Two weeks after September 11, 2001 my then girlfriend and I were thinking about what we could do to save our relationship and also make some sense of living in a decimated lower Manhattan. Our first thought was that because we truly loved alcohol we would open a bar. But then we realized we were alcoholics in training and opening a bar probably wasn’t the brightest idea. Then we thought we’d have a baby. But we were both doing obscene amounts of drugs and had managed to break up once a week for the previous two years, so having a baby seemed like it might be problematic. Finally we decided we’d open a vegan café, despite the fact that neither of us had ever opened a business or worked in a restaurant.
Generally speaking, the aftermath of September 11 in lower Manhattan was horrifying. The air was full of soot and the National Guard required that you show identification just to cross the street and go to the deli. But there was one small bright spot: Everyone was fleeing our neighborhood, so rents were low. We found an empty storefront, rented it and set about trying to open a little vegan café on a stretch primarily known for crack and heroin dealers.
Our relationship ended as we were renovating the space, but the restaurant opened and somehow succeeded. It was tiny (we named it TeaNY), and people loved it.
After a few years I moved to Los Angeles and ended my involvement in the restaurant. Time passed, and I found myself missing our little café. I didn’t miss the dysfunction or the larcenous employees or the junkies OD’ing in the bathroom. But I missed having a space where I could present vegan food in a way that didn’t make meat eaters run away in horror.
I’ve been a vegan since 1987, and one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced has been getting meat eaters not to preemptively turn up their nose at vegan food. Most omnivores assume vegan food is sad and tasteless, which up until 1990 it largely was. The scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen sits in a vegan restaurant in Los Angeles and miserably orders a plate of mashed yeast is what most nonvegans have thought of when it comes to vegan food.
But over time things changed, and with TeaNY I loved having a space where I could show people that veganism isn’t about anemic and angry people scowling at plates of mashed yeast while listening to Morrissey records.
Other restaurants helped move the needle on vegan food away from “sad-tasteless” to “happy-great” too. Friends would go to Blossom or Candle 79 in New York, Millennium in San Francisco or Crossroads in Los Angeles and say, surprised, “I ate at a vegan restaurant, and it was good!” Then, being slightly shallow, they might also add, “And every woman in the restaurant was beautiful!”
A year ago someone told me about a restaurant space for sale in Silver Lake. Despite having sworn off the restaurant business, I thought, I guess I do want to open another. I settled on a name, Little Pine (because I’m little and I like pine trees), hired a kitchen staff and opened my new restaurant. I wanted to show people that vegan food has changed and that by being a vegan or even occasionally eating vegan food you can reduce climate change, reduce deforestation, reduce erectile dysfunction, hang out with beautiful vegans, be nice to animals and actually be satisfied with what you eat (and drink—as an alkie I’m now sober, but we have a lot of wine and beer for you people who still know how to have fun).
And let me admit: Owning and running a restaurant is hard and expensive and largely frustrating. But when I walk into Little Pine and see a room full of people eating vegan food and flirting and drinking and talking, it warms my little grinch heart and makes me truly happy.