Ever wondered why there are so many vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Philly? Of course, HipCityVeg and Dottie’s Donuts stand out as Penn favorites, but there are dozens of other veggie–centric menus that you’ve probably seen throughout the city. What you can’t tell from storefronts is what inspired these restaurants—and just how tied up Philly is in vegan history and culture.
This is what the American Vegan Center, which recently opened in Old City on Sept. 9th, is trying to change. Through a combination of speaker events, cooking classes, restaurant recommendations, and even a historical walking tour, Director Vance Lehmkuhl hopes to raise awareness about what being vegan actually means: not just flavorless bean curd and gory PETA demonstrations, but a delicious and sustainable diet that's been around for centuries.
Whether most residents know it or not, Philly’s role in “veg history” is rather large. Benjamin Franklin, for example, was the first person to try to bring tofu across the Atlantic. Sylvester Graham—known now as the “Father of Vegetarianism”—was introduced to the idea by Bible Christian activists in Philadelphia. The American Vegan Center hopes to highlight these as well as other historical figures in its walking tour.
But planning the walking tour wasn’t easy, in large part because all but a few small reminders of Philly’s vegan history are gone. Although historians have worked to preserve much of Old City, Lehmkuhl says that many important landmarks of vegan history were forgotten as more 'traditional' historical markers were saved.
One of the few physical mementos left is in Washington Square, the turning point of the center’s walking tour. The structure seems rather simplistic—a horse drinking fountain constructed by vegetarian and anti–vivisection activist Caroline Earle White—but it represents an important moment.
While historians might now regard her as an important figure, Earle White didn’t really set out to challenge the overall system of using animals for food and labor. Instead, she tried to make small changes that would improve the conditions of animals that were already in these situations.
“In around 1900, when you didn't really have cars yet and everything was being done by horses, it was unthinkable at the time to not have horses clogging the streets,” Lehmkuhl explains. “So she was like, ‘Let's help them where they're at.’”
One of her major projects was constructing drinking fountains around the city, each with a basin for horses and another for humans. The fountain in Washington Square—which is unfortunately the only one of such fountains left operating—is unique because it also has a third trough for smaller animals like cats and dogs.
Another unintentional piece of vegan history is a marker for abolitionist Anthony Benezet, who many don’t know was also a vegetarian. Much like today, many people of the time cared about and advocated for multiple, intersecting causes. The animal rights movement was deeply connected to movements for abolition, suffrage, and temperance, as well as religious communities like Quakers and Bible Christians.
Since he couldn’t rely completely on physical objects to paint a vivid picture of Philly's vegan past, Lehmkuhl had to get creative with other ways to make this history feel real: He began making cartoons.
While we might not have historical landmarks to commemorate all of these people, I’d like to think that they would be proud of their renderings—and the fact that someone is digging up details about their work around veganism and animal rights.
Although the activism might have waxed and waned throughout history, the late 20th century saw a burst of new vegetarian–concept restaurants. One of the earliest waves began with New Harmony, a beloved vegetarian and kosher Chinese restaurant (which sadly closed its doors for good in 2019). After New Harmony opened in Chinatown in 1989, many of its workers were inspired to start their own restaurants like Singapore, Kingdom of Vegetarians and Cherry Street Chinese (both of which are now closed).
“That really was an important thing to happen for Philadelphia that a lot of non–Asian people are really not that aware of,” Lehmkuhl says. “We try to bring that history and [show] that people were doing this work back in the 80s.”
Other important veggie–friendly restaurants of the time were Nile Cafe on Germantown Avenue (now the oldest remaining vegan restaurant in Philly), Horizons at South Street, and Alfoncie Austin’s Basic 4 vegetarian snack bar at Reading Terminal Market. Compared to the rest of the country, Philly's vegan food scene was uniquely explosive—in large part thanks to the early pioneers who inspired others to follow in their footsteps.
“This kind of eating made people realize, ‘Oh, you can have everything that you want without causing animals to suffer and die for it,” Lehmkuhl says. “Opening that space for people to think about it is an important step [that] I think often gets overlooked.”
Of course, vegan dining is the biggest contemporary aspect of the American Vegan Center’s work—both through restaurant recommendations and (in a post–COVID–19 era) events. The center has a designated events room, which can seat around 30 people for presentations, cooking classes, book talks, and dinners.
You’ll have to visit the center if you want the full list of restaurants to try, but Lehmkuhl offered a few of his favorites in the meantime: Blackbird Pizza, Miss Rachel’s Pantry (for the vegan matzo ball soup), and Khyber Pass Pub (for vegan nachos and seitan wings). And if you just can’t sacrifice the quintessential cheesesteak, Lehmkuhl suggests Triangle Tavern—the most recent victor of the vegan cheesesteak contest he started in 2014.
Whether you’re a longtime vegan looking for the best food in the city or a history buff who wants to know all about animal rights activism in Philly, the American Vegan Center in Old City is undoubtedly the best place to start.
Correction: This article previously stated that Washington Square Park was the end of the tour, when it is merely one of the stops. Additionally, we’ve misspelled or misrepresented the names of Alfoncie Austin, Singapore, and Kingdom of Vegetarians. This article has since been updated with accurate information. Street regrets these errors.