The Daily Northwestern | Open Tab: Spirit Elephant serves vegan fare even meat-eaters would love


CD Young doesn’t want her vegan restaurant, Spirit Elephant, to just appeal to those on a plant-based diet. She wants hamburger lovers to want to eat there too.

And I can say Young has achieved her goal. The restaurant’s food is equal parts fresh and rich, its decor is inviting, and the overall dining – or takeout – experience is one to remember.

“I always envisioned Spirit Elephant as a place people would want to travel to, like a destination restaurant,” said Young, who has been a vegan for eight years. “However they eat, I want people to be happy dining here.”

Young has done extensive research around the impact of plant-based diets on the environment. Through Spirit Elephant, she wants to share how such diets can be delicious, good for the Earth, and create a more compassionate relationship between humans and animals.

Spirit Elephant opened this January in Winnetka, and from day one, Young said it was packed.

People may associate vegan restaurants with boring salads or lackluster vegetable crudités. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth at Spirit Elephant, with menu options like pad thai, glazed brussels sprouts and burgers made from Impossible meat, a plant-based alternative. Every dish is colorful and appetizing, and, surprisingly to some, extremely filling. But be sure to save room for Spirit Elephant’s desserts. Leaving without a taste of the restaurant’s Carrot Cake or warm cookies would be a sin.

With its plant-based menu, Spirit Elephant brings vegans and vegetarians alike a sense of freedom they don’t normally have while dining out. Northwestern senior Kendyl Counts, who follows a vegetarian diet, recently had lunch at the restaurant and said being able to choose from so many menu items was a luxury.

“Usually I dine on meat-eaters’ turf, so it’s great to have a space that celebrates and even caters to my lifestyle,” Counts said. “For once, I didn’t have to ask for a chicken salad, hold the chicken.”

Spirit Elephant pivoted to take-out and delivery service in March when the coronavirus pandemic began. It wasn’t what Young imagined her first year of business to look like, but has proven to be successful. The restaurant temporarily reopened for indoor and outdoor dining over the summer, but had to shut down this month as the state reached record-high COVID cases.

Young said restaurants like hers are bracing themselves for the long, dark winter ahead. Many will be forced to close their doors permanently, and need community support now more than ever. She emphasized how customers need to continue purchasing food from their favorite local eateries if they want them to be around when the pandemic is over.

“It helps our restaurant the most if people order take-out and delivery directly through our website,” Young said. “We want to serve you, and these little things help us ensure that we’ll continue to be able to.”

From time to time, Young said she still hears stories about customers who were hesitant about dining at her vegan restaurant. The dish that changed the most minds? Spirit Elephant’s “cauli-wings,” served piping hot and doused in delectable buffalo sauce.

“One bite, and they’re sold,” Young said.

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Twitter: @zoermalin

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