Today you can find a vegan restaurant in every major metropolitan area in the country. They are finding their way into the smaller cities and towns; any where that the local dining scene is more involved than pizzerias, steak houses and fast food hamburgers. Even mainstream restaurant chains are including vegan fair on their menus. What has changed? What moved vegetarianism from the radical fringe to the vegan mainstream? In many ways it was the change from a moral focus to a focus on healthy eating. It was the difference between a lifestyle and a dining choice. A vegan restaurant is no longer a tool in a cultural war; now it is just another place for the average person to choose a different meal.
In the early years vegetarians were crusading for the equal treatment of animals. They would not eat red meat, poultry or fish. They would not wear leather. They would not drink milk or eat eggs. They thought that to do otherwise would be to help further man’s oppression and domination over animals. They saw animals as the moral equal to man and wanted them to have the same rights to life. In many ways vegetarianism saw its roots in the Buddhist tradition rather than in the Judeo-Christian roots of the American culture. As such it was never going to be anything in the United States other than another fringe culture outside of the mainstream American life.
This began to change as many vegetarians became less doctrinaire and more vegans saw the dietary change being more a part of a healthy lifestyle and less about politics and morals. Today the vegan restaurant welcomes more people from the cultural mainstream than from the political fringes. With this change has come a wider definition of what constitutes a vegan. While the old style vegetarians still fit in the vegan life style, though true to their roots they are still on the fringes, there are people and foods in the vegan restaurant that never would have been seen in similar institutions in an earlier age.
As more and more doctors told their patients to cut back on the red meet, fat and cholesterol to avoid heart disease; to eat more vegetables and whole grains to prevent colon cancer and Type II diabetes, the main stream restaurants added salad bars and a few more vegetable side dishes. Unfortunately, the lack of variety of vegetable dishes at these restaurants forced people who needed to eat out for social or economic reasons to turn to the odd vegan restaurant for some much needed variety. As more people became familiar with the wide variety of tasty, and health vegetable dishes available, they began to ask why these same dishes could not be found at their local mainstream eateries.
Today the vegan movement has infiltrated almost every aspect of American life. While the steakhouses still cater to the red meat crowd; the have heart healthy vegetable dishes available on their main menu pages. Many mainstream restaurant chains openly identify a series of vegan dishes as such on their menus. And, what marks true entry into the American mainstream, many caterers list a vegan wedding as one of their standard options.