Last week, in honor of Vegetarian Awareness Month, we unveiled the 52 Best Restaurants for Vegetarians in America. No conversation about plant-based dining could be complete without talking about chefs Kate Jacoby and Rich Landau or, rather, talking to them. So, that’s what we did! Read on for a look inside their restaurants Vedge and V Street, with photos from Simon Lewis, and learn about their honest, feel-good #vegforward food that you can believe in.
In the 1972 film The Heartbreak Kid, after eating a humble Midwestern dinner, Charles Grodin’s Lenny Cantrow, rather absurdly, declares, “There’s no insincerity in those potatoes. There’s no deceit in that cauliflower. This is a totally honest meal. You don’t know what a pleasure it is to sit down in this day and age and eat food you can believe in.”
Flash forward 40-plus years, and the same words might be uttered by anyone who has ever had the pleasure of dining at Vedge (hold the side of absurdity, even from a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker like Lenny). The award-winning Philadelphia restaurant from chefs Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby has captured the nation’s attention since opening its doors in 2011 with its animal product-free menu that celebrates vegetables in ways both evocative and original.
The seemingly sudden success of Vedge and its brand of food diners can – and do – believe in, be they omnivores or vegans, is actually a story decades in the making. Philadelphia vegetable lovers are long-familiar with the couple’s popular Horizons restaurant, which had a devoted, cultish following, since it opened, first as Horizons Café inside a health food store, in 1994.
In the subsequent 20-odd years, appetites have evolved alongside Landau’s cuisine. Jacoby, who teamed up with Landau personally and professionally in 2001, said of their earliest menus, “It was a lot of tofu and seitan — mock meats, mock tuna salad, faux chicken salad. A lot of these playful ‘isms around protein-centric dishes. But that’s what it was back then. You had to start somewhere, and you had to start with something that was familiar to people.”
As Horizons steadily grew in popularity, there were a few significant culinary climate changes occurring in the U.S. She notes, “In the mid-2000s, people started to really think about where their food was coming from. They wanted to know its origins — who makes it, how organic it is, how local it is. People started to value that.”
At the same time, tapas and small plates began to captivate diners’ imaginations. “People became much more casual and social with their dining. They wanted to graze and have lots of plates in front of them and lots of variety.” These shifts allowed the couple to then shift their attention away from “a giant piece of vegan protein on a plate” and highlight a single vegetable at a time. They also allowed Jacoby and Landau to fully realize their vision for focusing on and celebrating vegetables, shuttering Horizons to open Vedge.
“It’s been this kind of beautiful story because everybody loves vegetables. Very few people refuse to eat them. There’s so much diversity in how you prepare them, the colors, the textures, the flavors. And there’s just so much to do when you get your hands on them. It’s really exciting territory.”
Landau, a self-taught chef who was nominated for a James Beard Award just this year, concurs. “We’re having a pinch-me moment. When people say that Vedge has made a splash on a national level, it’s hard to wrap my head around it. I just go to work and make sure everyone’s good and the food tastes amazing.”
Speaking of food, Vedge’s menu, and that of the newish restaurant V Street, is modest – and efficient (four guests could easily sample every one of Vedge’s offerings in a single sitting). “We keep our menu small because we like to be really focused on what we’re doing and do it really well,” he says.
With 18 dishes, diners can choose from six options at the veg bar, all of which are cold vegetable charcuterie selections. There are six hot, bigger-than-an-appetizer-yet-smaller-than-an-entrée kitchen plates, and their signature dirt list, a collection of freshly sown, at-the-moment farm vegetables. “We try to turn them into these whacky side dishes, doing things people haven’t done with them before. That’s our motto: Do something that hasn’t been done.”