The three-year anniversary for any restaurant at any time is a monumental achievement. But for those who came through the recent international health crisis, it’s an even bigger deal. Winnetka’s Spirit Elephant, the North Shore’s first fully-plant based restaurant and bar, opened its doors in January 2020, serving dishes with organic, locally sourced, and seasonally focused vegetables front and center. That healthy, environmentally friendly focus helped the restaurant not only survive but thrive. The sweet spot Spirit Elephant hit with its internationally inspired, yet approachable menu won the hearts and appetites of the entire community. So much so that the restaurant team launched a fast-casual version of the concept, Elephant & Vine, in Evanston.
“Our ethos, first and foremost is to serve amazing tasting food,” says owner CD Young. “Memorably delicious dishes that appeal to everyone—not just vegans and vegetarians. We knew we would have the hearts of vegans, but we wanted omnivores to taste and see that eating plant-based is not a sacrifice in any way.”
To win those omnivores over, Young crafted a menu with lots of “gateway” comfort foods: Things like Mac & Cheese with a crunchy topping of roasted rice panko and house-pickled Fresno peppers, or the BBQ Burger with smoked Gouda cheese, tomato, lettuce, pickle, and frizzle of crispy onion on a pretzel bun. And then there’s the Jerk Meatless Loaf with fried plantains, black beans, and rice, and the Fig Flatbread, with mint pesto, mozzarella and cheddar cheese, poached figs, tomatoes, and a bright overlay of fresh arugula tossed in lemony herbed oil and finished with a balsamic drizzle.
“These are all familiar comforting foods that everybody likes,” says Young. “Once they have had a taste of these dishes and like them, they’re more likely to dive deeper in, trying our salads, plant-forward curries, and entrée bowls such as our hugely popular Pad Thai bowl.”
It’s a smart strategy and one that’s working. “We are very aware that for every person who loves vegetable-forward eating, there are also family members who may eat differently,” says Young. “Most of our repeat business comes that way. I can’t tell you how many times vegans and vegetarians have said to me, “This is the only place we can come where the rest of the family likes it as much as I do.”
Young says she started moving toward vegetarianism after living for 10 years with her family in London. “There were so many great restaurants serving super flavorful plant-forward Indian and Asian fare. And when I cooked, those were the dishes I would make.”
But back in the United States, “it was really the documentaries that showed the negative impacts of factory farming on both animals and the environment that prompted me to become a vegan. The more I learned about the conditions that these sentient beings are subjected to—and simultaneously, how positively plant-based eating affects the environment and human health, the more I knew I wanted to be a part of the change for a better way.”
Adopting a vegan lifestyle Young says she lost weight, gained energy, and just felt happier. “There really is a mind/body/planet connection,” she sums.
Wanting to share the healthy, feel-good, and do-good aspects of plant-based eating with the North Shore and beyond, she opened Spirit Elephant.
In addition to the accessible food, her restaurant’s stylishly open design is equally welcoming. Filled with plants and warm lighting, Spirit Elephant has multiple seating options. There are booths, tables, and a plush nook near the white-marble bar which stretches the entire length of the restaurant.
About that bar: “We knew from the start that we wanted to have a full bar with the restaurant,” says Young. “It just made so much sense—all of the botanicals, herbs, and fresh fruits that we could feature in beautiful cocktails.”
Take for example the Cherry-Go-Round, Spirit Elephant’s cherry spin on a traditional Cosmo, with Titos, cherry juice, Pama, fresh lime juice, dry curacao, and simple syrup. And just as the restaurant goes the extra mile with house-made sauces, and pickles—such as the earthy smoked beet ketchup served with the fries, cocktails get special treatment, too. The ice sphere you’ll get in your Elephant in the Room cocktail (Spirit Elephant’s Old-Fashioned) is house-smoked over cherry wood, adding nuance to the mix of Bulleit Rye, Demerara syrup, Luxardo Cherry, orange, and bitters.
Everything—from soups, shareables and salads, to bowls, “Prime Cuts” (main dishes), cocktails, and dessert is made with no eggs, dairy, or animal products of any kind.
For your gateway experience, be sure to try Chef Gabriel Iriarte’s Cauli-Wings (golden cauliflower nuggets coated in gluten-free batter, deep fried, and served with choice of Buffalo, BBQ, Wasabi-Dijon, Jerk, or Mango Chili Sauce). His Forbidden Rice bowl, with blackened tofu, tri-color cauliflower, fresh mango, confit tomatoes, avocado, toasted coconut, watermelon radish, and a mango chili drizzle, is exotically refreshing. Be sure to finish any meal with one of Pastry Chef Lisa Centner’s desserts. Her Raw Brownie a la Mode is a meltingly dense dream of Medjool dates, candied walnuts, cocoa powder, and chocolate sauce with vanilla gelato, sea salt caramel, and whipped cream. And her carrot cake—full of fresh shredded carrots and toasted pecans, gets the same vanilla cream cheese frosting that Centner slathers on the mammoth cinnamon buns she bakes for brunch.
Everything on the menu—including freshly-made, seasonally-changing cocktails in 12-ounce bottles—is available for carryout and delivery Tuesday through Thursday from noon to 8 p.m.; Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Spirit Elephant is located at 924 Green Bay Road in Winnetka, 847-348-9000, spiritelephantrestaurant.com.