Soul Vegetarian, the Influential Chicago Vegan Restaurant, Reinvents Itself

As more Chicagoans recognize the restaurants along 75th Street in Chatham, the strip’s anchor took a chance to debut a new look, attitude, and name after 40 years. Soul Vegetarian was one of the city’s first vegan restaurants and decades ahead of its time. But after four decades of being a pioneer it was time for a reset, to trot out new menu items and to remodel. Mayor Lori Lightfoot was among the luminaries attending the unveiling of the new Soul Veg City on Juneteenth.

That strip of 75th Street, just east of the Dan Ryan Expressway, also calls restaurants like Lem’s Bar-B-Q, Brown Sugar Bakery, and 5 Loaves Eatery home. Soul Vegetarian stands out and draws diners across the globe with a reputation as a shelter from the Midwest’s meat and potatoes archetype. Creative plates like vegan gyros, burgers, and barbecue-inspired seitan and tofu items make Soul Veg a must-stop for vegans while visiting Chicago.

Owners Lori Seay and Arel Brown.
Soul Veg City [Official Photo]

Owners Arel Brown and Lori Seay feel their restaurant provided Chatham with stability, giving the predominantly Black and middle-class neighborhood a sense of pride. Ownership sees Soul Veg as a station for cultural exchange where everyone is considered family.

Though a ground-breaking vegan restaurant, others have copied Soul V’s formula which centers on wellness including catering to specific dietary needs including anti-inflammatory and gut-healthy regimens. Closed during the pandemic, Brown and Seay, who are siblings, took the opportunity to revamp the space. The new dining is more spacious and larger windows allow more sunlight to pass through.

The new dining room.

High tops and larger windows have reshaped the room.

Soul Vegetarian was once divided into the main restaurant, a juice bar and bakery for grab-and-go items, and a retail side that once sold items like clothing. That setup is changed as the place has been gutted and brick walls knocked down. The corner entrance on Indiana and 75th Street diverges into two lines. On the right, customers can find the $9.95 per pound hot bar that includes favorites such as the barbecue twist, collards, and more. On the left, customers will find menus above on LED screens for a la carte ordering. Among the new items are thin-crust and soy-free vegan pizzas that use Daiya and homemade soy cheeses. Additional items, like cake slices and grab-and-go items, are available in coolers.

The dishes also reflect a change in tastes. The original menu did not include a lot of heat; the only spice came from cayenne pepper shakers. New plates, like cajun shrimp rice, provide a little bit more kick than the original.

The changes not only reflect an investment in Chatham, but in the vegan community. The latter sometimes splinters off in a schism between junk-food lovers and folks looking for more nutritious options. While fried items like battered mushrooms and cauliflower are still available, Soul Veg City represents more of a push toward being healthier, and not just vegan.

Soul Veg City, 201-209 E. 75th Street, (773) 224-0104, open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except on Friday and Saturday when the restaurant closes at 10 p.m.

Various selections from the hot bar.

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