The Vegan Super-Block

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A cluster of vegan restaurants on the Upper East Side makes the area a haven for non-meat-eaters


  • Pistachio- and pepper-dusted tofu at V-Note

  • Paradise casserole at Candle Cafe. Photo by Kate Mathis

  • Seitan empanadas at V-Note

  • Seitan piccata at Candle Cafe. Photo by Kate Mathis

Upper East Side Sweet potato gnocchi. Spinach ravioli. Wild mushroom crepes. Seitan piccata. These are just a small sampling of the delicacies that can be found at three all-vegan restaurants only a few blocks apart on the Upper East Side.

Bert Potenza and Joy Pierson opened Candle Café (1307 Third Ave @ 75th st) in 1994. This was well before the increased awareness in healthy and compassionate eating, which has now led to a boom in vegetarian and vegan restaurants, especially in New York. Last year, in fact, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) named New York as the “Most vegan-friendly city.”

A lottery win of over $50,000 in 1993 helped Potenza and Pierson launch the Café as an expansion to Potenza’s previous place in the area, Healthy Candle, which was open from 1984-1994 and was predominantly a juice bar. Pierson, who has been with Potenza for over 25 years, explains her objective: “Our goal is to change the world, one plant-based meal at a time.” On a very crowded weekday afternoon, Jessica Stickler, a yoga teacher in the area, was eating a Café favorite, the Cajun seitan sandwich, topped with avocado, steamed greens, caramelized onions and ancho chili aioli, but dines here often and crowed, “I’m constantly blown away by the food.” Sitting nearby, Liz Karaman, 74 (who looks much younger), finished her meal, and dropped this bombshell: after starting to eat at the Café in 1999, she has eaten at Candle Café every single day since 2005. “It’s like a home kitchen for me,” she said.

In 2003, Potenza and Pierson opened the more upscale Candle 79 (154 East 79th between 3rd and Lexington avenues). Pierson calls it the “sexier one.” Popular dishes include the polenta fries (a Potenza favorite), and the aforementioned seitan piccata. Karaman also goes to Candle 79, and says that she and her two daughters – neither of whom are vegan – love the spaghetti and wheatballs. Susie Schein is a regular at Candle 79 and has many favorite dishes including the stuffed avocado salad, mushroom crepe and “any dessert!”

Benay Vynerib, who was a customer at Candle Café for many years, has been the general manager at Candle 79 since its opening. Speaking about all the new vegan restaurants on the Upper East Side and elsewhere, Vynerib says, “The more the merrier… As long as they’re great! It’s important for the health of the world.”

Latest to join the budding movement is V-Note (1522 First Ave between 79th-80th streets), which opened in the Fall of 2010. General Manager Gretchen Rice has been with V-Note since 2011 and shares a great passion for the food. “Right now I have a little crush on the eggplant parmigiano and the beet ravioli. I’ve had devout carnivores fawning over these two dishes,” she said.

On a recent weeknight, I happened upon my neighbor Natalie Johnson and her friend Courtney Caminiti, both dining at V-Note for the first time. They had sweet potato gnocchi, zucchini pappardelle, which is prepared raw, tofu “salmon,” and tiramisu. Johnson reports: “Overall our meals were really innovative and the portion sizes were surprisingly generous, and the atmosphere… lovely.”

In addition to the three restaurants, Fernanda Capobianco opened Vegan Divas Bakery (1437 First Ave. between 74th-75th Streets) in August of 2012, in a former bar storefront. Donuts of chocolate, coconut, and cinnamon lines the shelves, as do muffins, cookies, carrot and chocolate cakes, apple tarts, chocolate mousse, and more. Garrett Chalfin, 10, was recently chowing down on a chocolate donut and commented, “Definitely my favorite donut… And I’ve had a lot of vegan donuts.”

With Candle 79 and Candle Café in such close proximity, does V-Note’s general manager worry about oversaturation? “I definitely don’t consider anybody competition,” Rice said. “I think each restaurant has its own style and something special to offer. It’s been fun watching the Upper East Side become a bit of a vegan destination.”

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