On April 7th, longtime East Village vegan restaurant Angelica Kitchen will serve its last meal. A pioneer in both the macrobiotic/vegan scene in NYC—as well as an early champion of the farm-to-table movement—the restaurant served as a hub for advocates of clean living and eating, from its early days in the punk streetscape of the 1970s through the flourishing of the modern vegan movement.
We spoke with owner Leslie McEachern from her home in New Jersey about the tumultuous years that lead to the closure of Angelica; the humble, barter-based origins of the restaurant; and what she thinks of veganism and our relationship to food today.
Thanks for talking to me, I'm sure it's been a crazy couple of days—if not years. It has been a whirlwind and it's been gratifying actually, the last 24 hours, because people are coming forth and showing their gratitude and appreciation for the work the restaurant's done. It has that sweetness to it. We're not used to getting attention. It's one of the things that become outstanding in the last 24 hours, realizing that people do know about us and care, and are showing their support.
How long have you been thinking about closing the restaurant? Well, it depends on the day. I don't know if you know other people who run restaurants, but certain days it seems impossible, other days it seems so rewarding. As far as the actual contemplation of needing to close, the professionals around me—accountants, lawyers, what have you—have been saying for over a year, 'You're not going to pull out of this.' I just kept thinking, 'Oh, if I introduce delivery again, or if we do brunch.' I have a mentality that my friends and people surrounding me say, 'You're not a quitter, but maybe you need to quit.' Because that's what it felt like, that I'm not going to give up, I'm going to recover from this debt, I'm going to bring people back in the way it used to be.
But my efforts just ended up costing me money, and didn't necessarily end up increasing the number of guests. So probably after August 2016, as I was looking at the situation and feeling the situation, having so much trouble paying my staff and the vendors and the rent and all of it, I think that was probably around when it started sinking in that it was real, as a possibility.
I understand there's a GoFundMe campaign that was started to help you out with everything. How did that come about? Some dear friends of mine, Tom Ponzio and his lady friend Monica. Tom was the construction manager when I built the restaurant on 12th Street, when we moved from St. Mark's, and that's when I met Tom and we became very close friends and have remained so. He's been aware of the situation all along, so he and Monica said, 'Let us do this, let us help you this way.'
I was really looking at being unable to help long term staff as they were leaving the restaurant, as we closed, and they deserve to be handed something to help them with the transition. I didn't have it. Same with the vendors and farmers, suppliers, that I was in debt—even though I was keeping up on a minimal, basic level and communicating constantly. I knew that by closing I was going to have outstanding debts to these people who I've had very long term, very mutually rewarding relationships with. I felt terrible about that. So when Tom and Monica suggested that, I went with that. Let's see what we can do by closing and making sure that I'm not leaving other people in debt condition because of my debt.
It's kind of ironic, I think, to have a GoFundMe for an operation that's closing, instead of the way it usually goes. I think GoFundMe and other crowdsourcing is for people who are starting up. But the response I've had so far about us closing, I'm hopeful that I can raise enough to alleviate problems for others who have been so good for me.
Well it's a testament to what you were able to accomplish and inspire in 40 years. What do you think at its essence made Angelica so special? Now you're going to make me cry. It's really a combination of where the restaurant has been located, a real neighborhood, a real community. I think the East Village is very special in its cohesiveness, and the spirit of the East Village. It's very community-based. So I think that contributed a lot to people wanting to come to a place such as Angelica Kitchen, where conviviality and graciousness and welcomeness were a part of being there.
It wasn't just about the food, even though we were very much a destination for people who wanted to eat clean and recognized that my commitment to organic and plant-based was 100 percent. It was people who had made their own choices, whether it was they wanted a salad for one day or whether they ate a plant-based, organic diet everyday; they knew that they could come in and trust what we were offering and that it was fresh and from the farms. Also, I think people had a visceral response to eating at Angelica—food that served their body and served their lives. I don't want to get too esoteric about that, but people had a positive response to how the food fit their lives and how they were able to go out and keep on going.
I used to have this great visual in my mind, where I'm standing over the front door to Angelica by some distance and I'm watching people come in and eat and then they leave, and they're just going all over the city, all over the boroughs, and they're taking this vitality from the food with them. They're having their lives be served having good, clean, organic, farm-fresh food in their bodies.
McEachern outside the Angelica Kitchen on 12th Street, 1987 (Facebook)
That's really beautiful imagery. I'm curious what the vegan scene was like when you opened in the 1970s? Well actually I did not open Angelica Kitchen. Three guys opened it, and it was quite a scene back then. I was visiting the city in those days, the late 1970s, but was living in North Carolina. It was funky with a capital F. The guys who opened the restaurant, one of them was an herbalist and he had an herb shop across the street where Cafe Mogador is now. He had an herb shop there, and when the space came open—it'd been a beauty shop on St. Marks place—he said to the other guys, 'Hey let's do a macrobiotic restaurant.' And so they did.
Part of the time they lived in the basement. They also bartered for food. People would come in and bring lumber or bring a painting they made. These three fellas had accumulated quite a collection of stuff in the basement that they were bartering for food. Also people could come in and eat and spend some time working there, they could go back and do the dishes. And that's what I mean by funky. It wasn't in any stretch of imagination a traditional business. It was built of community spirit and wanting to eat well, wanting to be together, and just making it happen day by day.
So when I got involved it was 1981 and the three fellas who had opened Angelica had just sold it to one of their customers. I was a miso expert, and I was doing a tasting in one of the health food stores called Greenberg's at the time, down on 1st Avenue. I met the guy who had just bought Angelica and we fell in love and I moved to New York and we were going to be married. Unfortunately, Frank died, he had cancer. So I took over in the '81, '82 era. There were punk gangs just running the streets. At the same time there were fabulous women in their babushkas hanging out on street corners having their conversations. And there was the Italian contingent. It was so eclectic and lively, and vegan wasn't really what people were thinking about as far as dining; it was more macrobiotic at the time.
So much happened in the East Village in those days. That was kind of the end of the era I think that gave the East Village its mystique, the energy that people still associate with the East Village, even though it's not as present. So the vegan scene was local there, primarily. It was also very eclectic. Even John and Yoko, when John was still alive, would come down. Stuff like that was happening, but it was very unique. I'd say mostly locals, because at that time very few people wanted to come east of 3rd Avenue, because the East Village had such a reputation. People from outside the area, they weren't really coming to dine in the East Village. It was very locally based, fun, crazy.
It's hard to imagine that era now, with all the changes that the neighborhood has gone through. Do you think the East Village is going to be able to retain any kind of character, or is that all being pushed out with real estate interests and different entities moving in? Well, I guess if they rented out rooms in banks, you could give it a chance. Banks have taken over the whole East Village; it's ridiculous. It's hard to say. There are certain people, friends, who still have strongholds in the East Village, who've been around forever. But it is...no, it'll never be the same. It can't be. You can't go back on something like that. I'm just very glad that I was able to experience and be a part of a scene that just had so much art and independence and spirit and wildness. It wasn't all fun, believe me. It was scary at times. You did have to be careful on the streets after a certain time at night. But it was totally, 110 percent worth experiencing. I don't think it could be brought back.
(Courtesy Angelica Kitchen)
How you feel about vegan restaurants that have opened recently, because it seems as though veganism is almost a trend now. Frankly, I have not visited most of them. I prefer to eat at Angelica. I don't live in the city anymore, so I don't really dine out in the city, so most of what I know is hearsay. Many of the people who work now or have worked at Angelica have worked at these places. The word on the street is disturbing, because the quality of ingredients is what really matters and how they're handled. Using overly processed foods...I would never use a soy butter, even though it's vegan, to make desserts. It's basically a highly processed food that's denatured. It's taken the vitality and the true nutrient quality out of it. It's just there because it isn't dairy, therefore it fits in the 'vegan' category, but at the same time, it doesn't have vitality. So ingredients is my thing. Using the highest quality ingredients available is what matters to me, and the hearsay I have is that there really aren't places that I know of that have the sort of commitment to the spirit of clean food. They might be living in a black and white definition, but I can't speak from personal experience.
To that point, a lot of what I've noticed being a trend in vegan food is it's sort of like vegan junk food or vegan comfort food, where you're seeing that it's not as much, as you put it, "the integrity of the ingredients," but more about: how do we make something that's junk food that happens to be vegan. How do you interpret that from your perspective? Again, I have to say I don't know what's in the minds of the people who are offering this food, I just don't know. I'm not going to risk interpreting where their decisions are coming from, I will just say that if health is the basis of the menu, then this junk food is not, in my opinion, serving health.
And I'm not just exclusively talking about people's visceral health. How can you not support farmers who are committed and living their lives committed to the health of soil and land? They're not using pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, all that stuff on their food, the organic growers, especially the local ones. These people are committed to providing really clean food, and growing clean food because it doesn't poison the earth and it doesn't poison the people who are eating it. Or the birds or the insects or whoever's in the field. To me, that definition of clean eating has to include the farmers, and the work they're doing and the products they're providing.
People say to me, 'Oh I can only afford a little bit of organic food,' and boy you should hear what my mind says back to them. I'm not going to say it out loud to you. It's like, 'Yes you can, you're just not trying, you're not committed, and it's too much trouble to connect with the farmers.'
Our ordering sheets are like crossword puzzles: which farmers are delivering which day and what are they bringing? If you have two or three farmers coming in the same day, you don't want them bringing the same thing. But if everybody's got tons of zucchini, and that's what they're bringing, you have zucchini soup, you have cold zucchini soup, you have hot zucchini soup, you have zucchini muffins, you have zucchini bread, you have a zucchini in your savory special, you make your carrot cake into a zucchini cake. That's what's available, that's what's seasonal. The farmers know that and they all try to diversify at different times, because it's good for them and it's also good for their customers. The farmers want to have the diversity, but at the same time, there's the reality of what grows in season in our region. I feel that buying what's now called "conventional groceries and produce" is somewhat of a copout. But maybe that's why my business is closing and theirs is still open, because I insisted on the integrity of the food. I don't know.
RIP Lasagna Tuesdays (Facebook)
You've been very committed to that farm-to-table movement. Are you hopeful that people are going to be able to change their relationship with food and be more mindful of what they're eating and why they're eating it? I think there's definitely a growing movement of people who are very serious about doing that, and I think education's the key. And I think media is the leader of the movement. That's one thing I saw, starting gradually from the mid-80s, the media started writing and talking about how you are what you eat, so to speak.
Marion Nestle and I became friends and I admire her so much, because she's basically an incendiary device in the traditional, conventional food world. She's educating people about why clean, good food matters. She's not advocating this diet or that diet, she's educating people constantly about how to take care of yourself and how to build your own health. I don't know how much she's in Washington, D.C. right now, but she certainly has spent a lot of time in D.C. trying to help form policy for eating better. It's people like Marion—and many others—doing the legwork, and she's no spring chicken anymore, though she certainly acts like one. She's out there every day.
To me, it's an educational process of people understanding the choices they're making. A lot of people are a little bit mindless about this and feel like if they can just get something in their stomach for the moment it's okay. 'I'm hungry, I need to eat.' That's valid enough from time to time, but on a day in and day out basis, I think the awareness of what we're eating and the effect it has on our bodies is where the change is coming from—and I think there is a change coming. The medical profession is finally starting to talk to people about their diets. It's just so alarming that for physician degrees, people didn't even have to take nutrition courses. And some of that's changing now, too.
So, yes I think we're heading in a direction of more information, therefore making better informed choices, but at the same time, it is basically the privileged and the educated who are getting the message right now. Hopefully, as the information is transferred and handed down to the schools, like what Michelle Obama was trying to do...she was trying to let people know on all levels of income and lifestyle that, 'Yeah, we can do this, we've just got to make better choices.'
We'll see 10, 20 years from now how embedded it's become. People used to make fun of me for way I ate in the '60s and '70s. Now they don't, but I see that that's sort of the progression. People are thoughtful and trying to stand up for what they believe in and advocating for what they believe in. It definitely is having a positive trickle effect onto the greater population.
Maybe this is too soon to ask since everything's sort of happening right now, but do you see yourself becoming involved with more things like Marion is doing? How do you see your near or long term future in terms of this movement that you have been such a huge part of? What's next for you, I guess, is what I'm asking? Well, I actually am not sure. I live out in the forest in Western New Jersey, Huntington County, and I am here for a reason: I had to get out of the city after living there for over 25 years, because I felt I had really lost contact with my intuitive self. I had used my intuition a lot when running my business, and I felt like I couldn't count on it anymore. The thing that feeds my intuition is being in nature. I've always been that way, since I was a toddler.
So my goal, hopefully, is to spend more time in the outdoors. I don't know what that means exactly yet. I do a lot of gardening at home. Not vegetables, I grow a lot of native flowering plants and I kind of keep my property as natural as I can. I built kind of a meadow in my front yard for the bees and the birds and the local wildlife. I see myself tending that pretty carefully for a little while, once I'm finished with what needs to be done to close Angelica.
I probably will be leaving this area, but I don't have a specific destination in mind yet. I was born and raised in the south and I love the south. So I could end up back on the coast of the south, volunteering on projects, like sea turtles and all that stuff. I don't know. I have thought about it and I really just don't know. I'm the kind of person where I don't feel the need to know at this very minute. I've really worn myself out. I'm very exhausted. The last two years have definitely been the most difficult of running the business. I'm worn out and I just need to ease myself a bit, and then we'll see.
I'm even thinking of moving to Portugal, where the lifestyle is much more sunshine and day-to-day. You go to the market every day and get your fresh vegetables for lunch or dinner. I don't know, I'm a little bit all over the place, but I don't have a specific answer for you.
Portugal sounds nice. Maybe I'll join you there. Hey! I'll let you know. The water, right? The sunshine, right? Right now they don't have a big political mess. You don't hear about them in the news, which is one thing that I really like. And the lifestyle has a Mediterranean and European feel and it's definitely an agricultural area. I have friends who've lived there and been very involved in different projects around. So, who knows? I don't care at the moment to have to answer. I just got to get through the next month.
This interview has been edited and condensed.