Not too long ago, there was a brief window during which raw vegan food looked like it could become a legitimate cuisine, a natural evolution of vegan dining focused on scientifically dubious claims about enzymes and energy levels. In 1995, a man who went by Juliano (one name) opened the restaurant Raw Experience, which received a positive review in the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1999, he put out The UNcook Book: New Vegetarian Food for Life. Also in the Bay Area, Roxanne Klein’s restaurant Roxanne’s was even more well received, perhaps because Klein had already attained a mainstream cooking pedigree and published a fully raw cookbook with Chicago’s famed restaurateur Charlie Trotter, titled Raw.
Neither of these restaurants achieved longevity, though, not even in a part of the US that has famously accommodated each new phase of meatless eating over the past few decades. Instead, against all probability, culturally and climatically, the raw vegan movement had its most successful restaurant in New York City. Celebrities, omnivorous and otherwise, were spotted there. It hosted publishing parties covered by Gawker. It opened in 2004 and closed in 2015. Its name was Pure Food and Wine.
In the beginning, what set Pure Food and Wine apart was totally tangential to the food. Its location at 54 Irving Place, in the Gramercy neighborhood of Manhattan, was once home to Verbena, where The New York Times recommended dishes of foie gras with cherry blossom marmalade and grilled dry-aged sirloin. The site’s gorgeous backyard garden was a rarity in the city: elegant and tranquil, removed from the street.
When Pure Food and Wine took over, it was clear that, though the food would be raw vegan, the environs would provide legitimacy of a different sort. Whereas vegan food of a more hippie or punk aesthetic was the norm in the East Village or Lower East Side, where places like Kate’s Joint, Caravan of Dreams and Teany attracted those already immersed in the vegan life, Pure Food and Wine set itself apart by appealing to glamor rather than ethics.
The kitchen was opened by Matthew Kenney and his girlfriend Sarma Melngailis. Kenney, who gained a reputation as something of a chef wunderkind when he opened his restaurant Matthew’s in 1993, was named a Food & Wine “Best New Chef” in 1994, while Melngailis, an alum of the French Culinary Institute, discovered that food was her true love after studying business at Wharton and an early career in finance. They both found raw food invigorating, both energetically and creatively. With investment from restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow, responsible for former NYC hot spots like Asia de Cuba and China Grill, the couple opened up Pure, whose atmosphere, culinary pedigree and sense of excitement was rare for a vegan restaurant — much less a raw vegan restaurant.
Though Kenney and Melngailis broke up in 2005 — after putting out a cookbook, Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow, for whose cover they posed (his image disappeared from later editions) — the restaurant remained under Melngailis’s management and thrived under a succession of chefs. A casual juice bar and takeaway store, One Lucky Duck, opened around the corner.
Things got strange, though, in the early 2010s, and it had nothing to do with waning public interest in raw food: Melngailis got involved with a man she thought was named Shane Fox. His real name, she later discovered, was Anthony Strangis. Over the next several years, the financial and emotional abuse Strangis would allegedly inflict upon Melngailis culminated in the restaurant closing in 2015 and the couple fleeing the state before being arrested and charged with fraud. Both Strangis and Melngailis pleaded guilty and served time. The documentary series Bad Vegan: Fame. Fraud. Fugitives. chronicles the bizarre details of those years. Despite being tarnished by the scandal, the legacy of Pure Food and Wine still affects how we eat today, whether we know it or not. It established new possibilities for vegetable-driven fine dining in New York City, showing that a restaurant experience could be glamorous without meat, and that eating for wellness didn’t mean going without wine or cocktails. To understand its culture and influence, I spoke with former Pure Food and Wine workers and the food writers who were there at the time.