Fancy Plants Kitchen, a vegan restaurant in Lincoln Park near DePaul University, has pushed through the pandemic since opening in August. Though it was a bumpy start with staffing and securing a liquor license, owner and chef Kevin Schuder is feeling comfortable and is trying out two new gimmicks: a “convert a carnivore” night with a special menu and a vegan happy hour.
Happy hour drink specials have only been legal in Illinois since 2015 after Springfield repealed an archaic law. It’s taken time for Chicago’s restaurants and bars to build up that culture of enjoying discounted food and drink, navigating restrictions like adhering to laws that limit discounts for a specific duration of time each day.
Those discounts meant big business for the hospitality industry and many venues began having fun with their offerings with chefs and bartenders showing off creativity. But then the pandemic started in March 2020. Downtown workers, some of the most loyal supporters of happy hour specials, remained away from Loop office buildings. Bars closed for on-site service for months and the happy hour momentum built over the previous five years had evaporated.
Over the summer, bars and restaurants began marketing more happy hour specials as outdoor dining and the vaccine increased consumer confidence. And the specials are popping up in unexpected places. Case in point: Fancy Plants recently launched a happy hour with appetizers like arancini with cashew mozzarella and dates wrapped with faux bacon made of eggplant.
“People think of vegans being responsible and healthy,” Schuder says. “Maybe it’s time to enjoy being a little mischievous, and what better way than by knocking back a few cocktails?”
Vegan happy hour is the brainchild of restaurant manager Kylie Cabrera, a restaurant veteran who has worked with Michelin-starred restaurants like Elizabeth and Band of Bohemia. She also developed the wine program for Mango Pickle, the Indian-inspired restaurant in Edgewater. Pairing wine with Indian food proved a unique challenge for Cabrera, and she says she’s using what she learned at Mango Pickle with Fancy Plants. Natural wines are a focus at Fancy Plants and all of them are vegan (some natural wines are filtered through fish bladders, Fancy Plants won’t carry vineyards that carry those selections).
Not many vegan restaurants in Chicago offer a full bar. There’s Althea the Loop, and Bloom Plant Based Kitchen in Wicker Park. Chicago Diner also has a liquor license in Northalsted, as does Spirit Elephant in the suburbs. Meanwhile, upscale restaurants like Ever have vegan options, but strict vegans may be uncomfortable eating at a place that also serves meat. But Fancy Plants is trying something different.
“I think vegan diners should be able to enjoy a wonderful meal without sacrificing quality, especially service,” Cabrera says.
The happy hour is part of a few promotions for Schuder, who last year developed a meatless burger to compete against other vegan entries like Beyond and Impossible. Part of that is holding “Convert a Carnivore” Sundays where he hopes to entice non-vegans with a special menu and a promise of $10 gift certificates. The gift certificates give the playful night a “game-show quality,” Schuder says, and it was so successful that he’s planning to hold the special dinners every week: “It was a creative victory,” he says.
Last weekend was a particularly snowy and cold Sunday for the first edition of the event. So Schuder, who has a fine dining background, prepared a French onion soup with base made with mushrooms and kombu. The main course was mushroom Bourguignon. Cabrera, who isn’t vegan, says the Bourguignon is a crowd pleaser.
“I think it’s valuable for a non-vegan person to work at the restaurant,” Cabrera says. “I think non-vegans kind of appreciate a tour guide.”
The Lincoln Park restaurant is a larger sibling to a Lakeview cafe. Schuder feels good where his operation is going, luring local diners to the restaurant to go along with the starving vegans who will travel great distances for a quality meat- and dairy-free restaurant. He’s confident he can convert more carnivores, or least pique their appetites.
Fancy Plants Kitchen, 1443 W. Fullerton Avenue, Convert a Carnivore Sundays reservations via Tock; happy hour from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Hours of operation will expand.