourdoughnuts", like everything at Comeco, are gluten-free too.