My Seaside Home, Now a Vegan Powerhouse

A local explains how Brighton became the plant-based capital of the world

July 2, 2024 2:52 pm
A view of Brighton in England from the water. The city has, somewhat surprisingly, been called the vegan capital of the world.
In Brighton, veganism is a buzzword — not a swear word.
Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty

When it comes to munching on plants, few places offer more choice and enthusiasm 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 U.K.’s most vegan-friendly city, with the most vegan restaurants and takeaways per 100,000 people of any city in the country. These stats also earned it the distinction of most vegan-friendly city in the world

Obviously, it’s worth taking such claims with a large pinch of Maldon. And while I’m not vegan, I have leaned further and further into the lifestyle while living here, the vast majority of my friends here are vegan, and I’ve noticed that things taken for granted in Brighton aren’t the norm elsewhere — try asking for oat milk in your coffee in Glasgow, for example.

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

An overhead shot of vegan pub grub.
Vegan pub grub? Beelzebab makes some of the very best.

The Hope and Ruin, a mainstay of the local alternative music scene, is located on the main drag leading down from Brighton’s train station to the beach. The decor feels a bit like it was thrown together by a teenage emo, but if you can ignore that, and if vegan junk food is your idea of a solid meal, you may feel at home. 

Luke Semlekan-Tansey’s Beelzebab kitchen keeps Hope and Ruin patrons satiated 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-adverse — so much so that Beelzebab won “Best Vegan Kebab” at the British Kebab Awards 2023.

After studying catering and hospitality, Semlekan-Tansey, now 37, started Beelzebab in 2014, first as a food stall and then as a kitchen for hire in brick-and-mortar premises. “Brighton’s always been really inclusive to vegetarian and vegan cuisine,” he tells me. “It’s an open-minded place. There’s that classic ‘Only in Brighton’ thing. It’s not until you go elsewhere that you’re like, ‘Oh, not everywhere is like this.’”

Brighton has a reputation for being both liberal and progressive. It’s considered the U.K.’s most LGBTQ-friendly city, and for a long time was the only city in the country where the climate-friendly Green party held a parliamentary seat. It’s no surprise, then, that Semlekan-Tansey remembers “hippies” here were making their own seitan long before veganism became trendy. 

These days, he says social media has helped popularize veganism among younger generations. “There’s 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% of vegan Zoomers had gone plant-based due to the health benefits, while 72% of vegans planned to stay that way for at least five years. Among my Millennial friends, concerns about the environment are driving their own meat-free lifestyles.  

Brighton youth in a graffiti'd skate park.
Brighton is a liberal-leaning city, with a pretty open-minded populace. 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 supermarket, it’s more accessible than ever. Taking about his menu, Semlekan-Tansey says it “made sense” to go all vegan. “We could have used real yogurt in the tzatziki, but why bother when, if we make it out of soy yogurt, it’s going to be okay for everybody?”

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

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

“Growing up in Brighton, it was always mind-blowing to me how many vegans there were,” Williams, 39 remembers. “It’s definitely got more mainstream, 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 base here. But, strangely, veganism seems to be less established in the trendy and traditionally progressive area of East London where he now lives. 

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

In many ways, Brighton’s vegan restaurant scene might also be a victim of its own success. Semlekan-Tansey highlights the rise of the Greggs’ vegan sausage roll [for the uninitiated, Greggs is an affordable high street bakery with branches across the U.K.] as well as cheap pub chains like Wetherspoons offering vegan fare as the reason why independent vegan spots are closing. “If you can get a vegan sausage roll for a quid, why pay more?” he asks.

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

Terre à Terre in Brighton.
A delectable dish at the esteemed Terre à Terre.
Courtesy of Terre à Terre

Both agree that in the long-term, more people eating vegan is a good thing, especially if it’s affordable. But for those looking to drop serious cash, high-end vegan dining seems to be flourishing in the city, too. Located in Brighton’s tourist-friendly Lanes shopping streets, Terre à Terre is exclusively vegetarian and vegan. As the winner of the Best Restaurant in Brighton Award 2024, its steamed rice buns stuffed with Szechuan-marinated halloumi and ginger bok choy should be added to the itinerary when you visit the city. 

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

Botanique, located in the suburb of Hove, specializes in small plates and, while not on the tourist trail, locals like myself know it as a great place to celebrate a special occasion. The skin-contact wine selection is great, and the tenderstem broccoli with tofu croutons is a must. The city’s vegan scene is what first attracted supervisor Anina Meadows to Brighton five years ago, and it’s been growing ever since.

“We choose to elevate natural ingredients and have them be the centrifugal focus of our food,” says Meadows, suggesting that this care is why Botanique stands out in a scene that values the “junk-foodability” of vegan food, especially across social media.

I agree. Sometimes you want a Beyond Meat patty. Sometimes you want something more refined. Brighton has both. As a friend recently remarked while admiring one of Botanique’s charred carrots, “It feels like they really respect vegetables here.”

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