When Plant City opened its doors in early June, it became just the second vegan food hall in the country – after vShops in Miami, serving exclusively plant-based cuisine. But Plant City did more than just open its doors: It moved the needle on Providence’s reputation not just as a foodie city, but as a forward-thinking one.
News broke early this spring that Matthew Kenney, a renowned vegan chef who built a plant-based restaurant empire comprising more than 30 restaurants across four continents, would be opening an Eataly-style food hall in Rhode Island. Kenney has been nominated as a James Beard Rising Star Chef twice, and was named a Best New Chef by Food + Wine magazine. His only two New England restaurants are both in Boston. The fact that he took notice of Providence for his flagship food hall, rather than opening in a large city with a guaranteed customer base, is a big deal.
“We were immediately met with so much enthusiasm when word got out of Plant City’s imminent opening,” Kenney said. That enthusiasm – the first three nights were booked basically as soon as reservations were available – indicates a growing appetite for healthier options when dining out. It’s easy to cook healthy food at home. It’s not as easy to have an exciting dining experience at a restaurant and still have it work with a whole foods diet. At least, it’s not as easy outside a major metropolitan area.
“The demand for vegan cuisine in Providence, which is a small city compared to most, became immediately obvious – yet there were few existing options in the area to support and fuel that demand,” Kenney said. “That’s a huge indication of just how big [plant-based cuisine] is becoming, because it shows that the initiative to engage in a healthier, more sustainable and plant-based lifestyle is not limited by geography or demographic.”
Three Floors of Vegan Goodness
Plant City has revived the building that once housed an iconic Providence restaurant, Barnsider’s Mile and a Quarter. Within its walls are five separate dining concepts, a marketplace, and a meeting space in the basement that will host yoga and meditation classes as well as food-related workshops.
“The experience [of a vegan food hall] is different, because it’s diverse, exciting and inspiring,” Kenney said. “You can sit down to have dinner upstairs, but also wander around trying different things, check out the marketplace and find yourself immersed in retail aisles filled with products that you haven’t seen anywhere else. The overall energy is higher, and it creates a really creative, inspired atmosphere.”
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The first floor is home to a coffee shop serving vegan pastries (even croissants), a quick-service lunch counter called Make Out and a restaurant called New Burger. At Make Out, which serves bowls, you order a base and customize your toppings. For breakfast, maybe that’s oatmeal or non-dairy coconut yogurt, topped with roasted apples, almond butter and flax seeds. For lunch, it might be soy-ginger quinoa or field greens, topped with rosemary fingerling potatoes, charred broccoli rabe and roasted tomatoes with basil, and finished with citrus Sriracha or pesto dressing. At New Burger, the menu focuses on plant-based versions of comfort foods, like a classic burger with heirloom tomato, lettuce, sunflower cheddar and beet ketchup, or a Cobb salad served with tempeh bacon, tomato, cucumber, corn, avocado and herb ranch dressing.
Upstairs are two more formal restaurants. Double Zero is a pizzeria with menu options like truffle pizza, with cashew cream, wild mushrooms, Tuscan kale and lemon vinaigrette, and artichoke conserva with confit cannellini beans. At Bar Verde, the Mexican-inspired restaurant that shares the second floor, there are plant-based takes on Mexican favorites: wild mushroom carnitas, cauliflower al pastor, jackfruit pibil, hearts of palm ceviche.
“We’re lucky to have chefs that truly respect and understand the flavors, textures, fragrances and the natural beauty of plants,” Kenney said. “It’s because of this deep respect for food that creativity and innovation thrive in our kitchens.”
Room for Growth
Creativity and innovation are hallmarks of Providence’s dining scene, which might be why the city was immediately so taken by Plant City’s opening. The food hall has been embraced not just as a new place for vegetarians to go, but as a buzz-worthy restaurant piquing the interest of the larger community that just wants to have a delicious meal. Case in point: executive chef Luis Jaramillo is an omnivore. “When it comes down to it, our chefs are creating art, just like any other talented chef. Our medium just happens to be brighter, fresher, healthier and more alive,” Kenney said. He called Jaramillo “an incredibly talented artist who thrives in a creative environment and is stimulated by new projects and challenges … Any differences in personal lifestyle are left at the door.”
A few weeks after Plant City opened, an all-vegan food hall opened in New York. That makes three in the country: one in a city of nearly 9 million, one in a city of half a million and one in Providence. Will its 180,000 people keep this innovative concept alive? If the buzz around its opening is any indication, then signs point to yes. As people are increasingly shifting to wellness-oriented lifestyles, the appetite for vegetable-heavy cuisine is only growing – not just in big cities, but in smart ones. Success in Providence points to the idea that a lot more of the country is ready for healthy, gourmet-minded food than previously assumed.
“Plant City has served as one of the strongest indicators of just how much momentum there is behind today’s plant-based movement,” Kenney said. He’s using this buzz as inspiration to think about other smaller and often-overlooked areas. “Accessibility is such a big factor in our mission to spread this healthier shift toward plant-based cuisine, and we would never get anywhere if we didn’t expand to new, uncharted territories.”
What are your thoughts on Providence’s new vegan food hall? Do you plan to go soon? Have you visited already? Tell us in the comments.
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