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Living Well

By JEFF GORDINIER

IT was a warm California evening in the city of West Hollywood, and Kathy Freston was sipping a martini.

“Just because you’re a vegan doesn’t mean you don’t want to have fun,” she said, sitting in a booth at a restaurant called Craig’s. “I’m a decadent gal. I want to drink. I want to feel full at the end of a meal. I just don’t want it to have any animals in it, for a variety of reasons.”

Tall, slim and golden-tressed enough to be mistaken for a movie star, Ms. Freston is the author of books like “Quantum Wellness” and “The Lean,” and a high-profile advocate for veganism. She strives to consume nothing that can be traced back to sentient creatures: no meat, no eggs, no dairy.

But chilled vodka with extra olives? No problem. Nor did she have any qualms about eating from a menu that includes an 18-ounce bone-in rib-eye steak.

Craig’s, hatched last year by Craig Susser, an alumnus of Dan Tana’s, the age-defying hangout on Santa Monica Boulevard, is not a vegan restaurant. It represents a new culinary wave that can be felt all over Southern California, that reliable ripple-generator of so many national trends: the omnivore’s restaurant that courts vegans and vegetarians (particularly the glamorous and powerful ones who are a crucial engine of the dining economy here) by preparing meatless dishes that surpass the droopy steamed-vegetable platters of yore.

“You picture vegan restaurants with a lot of people with sandals and dreadlocks, drinking carrot juice,” said Ellen DeGeneres, who stopped by with her spouse, the actress Portia de Rossi, to chat with Ms. Freston. Here at Craig’s, the mood was more high heels and blond locks.

In fact, from power tables in Beverly Hills to pubs in the San Fernando Valley, the surging popularity of plant-based diets is drastically changing the dining landscape. That shift is under way in various cities around the world, but it’s happening in an explosive way in and around Los Angeles: at the elite gastronome magnets, at casual gathering spots and everywhere in between.

Actors and talent agents hammer out script deals over the Kale Colossus entree at SunCafe in Studio City, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. Vegan celebrities have become such a fixture at Café Gratitude that paparazzi occasionally camp out on the sidewalk. Elegant spots like n/naka and Hatfield’s have extensive, ever-changing tasting menus for vegetarians.

But the after-work crowd can also head out to Golden Road Brewing, a craft brewery that rises from a sun-baked industrial patch just off the Ventura and Golden State freeways in the Atwater Village neighborhood, for vegan Super Bowl grub (a quinoa burger, a hero with deep-fried avocado slices, meat-free chili) on a menu that makes room for a hillock of pulled pork.

“I’m not the food police, but I like opening the vegan door for people,” said Tony Yanow, the entrepreneur behind the brewery, as well as Mohawk Bend and Tony’s Darts Away, which serve dishes like a “vegan tailgate dog” and Buffalo-style cauliflower florets. “People will order food like that because it tastes good.”

Vegans and carnivores used to glare at one another in militant opposition, but Southern California is reveling in a sort of can’t-we-all-get-along cross-pollination that you see at Cru in the Silver Lake neighborhood, where meat lovers marvel over the pumpkinseed chorizo. At Craig’s, a vegan grilled-eggplant caponata shares menu space with a dish called Jerry Weintraub’s Spaghetti Clam Show, both of which might be viewed as gentle ways to woo the A-listers.

Not long ago, Ms. DeGeneres asked Mr. Susser if he would try a vegan spin on chicken parmigiana. The dish appeared on the menu in September, with a patty of Gardein, a protein substitute, standing in for chicken. “I’m willing to do anything,” said Mr. Susser, something of an expert in celebrity relations. “I want them here, and I want them happy.”

Ms. Freston, who recently separated from the media executive Tom Freston after 14 years of marriage, is friendly with just about every famous vegan in Hollywood. Lately there are quite a few, and they’ve changed the power dynamic enough that celebrating a box-office triumph over bountiful platters of charred flesh is no longer necessarily appetizing to the stars who helped bring in the money.

“That old meat bravado is dead,” Ms. Freston said.

It wasn’t always thus — not even in the city where Alvy Singer, the protagonist in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” winced as he ordered alfalfa sprouts and a plate of mashed yeast. When Ms. Freston began turning vegan about a decade ago, she said, “Nobody was interested in that.

“I remember Werner Herzog yelled at me at a dinner party when I first started going that way. He totally made fun of me. In the beginning I didn’t know anyone who was eating this way. It was totally uncool.”

Finding a sprouts-on-seven-grain-bread sandwich has never been a problem in Los Angeles, but even a few years ago, the vegan chef and cookbook author Tal Ronnen couldn’t imagine that his specialty would go as mainstream as it has of late.

“If you had told me that I could go to a cool brewery and half of the things on the menu would be vegan, I would never have believed it,” Mr. Ronnen, the author of “The Conscious Cook,” said over lunch at the brewery in August. “There’s something very progressive about what’s happening here. You should see it on a weekend, man. It’s so packed. You can’t get a table.”

The same goes for explicitly vegan or vegetarian restaurants like Café Gratitude, Elf Cafe, Real Food Daily and SunCafe, which are chronically full of luminous-skinned sylphs who seem to have floated in from a Fashion Week catwalk.

“The popularity thing took a turn mostly when a lot of celebrities started showing up,” said Cary Mosier, who runs the Café Gratitude outposts in Southern California with his brother, Ryland Engelhart. “Generally, celebrities are always concerned about eating well and taking care of themselves, so it started becoming flooded with actors. And then it was all the movie executives because the actors were there. And then they were having lunches there to discuss movies.”

Think of it as a classic case of supply and demand.

For reasons having to do with health, the environment, an aversion to cruelty to animals and (let’s face it) rank vanity, more and more Californians are going vegan or vegetarian. Chefs and restaurateurs want to attract them, especially the beautiful and famous, because that will draw even more customers.

“I don’t think you could go to a four-star restaurant in Los Angeles and not find a vegan option,” said Ron Russell, a chef and owner at SunCafe. “The clientele demands it.”

And restaurateurs face stiff competition. Vegans and vegetarians know by now that they don’t have to settle for a plain baked potato when there’s a sublime raw pea-and-coconut soup at Cru, or parsnip bacon and rich, creamy corn ravioli at Hatfield’s. (Which is not to say that cooking without meat — or, at times, without cream and butter — is free of challenges. “It’s hard because along the whole way you’re sort of eliminating things that you know would make it taste better,” said Quinn Hatfield, the chef who dreamed up the parsnip bacon.)

Good food blurs boundaries: Omnivores find themselves lured into trying the I Am Whole, a noble bowl of sea vegetables, kale, kimchi, carrots and stewed adzuki beans at Café Gratitude, while vegetarians can comfortably meet their friends at Vertical Wine Bistro, which serves meat, because they know they can get the roasted red-pepper risotto with asparagus and saffron.

“I’m omnivorous,” said Gale Anne Hurd, the owner of that bistro in Pasadena and a producer of films including “The Terminator” and “Aliens,” as well as the TV series “The Walking Dead.”

“I do eat just about anything,” she said, “but I also like to dine out with my friends, and a lot of my friends are strict vegetarians or vegans.”

Three years ago, when Mr. Russell and his comrades were gearing up to open SunCafe, they tested their vegan recipes with a panel of six people, two of whom were avid carnivores. “All six had to agree that it was a great dish,” Mr. Russell said. “Oh, my gosh, we must’ve thrown out 70 recipes that were good, but not good enough. It forced us to go to higher levels.”

While raw-vegan chefs in California have become skilled at using nut butters, spicy oils and fatty smears of avocado to give their dishes unexpected depths of flavor, nonvegetarian chefs like Mr. Hatfield and Niki Nakayama have discovered that the pressure to create something succulent out of fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains has coaxed them into new territory.

Is plant-based eating the way of the future? A new fountain of youth? That’s anybody’s guess. But in a city where nobody wants to get old, plenty of people are willing to give pumpkinseed chorizo and parsnip bacon a try.

As Ms. Freston put it while finishing off her martini: “These guys want to extend their lives. They want to live long.”


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