'When I first went vegan about 16 years ago, I think a lot of people thought I would die," says Michelle Gudz, a Web developer who blogs about vegan food and travel at meshell.ca. As a teen in her hometown of Edmonton, she had a single appealing option when her parents would take her out for birthday dinners: Oriental Veggie House, a Chinese vegetarian restaurant with lots of meat-, egg-, dairy– and honey-free options.
Now 30 and living in Toronto, Gudz has witnessed a complete turnaround in observers' perspectives toward her diet. "Attitudes have mostly improved, and these days they ask more about [vitamin] B12 than protein," she says. She's seen a huge improvement in the quality and quantity of the vegan food that's available. For birthday dinners, she can choose between high-end downtown Toronto spots such as George, Canoe or Café Belong. "A lot of restaurants that aren't vegan will do vegan," she says. "Now, the expectation is that places do have something or can modify something." Best of all is how it tastes: Far from the mushy, bland stereotypical dishes of yore, this is flavourful food that just happens to be free of animal products.
Modern veganism has a glam factor, and famous vegans abound, from Jared Leto to Venus Williams to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone. But the explosion of plant-based restaurants and dishes isn't solely the result of demand from dedicated vegans (though that certainly helps, since in any group of diners, it's the one with restrictions who chooses the restaurant). Plenty of omnivores are choosing vegan meals more often, whether for health reasons – multiple studies show that vegans enjoy a longer life span and lower BMI than meat, cheese and egg eaters, as well as less incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, cataracts and various cancers – or simply because they're adventurous eaters.
Beyoncé and Jay Z did a 22-day vegan cleanse in December, 2013 (never mind that she wore fur and leather on their dates at well-known Los Angeles vegan restaurants Native Foods Café and Crossroads). Bill Clinton credits a predominantly vegan diet with bringing him back to health after major heart surgery. Soy, almond and other milk alternatives are now ubiquitous in grocery stores and coffee shops, as Canadians keep reducing our milk intake: in 2013 we drank 75.54 litres each, down from 90.79 litres per capita in 1994. (Ice cream purchases have also seen a marked decrease, though cheese consumption is, so far, steady.)
Chef Justin Cournoyer, owner of Toronto's Actinolite restaurant, says offering vegan dishes is part business, part simply being on track with the trend toward vegetable-centric cooking. First kale became inescapable, then cabbage became the new kale, and now cauliflower is the must-try menu item at popular new restaurants like Montreal's Le Vin Papillon.
Cournoyer calls himself a hunter-gatherer, and meals at Actinolite put the focus on local, seasonal and foraged ingredients, such as birch oil and elderflower vinegar. All tasting menus are created with vegetarian options already in mind, and vegan and other special diets can be accommodated relatively easily. Roasted pear with autumn leaves and fermented blueberries is still "a really good dish" if the house-made sour cream is omitted, while Cournoyer's take on cauliflower sees a whole head roasted with fermented apple and caraway. "The vegetable dictates the menu, not the protein," he says. "It's hard for us, but I think we should offer a meal to everybody if we can do it."
Fully vegan restaurants are offering appealing, complex dishes: appetizers at Be Love in Victoria include a warm Brussels sprout and apple salad with quinoa, pecan "bacon bits" and a mustard vinaigrette. At omnivorous spots, staff are increasingly able to recommend modifications on the fly. Byblos, a luxe eastern Mediterranean spot in downtown Toronto, typically prepares its seared cauliflower side with duck fat, but will happily make it with an animal-free substitution.
Options span the price and formality spectrum. In Toronto, brand-new vegan pub Porter House has been earning buzz from omnivores and vegans alike for hearty dishes such as lentil and ale pie topped with puff pastry, as well as a proper roster of craft beers (all also vegan, of course). Diners celebrating special occasions in Vancouver can try for a table at the perpetually packed the Acorn (a vegetarian spot named one of the country's 10 best new restaurants of 2013 by enRoute magazine), for coconut, cashew and kimchi dumplings with shaved cabbage, pickled squash and sesame king oyster mushrooms. Veteran Toronto budget-blowout destination Canoe will do a vegan tasting menu with advance notice, with past dishes including a forest risotto with matsutake mushrooms, balsam fir, caribou moss, mountain cranberries, chestnuts and fried leaves.
All this deliciousness is a boon for every type of eater. "I think there's a new understanding that you can be a meat eater and still really enjoy vegetarian food," says Michael Lyons, owner of Vancouver's Graze restaurant. Barely a quarter of his customers identify as vegan or vegetarian, which he opened in 2013 out of a frustration at the lack of high-end plant-based dining options.
Lyons says diners with increasingly sophisticated palates are viewing vegan food as one more choice on their checklist of cuisines, alongside international options like Indian or Japanese. "Right from the start," he says, "our plan was to provide creative, delicious, nutritionally balanced, comforting, familiar food that just happened to be plant-based."
Veganism by the book
In 1994, B.C.-based dietitians Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis released the first edition of their now-classic nutrition guidebook Becoming Vegetarian. At the time, even Melina was only vaguely aware of veganism. Researching and dispelling the myths about meat-free eating seemed a big enough project, so the pair barely mentioned the idea of eschewing all animal-derived foods, including dairy, eggs and honey.
But the biggest reaction to the book was due to a single chapter on eating healthfully without dairy, which infuriated the Dairy Bureau of Canada. "They wrote a 65-page booklet against our book and gave it out for free, and put a big ad in the Dietitians of Canada journal," Melina says. "It just made our book more famous."
By 2000, it was time to go all the way, and the duo put out Becoming Vegan. "At the time, we had no idea that the book would sell hundreds of thousands of copies in multiple languages," Melina says. Last year, a completely revised edition of Becoming Vegan was welcomed into a radically different cultural climate. This time around, Dietitians of Canada hired Melina to do a cross-country tour that even touched on raw vegan nutrition. If the dietitians still run across skeptics, they make it personal: Davis, a long-time vegan in her late 50s, has been known to interrupt presentations to drop and pump out 40 push-ups.