Millennium Tops San Francisco Gourmet Vegan Restaurants

For all its reputation as a food mecca, and its hippy image, I was surprised to learn on a recent visit that downtown San Francisco is home to only 10 vegan restaurants.

Three of these 10 are part of the Loving Hut chain, which-despite their use of excessive oil and textured soy protein, and cafeteria atmosphere–are far superior to any non-vegan fast-food, and provide an animal compassionate and practical alternative for those transitioning to a plant-based diet.

For more special occasions, I decided to check out some of San Francisco’s classier vegan restaurants listed on Happy Cow, including:

  • Millennium (580 Geary St)
  • Gracias Madre (2211 Mission St)
  • Cha Ya (762 Valencia St)

Herbivore (983 Valencia St) was–for lack of time–the only vegan restaurant I didn’t visit. I also tried the Source (11 Division St)–a vegetarian restaurant serving cheese from “humanely-raised cows”, according to the proprietor.

Although I’m biased, having staged in its kitchen for a month, I have to conclude that Millennium is the hands-down best of the bunch.
Under the leadership of Executive Chef Eric Tucker since 1994, Millennium is considered one the leading vegan restaurants in the country, and is named a favorite by many non-vegans (according to Yelp) as well.

Among Millennium’s popular dishes are beet risotto cakes, potato tikki cakes, as well as “Bastilla”-phylo pastry stuffed with homemade seitan meat, pumpkin squash, onion, garlic and herbs. Another one of my favorites was the barbequeued tempeh with black rice.

Most evenings also feature different specials, including one raw dish, such as “rawvioli” made using butternut squash for noodles, or a salad consisting of gaspacho with zucchini and carrot strips, black olives, heirloom tomatoes and herbs. All of the ingredients are organic and local, and feature novel items such as Armenian cucumbers, quince, and giant shucking beans.

Baguette with lentil spread is served at all tables, but save room for starters including mixed olives or fresh pickled vegetables that vary daily. Pistachio stuffed dates, or a bruschetta of pecan pate with caramelized sweets onions are also highly recommended, should you be lucky enough to visit Millennium often.

Appetizers such as black bean tortes with plantain bananas, deep-fried potatoes with aioli or trumpet mushrooms with chili sauce, are also popular, as are Millennium’s desserts, such as Chocolate Midnight cake, pear creme brulee, and seasonal sorbets.

Millennium also has a full bar, including non-alcoholic elixirs using kombucha. Millennium’s portions are generous, and it’s not the place to go if you’re counting calories (or pennies, with a $40/person average cost, excluding drinks).

Millennium has built that magical combination of atmosphere, food and service to commemorate a very special occasion or seal an important business deal, or just experience an unforgettable meal that happens to contain no animal ingredients.

If you’re not near San Francisco, you can sample some of Chef Eric Tucker’s inspirations in his Millennium Cookbook or newer The Artful Vegan. Why not gift one or both of these beautifully photographed books as a Christmas gift to your favorite chef?

The runner up for best vegan restaurant in San Francisco was Cha Ya. No relation to the Chaya Macrobiotic in Tokyo–and bright and lively, in contrast to Millennium’s laid-back atmosphere. It may have been the cold, damp weather in San Francisco, or my homesickness for Japanese food, but the Hana Go Moku soup tasted so comforting, and the soba salad was also simple and fresh tasting. Prices were reasonable, too.

Gracias Madre (a restaurant in the Cafe Gratitude family) had been highly recommended and–at first–I felt something magical in the front courtyard, facing the colorful hand-painted mural. When it came to food, the two entrees my friend and I ordered both tasted similar, and were accompanied  by overcooked black refried beans. One dish was a tamale that couldn’t compare to a recent special at Millennium. Though Gracias Madre was somewhat less pricey, both quality and quantity were lacking.

The luxurious Greens (Fort Mason Center Building) and The Plant (several locations, headed by former Millennium Sous Chef, Sasha Weiss) are two other “vegan-friendly” restaurants listed that will be worth trying on a subsequent visit. I now regret I wrote off Golden Era (572 O Farrell St) due to comparisons to Loving Hut.

While San Francisco has numerous vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurants (such as zPizza chain) frequently they offer limited choices (i.e. 1 or 2 menu items) for vegans. I welcome the growing trend for vegan options in restaurants, but nevertheless prefer to support wholly vegan businesses when possible.

San Francisco may not have many vegan restaurants for its size, but thanks to Chef Eric Tucker, it does have at least one of the finest in the country, if not in the world.

I’d love to receive your comments…. What criteria do you consider most important when deciding to eat out: taste, health, atmosphere? What are your favorite vegan and non-vegan restaurants (in your town or anywhere), and why?