Fine Dining Is Going Vegan

Plants are en vogue.

plant-based fine dining

Some 10, 20 years ago, finding an elevated restaurant with a variety of plant-based options was a challenge in itself. Finding a completely vegan fine dining establishment? Nearly impossible. The vegan food space in general was limited at best, often designated to small, casual independent eateries and a rare dedicated shelf or corner at the local grocery store. “I’m about 49 years old, and you can imagine [when I started my career] 28 years ago, there weren’t even veggie burgers in stores,” recalls Chef Tal Ronnen, chef and owner of Crossroads Kitchen in Los Angeles. “If you wanted to get a veggie burger, it came in a box and you had to add water and form your own patty. So [the space] really has changed a lot.”

Indeed, in recent years, brands and chefs have innovated plant-based food options at a meteoric rate, so much so that the market is projected to grow from $26.16 billion in 2021 to $61.35 billion in 2028. This growth naturally extends to the restaurant space, with vegan fine dining establishments boasting entire menus around plant-based dishes that are so enticing even meat-lovers are coming back for more. For the discerning LA crowd, Crossroads has become famous for its more indulgent take on vegan meals that extend past salads and soups. Think alternatives to comfort classics like eggs benedict, BLTs, and even spaghetti carbonara. “Vegans are already vegan and know what they’re doing, but we love showing people that want to eat plant-based once in a while that they can have a great meal and a great atmosphere,” says Ronnen.


Chef Daniel Humm, owner of NYC’s swanky Eleven Madison Park, recalls a Texas cattle rancher celebrating his 40th birthday in his establishment. “He sent me this little email afterwards ... and he just went on and on, about the meal, realizing that he had the best meal of his life,” he recounts. “And in the end, he was sort of like, ‘And now I’m back at my farm in Texas, looking at the cows, and I’m thinking about asparagus. Thank you for changing my life.’”

Interesting enough, Eleven Madison Park began as a humble brasserie in 1998 and eventually evolved into a fine dining restaurant under Humm’s leadership. Up until spring 2020, the Michelin-starred eatery was known for its pricey animal-based dishes like dry-aged veal with bone marrow and corn and frogs’ legs. But once the world went into lockdown, Humm (who grew up vegetarian) turned the establishment into a commissary kitchen for ReThink Food, offering meals for food insecure communities.

This two-year season was a turning point for the chef. “I felt so invigorated with the work, and I felt like for the first time in my life, what we’re doing every day really matters, and it’s making people’s life better,” Humm says. “It became clear that I didn’t just want to come out of it and [end up] going back to what we were doing, which was trying to reach accolades and be the best in the world. There had to be a higher purpose.”


This higher purpose meant reopening the restaurant with a completely plant-based menu. In lieu of foie gras and sea urchin, dishes like radish tostadas and grilled squash with poblano peppers debuted to the surprise of many loyal patrons. “I wasn’t prepared for how an intense topic this is,” says Humm of the restaurant’s reopening in early 2022. “I wasn’t prepared for how political this would become, how strongly people felt. I mean, it almost felt like people thought it was their right to eat meat. And so people felt really protective of that, but that was never my point. My point was just creating beautiful meals and experiences with vegetables.”

Humm’s instincts proved to be on the right track as the past two years have brought a whole new fan base and celebrity crowd that’s larger and more loyal than the eatery ever experienced before. The chef proudly notes “true innovators” like internet pioneer Vint Cerf and Nobel Peace Prize winner and female education activist Malala Yousafzai as recent guests. With interest in his plant-based vision at a high, Humm even released a compendium of journals and drawings called Eat More Plants in the fall of 2023 that is essentially the roadmap that led to Eleven Madison Park’s recent metamorphosis. “I think it’s the most intimate document that is really at the root of this change,” says Humm of the book, which is being rereleased as a special edition on April 20.

Founder and CEO of elevated dining chain PLANTA Steven Salm’s story is not dissimilar from Humm’s in that his early portfolio of restaurants was not vegan. In fact, prior to PLANTA, Salm’s claim to fame was Toronto fine dining chain The Chase, which had four locations at one point, all of which featured different concepts ranging from an oyster bar to a French bakery — and all of which served animal products. Then, in 2016, Salm watched a film that overturned his thoughts on food and the world.

“On a snowy, freezing cold January morning, I watched Cowspiracy and instantly decided to give up red meat,” Salm says. “It was a Sunday. By Tuesday I was Googling nonstop, ‘What happens to you if you don’t eat red meat?’ ‘Where are you going to get your protein?’ And it just leads you down a rabbit hole of veganism. And I was like, ‘You know what? It’s Thursday. I’ll try it.’ And here we are in 2024, and I no longer own any of the non-plant-based restaurants, and we’re about to open up our 16th PLANTA.”

With plants at the forefront — and in the name — the successful chain takes a more innovative and indulgent approach to vegan dishes, offering a vibrant mix of pan-Latin options that are alternatives to popular comfort foods. Think Spicy Tuna Tacos made with ahi watermelon, Udon noodles made with truffle mushroom cream, and the cult-loved Bang Bang Broccoli. “Nowhere in our marketing or on our menu do we tell you that you’re eating at a vegan restaurant,” says Salm. “So you just come in and you sit down and realize, ‘Oh, there’s sushi here’ or ‘there’s a burger here.’”


Salm recognizes that PLANTA’s rapid growth and success are a response to the undeniable demand for plant-based fine dining options. “I think that people have a very different behavior towards all things health and wellness, compared to 10 years ago, compared to 20 years ago,” he notes. “Exercise was never really part of people’s routine by way of doing climbing classes and Pilates classes and having home gyms that are with instructors. So you also have to take a step back and realize where we’ve gone as a society. A friend of mine that works for a very large fashion brand calls it ‘wealthness’ because there is this big push towards leading with health and wellness as the luxury entry point, which never really had a moment before.”

And while upscale plant-based restaurants are not exactly a solve to the larger food disparities of the world, Humm sticks to a more “hopeful” perspective. “You can go down that path of feeling quite discouraged,” he says. “But in a way, we want to really keep it positive and [be] using our creativity to create beautiful things. And maybe the state of the world is scary, but vegetables are not scary, they’re colorful and delicious.”