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How Brighton, England, Became the Vegan Capital of the World

How Brighton, England, Became the Vegan Capital of the World

When it comes to savoring plants, few places offer more choice and excitement than Brighton, a seaside city located an hour south of London on England’s south coast.

I’ve lived here for six years, and in that time Brighton has been voted the most vegan-friendly city in the UK, with the highest number of vegan restaurants and takeaways per 100,000 people of any city in the country. These statistics have also earned it the accolade of the most vegan-friendly city in the world.

Of course, it’s worth taking such claims with a big pinch of Maldon. And while I’m not vegan myself, I’ve become increasingly vegan while living here, the vast majority of my friends here are vegan, and I’ve noticed that things that are taken for granted in Brighton aren’t the norm elsewhere – try ordering oat milk in your Glasgow cafe, for example.

I visited new and familiar restaurants and spoke to friends, chefs and owners to find out why Brighton is so open to a meat-free lifestyle.

Vegan pub food? Beelzebab makes some of the best.

Beezlebab

Hope and Ruin, a mainstay of the local alternative music scene, is located on the main road that leads from Brighton train station to the beach. The decor looks a bit like it was designed by an emo teenager, but if you can overlook that, and if vegan junk food is your idea of ​​a solid meal, you’ll feel right at home.

Luke Semlekan-Tansey’s Beelzebab Kitchen keeps Hope and Ruin’s diners satisfied with a selection of vegan hot dogs and kebabs, inspired by Berlin’s street food scene. Semlekan-Tansey has done a decent job of conjuring up dirty, guilty pleasures for the meat-averse — so much so that Beelzebab won the “Best Vegan Kebab” award at the 2023 British Kebab Awards.

After studying catering and hospitality, Semlekan-Tansey, now 37, opened Beelzebab in 2014, first as a food stall and then as a kitchen for hire in a brick-and-mortar location. “Brighton has always been very inclusive of vegetarian and vegan cuisine,” he tells me. “It’s an open-minded place. There’s that classic ‘Only in Brighton’ thing. It’s only when you go somewhere else that you think, ‘Oh, not everywhere is like this.’”

Brighton has a reputation for being liberal and progressive. It’s considered the most LGBTQ-friendly city in the UK and was long the only city in the country where the climate-friendly Green Party held a seat in parliament. It’s no surprise, then, that Semlekan-Tansey recalls that the local “hippies” were making their own seitan long before veganism became fashionable.

These days, he says social media has helped popularize veganism among younger generations. “There are a lot of people on TikTok and Instagram doing really creative cooking,” he says. MIDSS recently surveyed members of Gen Z and found that 52 percent of Zoom vegans adopted a plant-based diet because of the health benefits, while 72 percent of vegans planned to stay that way for at least five years. Among my fellow millennials, concerns about the environment are driving their own meat-free lifestyles.

Brighton is a liberal-leaning city with a very open-minded population. It now boasts a more vibrant vegan scene than London.

Chris Harris/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Plus, with the prevalence of vegan ingredients in the grocery store, it’s more accessible than ever. Speaking about her menu, Semlekan-Tansey says it “made sense” to go completely vegan. “We could have used real yogurt in the tzatziki, but why bother when if we make it with soy yogurt it’s going to be good for everyone?”

This culinary innovation is appreciated. Increasingly, he says, diners tend to value vegan meals for their own sake, not just in the sense of, “Oh, okay… for a vegan thing.”

Closer to the train station, The Pond serves top-notch beers and some of the best bao buns in the area. A 10-minute walk away, Easy Tiger at The Hampton serves great drinks—including natural wines—and Indian-style street food (the paneer makhani, made with tomatoes, cashews, and whole spices, will knock your socks off). Both are owned by the same group and are upscale pubs you’d happily take a date or family to. For co-owner Aaron Williams, veganism has always been part of Brighton’s DNA.

“Growing up in Brighton, it was always striking to me how many vegans there were,” recalls Williams, 39. “It’s definitely become more popular now, especially with Gen Z — ‘vegan’ is a massive buzzword.”

Williams, who has been vegan on and off for the decade I’ve known him, agrees that Brighton’s general openness to new ways of thinking has helped veganism establish a foothold here. But, oddly, veganism seems to be less established in the trendy and traditionally progressive area of ​​East London where he now lives.

Do Londoners think Brighton is the place to go for vegan food? “I would say yes, we have some vegan restaurants, but it’s not at the same level,” says Williams. “There’s been a real decline in vegan-only[restaurants]in London recently. There are vegan offerings everywhere now. You can go into any restaurant and order a vegan dish, whereas maybe even 10 years ago that wasn’t the case.”

In many ways, Brighton’s vegan restaurant scene may also be a victim of its own success. Semlekan-Tansey points to the rise of vegan sausage rolls Greggs (for the uninitiated, Greggs is an affordable high street bakery with branches across the UK) as well as budget pub chains like Wetherspoons offering vegan food as the reason why independent vegan spots are closing. “If you can get a vegan sausage roll for a pound, why pay more?” he asks.

At The Pond, Williams says they even took some vegan dishes off the menu because there didn’t seem to be demand, until requests on social media prompted them to add them back.

A delicious dish at the esteemed Terre à Terre.

Courtesy of Terre à Terre

Both agree that in the long run, more people eating vegan is a good thing, especially if it’s affordable. But for those willing to splash the cash, high-end vegan restaurants seem to be flourishing in the city too. Located in Brighton’s tourist-friendly Lanes shopping street, Terre à Terre is exclusively vegetarian and vegan. As winner of the Best Restaurant in Brighton 2024 award, its steamed rice buns stuffed with Szechuan-marinated halloumi and ginger-infused bok choi should be added to your itinerary when you visit the city.

Co-founder and chef Amanda Powley has cooked and studied food from all over the world. Settling in Brighton in 1984, she and chef Philip Taylor realised the city was hungry for plant-based options. Forty years later, Terre à Terre is thriving.

Botanique, located in the suburb of Hove, specialises in small plates and, although it’s not on the tourist trail, locals like me know it as a great place to celebrate a special occasion. The selection of skin-on wines is excellent, and the tender-stemmed broccoli with tofu croutons is a must-try. The city’s vegan scene is what drew supervisor Anina Meadows to Brighton five years ago, and it’s been growing ever since.

“We chose to elevate natural ingredients and make them the central focus of our food,” says Meadows, suggesting that this care is why Botanique stands out in a landscape that values ​​the “junk foodability” of vegan food, especially on social media.

I agree. Sometimes you want a Beyond Meat burger. Sometimes you want something more refined. Brighton has both. As a friend recently commented while admiring one of Botanique’s charred carrots, “They seem to really respect the vegetable here.”