By Barbi Lazarus, Donor and Volunteer Resources Coordinator
New York City, so I’ve heard, is famous for it’s cornucopia of vegetarian restaurants. So, when my partner suggested he’d like to take a vacation there with one purpose in mind, to eat, I was up for it (although it doesn’t take much to convince me to go on vacation anywhere).
I found planning our 5 night trip quite overwhelming at first. With literally over 400 listings coming up for New York City on Happy Cow, in a city so vast and huge, I had no idea where to start in terms of narrowing down restaurant options and selecting a neighbourhood to stay in. Enter the beloved Toronto Vegetarian Association Facebook group community. Suddenly I had reliable sources of people with like-minded food preferences making recommendations for their favourite places and even sharing their personal google maps to help me get a sense for where the hot spots were.
Despite everyone telling me 5 nights is a long time to spend in New York and plenty of time to get in the best restaurants and popular tourist attractions, I STILL felt overwhelmed and quickly came to accept that three meals plus a snack or dessert (or 2) a day wasn’t going to allow me to cross off everything on my list. A flexible but hectic itinerary was made in which I narrowed down our list zeroing in on mostly casual places that serve comfort or Asian food, as well as famous dessert spots like Lula’s Sweet Apothecary and Dunwell Donuts.
But after all the anticipation and the years of hearing people tell me I MUST go to New York, that it is THE place for vegetarians and that it is full of out of this world vegetarian restaurants that will blow my mind, how did it actually stand up in comparison to Toronto?
Don’t get me wrong. We enjoyed good meals a plenty and I don’t regret the excursion at all. But let’s just make a few comparisons shall we?
We spent one night at Red Bamboo, which I would describe as Hogtown Vegan elevated a bit. It’s certainly fancier and more of a fine dining experience if that’s what you’re looking for. And like I said, the food was certainly fabulous and it would probably be one of my top recommendations to friends and family to eat at when going to New York. We enjoyed popcorn “shrimp”, BBQ buffalo wings, crunchy cajun chicken and a super decadent slice of cheesecake for dessert. But, my partner insists the philly cheesesteak he ordered wasn’t as tasty as Hogtown Vegan’s.
My absolute favourite meal of the week was John’s of 12th Street (thanks for the tip Allison!), a classic Italian restaurant that has an entire vegan menu. You walk in and can smell the authenticity of this place. We delighted in vegan garlic bread, ceasar salad, seitan parmigiana with a side of spaghetti, and ravioli. It was no doubt fantastically delicious and I mumbled all through the meal about how much I was enjoying it. But, do I do the same thing when I eat at Bello Bio here in Toronto? Yes. Can I also get classic Italian favourites I missed for so many years like panzerottas, parmigianas and cheesey rice balls at Bello Bio? You bet.
Twice we ventured out to Brooklyn to Dunwell Donuts, something I have been dreaming of for years. The donuts were indeed impeccable and beautifully crafted. And good enough that we went back a second time even though it was pretty out of the way for us. But even though Dunwell is entirely devoted to donuts, I’m pretty sure Through Being Cool Bakery in Toronto has on average just as many if not sometimes more flavours to choose from and I would argue more unique flavours too. Yes, Dunwell was great but I can get my donut fix by taking the subway a few stops from home instead of flying to New York.
So, what’s my point you ask? My purpose here is not to knock these New York staples or imply that the food was in any way sub-par. And it’s not to say that New York is NOT worthy of being a destination of choice for a vacation for vegan foodies.
What I am saying is that Toronto is equally worthy of being a destination of choice for people looking to travel for the purpose of incredible vegetarian dining options.
New York has an all-vegan dosa truck in a park, but Toronto has an all-vegan taco shop where you can get mac ‘n cheese burritos. New York has a take-out joint Terri where you can get $5 breakfast sandwiches with “ham and eggs”, but Toronto has Bickford Flexitarian where you can get fried “egg” sandwiches and vegan omlettes that seriously taste like the real thing. New York has greasy diner Bad Burger where you can get vegan fried mac ‘n cheese balls and a Thanksgiving burger, but Toronto has greasy bar Disgraceland where you can get a butter “chicken” burrito and 5 kinds of vegan poutine.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think there are all that many Americans or even Canadians in other cities thinking that they’ve just got to come out to Toronto to experience the vegetarian food scene here. But they should! Let’s help our American and Canadian friends by letting them in on this secret, that if they come to Toronto they can get amazing “cheesey” Italian food, visit Asian restaurants with enormous menus full of mock meat dishes, check out a jaw-dropping delicious donut shop and bakery, pick up things as crazy as mac n cheese burritos from an all-vegan taco shop, get brunch from a number of places that serve seriously convincing vegan omlettes, and the list goes on and on. I certainly think that’s worth travelling for!