Aussie restaurants are growing their vegan menus, and it’s better for everyone

Aussie restaurants are growing their vegan menus, and it’s better for everyone

Photo: Alibi (supplied)
1 / 2
Words by Bianca O'Neill

‘Vegan’ is no longer a dirty word.

Previously the domain of a special menu, or a solo offering buried somewhere deep in the vegetarian section, vegan dishes were often overlooked by restaurants as a reluctant requirement at best, and at worst a big hassle.

However with the rise of great vegan food alternatives, the ‘vegan sections’ of menus are getting bigger and, in some cases, are being celebrated with special all-vegan nights or degustations.

Recently, I was looking for a restaurant where I could book a table for a large party of fussy eaters. As I perused the set menus, I was taken aback by the sheer range of vegetarian and vegan options. It’s a stark contrast to a decade ago when a vegan friend of mine expressed her frustration over the ‘vegetable pasta’ dishes she’d be lumped with on a night out because it was the only vegan alternative.

So why the sudden increase in vegan menus? Well, for restaurants it makes more financial sense than ever.

The move away from meat and animal products is intensifying across the world, as well as here at home. From progressives chipping away at the dairy industry via plant-based milk alternatives to full-time vegans, the demand for non-animal products is increasing. The global plant-based faux meat market alone will have an estimated value of $284.53 million USD ($423.48 million AUD) by 2026.

It’s something that Vincent Ng knows all too well. The godfather of vegetarian and plant-based diets in Melbourne opened his Footscray vegetarian superstore, Vincent Vegetarian Food, all the way back in 1996 – and my, how things have changed since then. So much so, that his son Daniel has helmed the opening of a new Fitzroy outlet just this month.

“Vincent’s Marketplace is nestled within the epicentre of Melbourne’s vibrant vegan scene, where there’s a real appetite for plant-based proteins, high-quality coffee and ethical groceries,” says Daniel, who’s also general manager of the group.

“With 20 plus years of experience in the vegetarian and vegan retail, wholesale and food service industry behind us, we are not simply following the plant-based trend, but leading the charge.”

But it’s not just restaurants and providores riffing on this trend – there are plenty of bars that are jumping on the plant-based bandwagon too. Alibi is Sydney’s first cocktail bar offering a 100 per cent plant-based dining menu, located within Ovolo Hotel in Woolloomooloo.

Sure, the drinks menu is plant-based – that’s easy – but so is the food. Think decadent Kimchi dumplings with sesame and ginger foam, heirloom tomato and zucchini lasagne with pistachio pesto and a take on Cacio e Pepe with kelp noodles and crispy olives.

Melbourne has followed suit with Handsome, also plant-based. General manager Alla Payne (ex-Lucy Liu)  wanted to create a luxe bar destination that caters to the vegan lifestyle without excluding those who aren’t necessarily vegan by choice.

“I follow a plant-based diet, meaning that all food I consume contains zero animal products,” says Payne.

“The main reason I decided to make this change was for my health, but I also understand the environmental ethics behind it, and kudos to those that do it for that reason.

“Not only is the menu and cocktail list for Handsome completely plant-based, I’ve made sure a good percentage of the Souk menu can also be experienced by vegans, with a few small modifications on request.”

Payne understands the pitfalls of being labelled vegan – and the associated assumptions. But these kinds of negative attitudes are slowly changing. With eateries like hers making the movement more mainstream, we should soon see the word ‘vegan’ move away from its reputation of strict rules and outspoken campaigning.

“Take steps in your own time, and whatever stage you get to, even if it’s supporting a plant-based project like Handsome because it’s fantastic food, you’re contributing more than those who choose to ignore it altogether.”

You can follow Bianca’s food journey at @bianca.oneill.