How Did Brighton Become a Vegetarian Food Hub?
From high-end meat-free restaurants to vegan kebabs sold in pubs, Brighton has more plant-based eateries per capita than Manchester or London. But how did it become such a vegetarian mecca?
All photos by Ashley Laurence.
It seems that with every passing day, we're landed with a new reason to give up our carnivorous ways. Whether it's the World Health Organisation's revelation that bacon is essentially poison, or the quite-funny-but-also-awful stat showing that flatulent livestock expound 16 percent of the world's methane, we're becoming ever more aware that our meat-based eating habits may be as unhealthy as they are unsustainable. It's little wonder, then, that a recent study found that 29 percent of Brits had reduced the amount of meat they eat over the past 12 months.
But in Brighton, this will come as no surprise. The city has been the flag-bearer for vegetarian eating for years, and its cobbled lanes heave under the weight of flesh-free restaurants and cafes.
According to veggie eating Bible Happy Cow, there are 22 specifically vegan or vegetarian joints within a falafel wrap's throw of the Brighton seafront. They cover all culinary bases, from the high-end world food of Terre à Terre (AA Gill once described its dishes as "transcendental") to the vegan kebabs served a The Hope And Ruin pub.
Twenty-two doesn't sound like a vast number of restaurants—that is until you consider that London, a city of around 8.6 million, has only 29 and Manchester (population: 2.6 million) has 22. The 2011 census put Brighton's population at 273,369. "It's peaking now, it's really accelerating—the competition is massive," says Steve Billam, owner of Iydea vegetarian restaurant in the city's Kensington Gardens area. After opening in 2006 with the intention of serving healthy fast food, rather than being a veggie trailblazer, Idyea ended up winning the Vegetarian Society's Best Eating Out award in 2010. Billam has now opened a second restaurant called Rootcandi. "I want meat eaters coming and being amazed," he says. "We're calling it a 'plant restaurant' in the same way that would call it a 'fish restaurant' or a 'meat restaurant.' It's a totally unlimited world of culinary creation."
If Billam is one of the city's more established veggie pillars, on the newer end of the scale is Tim Barclay. Along with partner Stefania Evangelisti, Barclay is the proprietor of Purezza, the UK's first plant-based pizzeria. They opened before Christmas, and Barclay admits to "not really sleeping for a long time"—such are the rigors of running a new restaurant. "For us, it's not just about selling vegan pizza, it's about selling high quality pizza," he tells me. "We don't want it to just be a novelty because it's vegan."
To that end, Barclay and Evangelisti—an Italian, conveniently—advertised for their chefs in Italy, and two of their pizzaiolos flew over specifically to man the ovens at Purezza. The pair already have plans to open a second branch in Bristol, a city I continually hear compared to Brighton in terms of its veggie offerings.
But how have such smaller-scale English cities managed to foster some of Europe's most thriving vegan and vegetarian dining scenes?
It has a lot to do with the population. In Brighton's case, the city boasts two universities with a student population of 32,940—a demographic often associated with left-leaning lifestyle choices such as vegetarianism. Then there's the fact that Caroline Lucas, MP for the Green Party, which has the lowest percentage of meat-eaters among its supporters, holds the party's only parliament seat at Brighton Pavilion.
"Caroline Lucas and her agenda may well have opened more people's eyes to sustainability issues," says 30-year-old writer and long-time Brightonian Andy Baker. "I was vegetarian from about the age of 11 but living in Brighton not only made it easier for me, but also broadened my horizons. I've recently become vegan and it wasn't something I thought I could ever do. Living here has made it so easy."
But according to Tim Barford, founder of Vegfest, a Bristol-based vegan festival founded in 2003, places like Bristol and Brighton aren't veggie bubbles—the trend for plant-based eating is spreading across the UK.
"There's a revolution happening on people's dinner plates," he says. "In places like Brighton, it's been happening for awhile but it's now tipping into mainstream culture."
Barford puts the rising number of vegetarians down to national initiatives such as "Veganaury," which sees participants attempt a vegan diet for a month, as well as the campaign work of charities such as the Vegetarian Society. He adds that openly vegan sports professionals like David Haye and Serena Williams are "influencing on a level none of us can even dream."
One person who knows the history of Brighton's veggie scene better than most is Simon Hope. Opening one of the city's first vegetarian restaurants, Food for Friends, in 1981, Hope now runs the omnivorous Sussex eatery Crabtree. Back in the 80s, he remembers that Brighton's only other vegetarian options were an all-you-can-eat Indian and "the Buddhist place that just did food if you wanted to go along and be a Buddhist." By the time he left Food For Friends, forced out by the rising rent, Hope says that Brighton's restaurant scene had changed beyond recognition.
"There was such a pressure of competition," he remembers.
By the way things are going, it looks as if that vegetarian pressure will only increase. Photos by Ashley Laurence.
For more on the dining scenes of Britain's cities, check out the MUNCHIES Guide to British Food.