Vegetable Temples: Religion & Vegetarian Dining in NYC

Eating at its best is a profoundly spiritual experience.
Michael Pollan

Religion and vegetarianism share a deep cultural relationship in New York City, and at their intersection we find many of the city’s vegetarian restaurants. More than 25% of New York’s vegetarian venues express ties to a particular religious tradition, though the ways in which religiousness are expressed differ greatly between restaurants. Here’s a look at some of the ways the Vegiboys have found vegetarianism and religion sharing cultural space in NYC:

Rastafarianism & the Ital Diet

Immigration patterns explain much of the city’s cultural geography, and the presence of some vegetarian restaurants can be attributed to the vegetarian religious traditions of the surrounding community. We’ve found that these types of restaurants exist primarily to serve their local populations, so they tend not to promote the religious aspect of their menus.

Rastafarianism provides perhaps the best examples of such venues. This Jamaica-originating religious philosophy holds adherents to strict dietary standards, often taking on the form of veganism. The Rasta’s Ital diet (derived from word “vital”) is designed to cultivate Livity, the Rastafarian concept of a spiritual energy found in all living things. Natural, pure foods with a strong connection to the Earth are seen as promoting Livity, while meat (as a dead product) damages the Livity of those who consume it.

Nationally, Brooklyn and the Bronx are among the communities with the largest populations with Jamaican ancestry, and not surprisingly, those boroughs host most of the city’s Rasta restaurants. The only vegetarian restaurant in the Bronx is an Ital establishment, Vegan’s Delight in Williamsbridge.

The 1990s saw a wave of Caribbean immigration to Brooklyn, and the borough saw the opening of many Ital restaurants in response to this demographic change, including Imhotep’s (Brooklyn’s oldest vegetarian restaurant), Ital Shak, Strictly Vegetarian, and the Four Seasons.

Jamaica, Queens unsurprisingly also has one of the city’s best Ital eateries, Veggie Castle II. Harlem also hosts an Ital cuisine restaurant with Strictly Roots.

Kosher Vegetarianism

Though Judaism lacks a similarly strict vegan imperative, kosher dietary restrictions can be met through a vegetarian diet, and this has given the city’s Jewish population a strong influence on New York City’s vegetarian history. Sadie Schildkraut, the “mother of cooked vegetarian dishes,” developed a kosher vegetarian restaurant empire in New York City in the 1920s, even taking care to have vegetable-based soaps used for dishwashing so as to not violate dietary laws. With an advertising campaign in New York’s Jewish press extolling the benefits of vegetarian eating, the Schildkraut Vegetarian Restaurant chain expanded to 15 NYC locations and two upstate vegetarian summer resorts which survived through the 1940s.

Today, many of the city’s vegetarian restaurants are kosher-certified, and several continue to market directly to the Jewish community, attracting Orthodox clients not often found at other vegetarian spaces. Falafel restaurants Soom Soom and Taïm both appeal directly to the Orthodox populations of their respective neighborhoods, and restaurants like Sacred Chow and Café Viva similarly highlight their kosher kitchens to declare their membership within (and their service to) the city’s Jewish community.

Vegetable Missionaries

Promoting vegetarianism has also been a significant religious practice for many Seventh-Day Adventists. Health through a pure diet is a core emphasis of the church, and about 35% of Adventists are vegetarians.

The church’s dietary principles arose largely from the work of John Harvey Kellogg (immortalized through his development of Corn Flakes, which popularized the concept of breakfast cereal in the US) and his Battle Creek Sanitarium (whose manufactured foods are the direct ascendants for many current faux-meat products, including the MorningStar product line).

Restaurants affiliated with the church have long existed to serve the public as a sort of vegetarian mission. The nation’s very first vegetarian restaurant, Vegetarian Restaurant No. 1 (launched in New York City in 1895 inside the late Hotel Byron on 23rd Street), drew its inspiration and menu from the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

The same tradition continues today at the Adventist Little Lad’s Basket on the Lower East Side. Their vegan lunch buffet continues in adhering to the low-fat, high-fiber dietary standards preached by Kellogg, and the restaurant is perhaps the closest you can get to experiencing the original vegetarianism found in the earliest US establishments.

Ad Majormen Dei Gloriam

New York’s vegetarian restaurants also often serve as formal or informal extensions of spiritual spaces.

The JivamukTea Café accompanying the yogic Jivamukti School is open to the public, but stands very much in association with the yoga center. The Indian cuisine Dosa Hutt lacks any direct religious associations, but with a location directly adjacent to the Ganesha Hindu Temple, the restaurant acts as a de facto eatery for post-ceremony crowds.

Though religion most often begets the restaurant, many of the city’s kitchens maintain a small shrine to demonstrate gratitude for prosperity or to petition for continued good fortune (so, a restaurant can also birth a markedly spiritual space). Nowhere is this more apparent than at Flushing’s Happy Buddha. Owner Lina Lin, to celebrate the success of her establishment, has constructed a full Buddhist temple atop her restaurant’s dining room, which now exists as a fully separate entity from the restaurant below.

Vegetarian Cultism

The city’s most overtly religious vegetarian restaurants not only promote vegetarianism as an element of their religious practice, but also use vegetarianism as a lure for proselytizing.

The late Sri Chinmoy, controversial founder of a global movement advocating spiritual evolution through celibacy, asceticism, athleticism, meditation, and vegetarianism, established some of the city’s earliest still-existing vegetarian restaurants: Annam Brahma, Panorama Café, Oneness-Fountain-Heart, and Smile of the Beyond.

His restaurants are all found near the sect’s Briarwood compound in Queens, and all follow a particular design template that include photos, artwork, and literature that celebrates or promotes Chinmoy’s teachings. Each restaurant maintains a lavishly decorated enclosed seating area dedicated to the deceased leader, and many also include televisions with looping videos of the guru performing his emblematic feats of strength (mostly bench-pressing livestock or celebrities on the compound’s parade grounds).

Despite the proselytizing décor, dining at Chinmoy’s restaurants has never proven to be an uncomfortable experience for us, and staff behavior reflects the carefully cultivated image of the cult. The restaurants serve as a significant source of employment for sect members (as well as a significant source of income for the Sri Chinmoy Centre Church), so the public is welcomed, and membership is promoted passively (we experienced nothing more than invitations to church-sponsored concerts or social events).

NYC vegetarian restaurant Loving Hut functions as a similar outlet for a cult of personality; the franchised restaurant chain was founded by Supreme Master Ching Hai, a charismatic Vietnam-born sect leader with a penchant for steering her religious teachings towards the latest trends. Best known for dabbling in U.S. politics by inadvertently damaging Bill Clinton’s legal defense campaign with significant financial donations later found to have fiscal “irregularities,” her current attentions are focused on promoting vegetarianism for its environmental benefits.


Eating at the many religiously influenced restaurants in the city have given the Vegiboys a strong appreciation for influence of religion on the geography of NYC vegetarianism. We hope sharing our knowledge might add some more depth to your next NYC vegetarian dining experience, or at the very least give you some great facts to share the next time you eat out!

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