A tour of our favorite vegetarian dishes and vegan-friendly restaurants in town.
Story by Jamie Jones
Whether it was when Beyoncé and Jay-Z popularized it with their offer of free concert tickets for life by pledging to go vegan, or if it was when the hit documentary Forks Over Knives hit our Netflix queue, but the rise in people embracing a plant-based diet has been huge over the past few years. Fast food restaurants are adding to their menus, and Beyond Burgers fly off the shelves at the grocery store.
Ten years ago, if you wanted to pick up a few plant-based staples, your only option was a specialty grocer like The Great Pumpkin, and going out to eat was limited to fries and a garden salad unless you traveled to a major city. Luckily, times have changed and you can’t get through a grocery store without snagging more options than you intended.
Best of all, The West Chester dining scene has upped the ante as well. It is nearly impossible to go out to eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert and not have at least one solid plant-based or vegetarian option to enjoy with your carnivore companions.
There are, however, some standouts downtown that make dining as a plant baser or vegetarian a pure delight. My criteria for featuring the following eateries was simple: they had to offer something more than a salad and veggie burger. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good salad and a Beyond or Impossible Burger, but sometimes I want more and these places deliver. The menu items are either coincidentally plant-based, labeled as such, or are easily modified with available ingredients to keep anyone happy, fueled and satisfied.
(or the meal that sets the tone for the rest of the day)
There isn’t anything much better to me than biting into the chewy denseness of a bagel. A staple since my years at West Chester University, Country Bagel hits the spot on most weekend mornings when the last thing I feel like doing is cooking or getting my crew together to go out to eat.
While the kids are happy with a plain buttered bagel, my go-to is their Everything Bagel with avocado and tomato. The garlic saltiness of the bagel paired with the creaminess of the avocado and the slight sweet zing of the tomato is the perfect start to any day.
I am not sure what their secret to delicious bagels is, but they are a favorite in our house. And judging from the lines of patient customers there every weekend, it’s a sentiment that’s shared by the rest of town.
For those mornings when everyone wants something different, we usually head to Roots Café. Breakfast food is actually the most difficult to find for plant-based eaters, as most of it is either egg-based or contains eggs and milk as ingredients.
Roots Café is a breakfast outlier in the best way possible: Vegan French Toast. Topped with berry compote, fresh berries and maple syrup, this treat brings back childhood memories of Sunday mornings at my grandparents enjoying thick slices of bread dredged in an egg, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon mixture and then fried on the flat top. Roots Café does it without the egg and milk, yet it still manages to hit those memory marks.
For mornings when I have a salty craving, I make one of the kids get the French Toast so I can have just a bite, and then I order the Superfood Hash, sans eggs. Washed down with coffee and a mimosa, Roots Café delivers the perfect start to an adventure-filled weekend… if we can pull ourselves away from their lunchtime menu.
(mostly of the grab-and-go-back-to-work variety)
I am not sure how I survived before Love Again Local moved to town. A fully plant-based eatery, LAL is to us plant fans what Tony’s Meat Market and Deli was to the meat eaters of West Chester 20 years ago: a mecca of protein-filled sandwiches to dive into with a mouth wide open.
My Cousin Vinny, reminiscent of an Italian hoagie stuffed with ham, salami, provolone and all of the typical fixins’, gives regular Italian hoagies a run for their money. Even though this is my primary pick, I have tried everything on their menu and would order everything again and again and again.
To top it all off, Love Again Local bakes their own cookies and offers Maine Root Drinks to wash it all down. Out of every establishment in West Chester, LAL is probably my most frequented, not only for their amazing food, but for their friendly service and commitment to a fully plant-based menu.
One of the things I missed the most after going plant-based was a good old pizza. Tomato pies just don’t always cut it. Luckily for me, Couch Tomato has come to the rescue. While it may not be the typical pizza with stretchy mozzarella, their Back Yard BBQ pie — minus the chicken, add Kite Hill cheese and shitaake bacon — makes for an amazing meal that fulfills the pizza craving.
Prior to my plant-based ways, the American Pie was a much appreciated treat on pizza nights. Vegetarian friendly, this medley of roasted garlic spread, grana Padano, farmers cheese, ricotta, tomato, rosemary and honey is a party in your mouth. If there was one food that could tempt me to indulge in cheese, it would be the American Pie.
Couch Tomato does a great job labeling menu items that are vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, and they note which items can be made to suit a specific diet.
Their salads deserve a mention as well, and they can be a meal in and of themselves. My suggestion is to choose one of their recommended salads as a guide, and then tweak it for a meal that fits your dietary requirements. The La Fiesta, with black beans and no cheese, hits the spot when you are craving Mexican cuisine.
Oh, and don’t forget to grab a Maddie Bar to snack on later!
Having gained a reputation for the some of the best sushi in West Chester, Tsunami would not seem like an obvious choice for this list, but the plant-based options here are endless. Some of my favorites include miso soup, seaweed salad, vegetable haru maki, vegetarian rolls, and sesame tofu.
Tsunami is one of the few places that has mastered cooking the tofu with a crispy outside to act as the perfect carrier for the sweet, slightly spicy, sticky sesame sauce. With a healthy portion of broccoli on the side, I can almost forget that this plant-based meal is an indulgent treat.
Although Tsunami’s listed under lunches, it’s also a nice BYOB option for dinner, and — added bonus— it is right next door to one of my favorite dessert spots! (More on that later…)
(for dates and evenings where being in the kitchen is the last place you want to be)
Who doesn’t love Italian food? While Mercato’s pasta contains egg because it isn’t boxed and is all freshly made, they do offer zucchini noodles as a substitute for any of their pasta dishes. Eating 100% plant based is not always easy here because many menu items need some form of modification or item omissions, but they make the list because their menu is clearly marked for all of the vegetarians in West Chester, and offers a staggering 20 items that can be ordered as-is off the menu.
The brick oven pizza crust is egg and dairy free (and delicious) and the Heirloom Vegetable Board — covered with slow roasted veggies — is the perfect starter or main course. Some vegetarian favorites at Mercato include the Fried Artichoke appetizer and the Homemade Gnocchi Sorrentino. The Fried Artichoke app is a plate of artichoke lollipops drizzled with balsamic reduction and served with a chili aioli dipping sauce. As someone who is not a fan of artichokes, these are somehow one of my favorite menu items — just keep in mind that, as is, they’re dredged in egg before frying, but since everything is made from scratch, Mercato happily modifies items to suit dietary needs, which is always helpful for diners sticking strictly to plants.
A quick perusal of their menu and you may be scratching your head, wondering why Spence Café is mentioned here, but the best plant-based dinner I have ever enjoyed was here; it was completely off-menu and created on demand by the chef.
I called a few days ahead of time to make sure that my diet could be accommodated, and they assured me that it would not be a problem. Chef Andy Patten met with me and asked for any specific requests or allergies, then I gave him creative freedom and was delighted with the outcome.
I enjoyed a starter of cashew cheese spread, toasted baguette and crudités, followed by a main course of zoodles and the best lentil meatballs I have ever had. Dessert offered just enough sweetness in a dessert with dates. My meal at Spence Café was not an afterthought of haphazard items thrown together, but a well thought out feast for the senses in presentation and taste that has left me wanting more and wondering why I have not been in sooner.
(because every day should have a sweet ending)
First thing to know is this: Vincenzo has the art of gelato making down to a science. The winner of both national and international awards, Vincenzo isn’t just a gelato maker, he is an artist.
Now, that that’s out of the way, you should know that while just about everything in this adorable spot is vegetarian, Gemelli offers three entirely plant-based options every day. Either water- or almond milk-based, these offerings are a labor of love, since it’s not quite as easy to obtain the same flavor and texture as dairy-based gelato. Vincenzo, however, has mastered the perfect balance while staying true to his art by using only farm-fresh ingredients.
An all-time favorite is the vegan chocolate gelato and fresh strawberry sorbetti. A spoonful with a bit of each flavor tastes just like a chocolate covered strawberry, only better and without the mess. Other flavors include Mojito, Sicilian Cannoli, Salted Caramel, Basil Olive Oil, Stracciatella and Mascarpone and Nutella. All flavors are made with real ingredients. That means no powders, flavor enhancers, or preservatives — just good-for-you, fresh ingredients.
This by no means is an all-encompassing list of vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants in West Chester. Our town has done an excellent job at catering to a myriad of dietary requirements and requests. Some additional places of note are the completely plant-based Liquid Eatery, as well as Rams Head, The Social, Jaco Taco… the list goes on and on and on.
One thing I have learned is that our restaurateurs want to make the diners of West Chester happy. Every establishment I have frequented in our charming town has been helpful in modifying or creating something specifically to suit my needs, for which I am always grateful. The restaurants included here are those that have gone above and beyond, have delivered a consistent food experience, and are places I find myself going back to time and time again to fuel my body and tantalize my taste buds. You should give them a shot.