After a 40-year run, Angelica Kitchen will close April 7. When the restaurant was founded by Leslie McEachern on St. Marks in 1976 — and even when it moved to East 12th Street a little over a decade later — there were not nearly as many dining opportunities in the East Village as there are today. The limited roster of restaurants included old-guard Italian sit-downs, Polish and Ukrainian steam tables, a small contingent of Japanese and Bangladeshi spots, Jewish dairy cafes and delis, and a handful of restaurants catering to hippies, a group that had resided in the neighborhood since the ’60s.
Aside from the stray fish entree, the hippie restaurants (if we may call them that) mainly served vegetable stir-fries over brown rice, casseroles involving seitan and tempeh, multi-bean chili, and an aggressive collection of soups, salads, and sandwiches served on thick slices of multigrain bread. Like signs of the zodiac, the avocado and eggplant were in ascendance.
In the early decades, Angelica Kitchen was a fairly conventional vegetarian cafe, the menu both vegan and macrobiotic. Typical of its approach — indeed its most famous dish — was the dragon bowl, a generous heap of rice, veggies, beans, seaweed, and salad greens in a bowl with a dragon painted at the bottom. But the menu also offered cornbread with carrot “butter,” homemade sauerkraut, and ramen with tahini sauce, all reflecting contemporary neighborhood terroir.
By the mid-’90s, as hippies faded from the neighborhood, the low-fat asceticism of the menu and reverential atmosphere the food seemed to engender provoked mild ridicule. According to Vegetarian Dining in New York City (1993): “Here’s what you do — have a seat at the communal table next to all the other serious people — careful — don’t smile or express anything resembling happiness. Next, order some really good food.”
The restaurant changed things in the new millennium. A second chef was reportedly hired to pursue more modern vegetarian dishes, along with memorable daily specials, like curried grain croquettes with homemade chutney, or a lemon-baked tofu sandwich. And many of the principles the restaurant espoused all along were suddenly au courant. According to the Slow Food Guide to New York City (2003): “Angelica Kitchen is the godmother of vegan organic cooking in New York City: true to the principles of community, sustainability, and traceability.”
But as vegetarianism became more popular among the general population, Angelica Kitchen found itself outflanked by newer, stylish places — lots of them. On the upper end, there’s Dirt Candy and Avant Garden — restaurants that made veganism into edible art, and charged for it. On the less expensive end, places like Superiority Burger opened, along with innumerable fast-casual chains peddling salads and vegetarian bowls — those same bowls that Angelica Kitchen had pioneered long ago.
I decided to pay one last visit to Angelica Kitchen. In its penultimate week of service, the place was hopping, and a throng milled around outside the door waiting for tables. Though the quoted wait was an hour, I managed to secure a solo spot at the communal table in 15 minutes, and had a chance to look around me. There were three eating areas, all with brown-and-gilt wallpaper reminiscent of Gustav Klimt, and wooden sculptures on shelves near the ceiling.
The waiters were harried, unaccustomed to such a dinner rush, and the regulars prone to linger and reminisce long after their meals were over. The staff let them — it’s that sort of place. The customers, who seemed like members of a secret club, represented diverse ages and cultural groups, and many seemed to have traveled from other boroughs and even states.
I ordered extravagantly, hoping to get as broad a picture of the menu as possible. The food hadn’t changed much since I’d visited a decade earlier. It was still centered on common vegetables, proteins like tofu and tempeh, grains, nuts, mushrooms, and salads with a choice of dressings. The guy next to me sent back his avocado toast because it was too spicy. The 20-something across the table told me his mother had brought him there as a child. It’s one of his fondest memories.
I got an app platter that included several restaurant standards, like superb purple sauerkraut, though I might have wished for a vegan hot dog to go with it. (Perhaps to its credit, Angelica Kitchen doesn’t offer anything that resembles sausage or meat patties.) There were also a couple of nori rolls stuffed with pickled vegetables and tempeh, a walnut pate, and a dab of very decent guacamole. But the platter was cluttered with too many greens and a particularly pernicious fake sour cream.
Casting around for a second course, I ordered the restaurant’s justly famous cornbread, but they were already out of it. The alternative was a sourdough bread so dense and damp that you needed a sharp knife to cut it. The carrot-ginger “butter” ordered alongside was fab. The third course featured seitan, root vegetables, and cauliflower wrapped in a whole-wheat tortilla, dubbed “ole man seitan.”
In addition to real estate woes — and the refusal to take any kind of plastic as payment — Angelica Kitchen’s problem may have been the food. It tended to be heavy and gluey and bland, true to the cuisine it came from. Yet that sort of vegetarian cooking can still excite reverence and nostalgia. I, for one, will be sad to see this vestige of the old East Village vanish.