The menu at Neon Tiger in Charleston, South Carolina looks pretty familiar: There’s a chicken Caesar salad, mac and cheese, a bacon cheeseburger and even pepperoni pizza. The catch? It’s all vegan. Their tagline is “literally harmless fun served nightly” because they aim to convince diners that going vegan is the way forward.
Neon Tiger came about when restaurateur John Adamson realized he had been complicit in animal cruelty by serving meat and other animal products in his restaurants. He became a vegan and an advocate three and a half years ago and hasn’t looked back.
Once Adamson went vegan, he realized there wasn’t anywhere open at night that aligned with his dietary philosophy. That’s when the idea of a vegan cocktail bar and restaurant, specifically a pizza place, started to percolate. Adamson’s first restaurant was a branch of the pizza chain Mellow Mushroom, so he was confident in his pizza making abilities and just needed to flesh out the rest of the concept.
The restaurant opened on Charleston’s busy King Street in June of 2020. And, as befitting a restaurant opening during the height of a global pandemic, not everything went according to plan. The chef got stuck in Canada so they did takeout only for the first two months. This ended up working in their favor, Adamson said, as it was helpful to start with a limited menu and let the food speak for itself without worrying about the ambiance or service at a new spot.
The goal of the menu is to educate diners who do not usually eat vegan and, in Adamson’s words, “show them that they don’t need to consume animals in order to be satiated and get those flavors and textures that they are worried or scared about giving up.” That means comfort foods based on plants and meat-substitutes with the right seasoning and cooking technique so that wheat protein can taste just like pepperoni.
Behind the bar, the biggest switches are using aquafaba instead of egg whites and agave or apricot liquor instead of honey. Most alcohol is vegan, and the bar also only serves natural wines and local beers on tap to be as sustainable as possible.
Adamson is hopeful that Neon Tiger can serve as an inspiration for other vegan restaurants in Charleston and for easy substitutions for home cooks and existing non-vegan restaurants in the area. Since opening, Neon Tiger was already up for best restaurant in a local alt-weekly paper and has expanded their menu, service and hours. As they like to say: “The future is vegan.”
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