Fern fronds hang from the ceiling. Charming portraits of native nocturnal creatures and Victorian era drag queens and kings line the walls. There’s an eye-catching black-and-white checkered floor. DC Vegan’s subterranean Botanical Bar feels like a fantastical mashup of the Garden of Eden and Alice in Wonderland.
The fanciful boîte, which opened at the end of May, is the brainchild of co-owners Leah Curran Moon, who handles logistics, strategic work, and the catering arm, and her husband, Michael Jantz-Moon, who oversees operations. Chef Stephanie Tarnowsky (aka Chef Steph), a veteran of Fancy Radish and Fare Well, executes the menu, which is the same in the bar and in the upstairs deli. (Each dish is thoughtfully annotated if it’s soy-free, gluten-free, or includes nuts.)
The food was designed with everyone in mind, not just vegans. “I love winning over a carnivore,” Curran Moon says. “It’s my secret mission. That’s why we work on approachability and familiar flavors, textures, and ingredients. Vegan food can be exciting. It’s not the bowl of lentils and steamed kale of the past.”
The couple decided to make Italian-American cuisine the foundation of their menu because it was food Curran Moon grew up eating with her Italian American family in Rochester, New York, and that Jantz-Moon enjoyed as a child in Cleveland. “When we gave up eating animals, we didn’t want to give up our culture, our traditions, and the food we loved,” says Curran Moon, who veganized many of her family’s recipes.
Just popping in for a drink and snacks? “Calamari” is a must. Usually, the squid rings are just contrasting textures: crispety crunchety coating hiding a toothsome round. Made here with king trumpet mushrooms, the golden fried circlets burst with earthy umami flavors while retaining the trademark textures. Dusted with house-made cashew-based parmesan, they come with lemon wedges and a side of just-sweet-enough marinara based on Curran Moon’s grandmother’s recipe. They’re the kind of starter you just can’t stop eating.
Another winner: batons of grilled focaccia topped with almond ricotta and fresh herbs with more of that sop-worthy marinara on the side. You can skip whipped cannellini bean dip, which has an off-putting sweet tone despite the puddle of Calabrian chili oil on top. Complemented by crunchy dippers—carrots, cucumbers, watermelon radish, and snap peas—it would be a nice app otherwise.
Mains are currently divided between salads, sandwiches, and bowls, though more formal entrees will be added later this month, including eggplant rollatini, wild mushroom ragu with polenta cakes, Chianti-braised jackfruit with root vegetables, chickpea piccata, tofu steak marsala, and various pastas.
Sandwiches are substantial and satiating. Take the one bulging with quickly fried artichoke hearts complemented with tofu mozzarella, tangy lemon aioli, and sweet sun-dried tomato jam. It’s rich; it’s flavorful; it’s a winner. Ditto the burger forged out of shredded beets and carrots, pepitas, and quinoa. Topped with a bedhead of sesame slaw and zingy sriracha-mustard aioli, it is everything I want in a burger. I brought half the burger home and secreted it in the back of my fridge for my lunch the next day, loathe to share it with my wife (sorry-not-sorry, honey, it was just that good).
For those who fully embrace a plant-based lifestyle, the herbed tofu bowl was built for you. A mound of rainbow quinoa is topped with the plant-based protein, watermelon radish rounds, carrots, pea shoots, pepitas, and a lashing of green goddess dressing.
Save room for sweets, especially classic carrot cake and cannoli filled with whipped soy with a luxurious Cool Whip consistency.
The idea for Botanical Bar was a result of the couple surveying the existing plant-based options in D.C. They identified lots of fast casual eateries—including Bubbie’s Plant Burgers, Shouk, and NuVegan Café—and some finer dining spots—among them Fancy Radish, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, and Oyster Oyster—but they saw an opening in the fine-casual space. “A place you could go hang out to have a few drinks and a bar snack, or you could have a full meal that wasn’t too fancy, but it wasn’t super casual either,” says Curran Moon.
Speaking of drinks, there’s a selection of beers, wines, seltzers, and ciders, as well as a strong cocktail list. Fan favorites include a vibrant red strawberry Negroni accented with rosemary and the Flower of Life, an easy sipping, vodka-powered eye-catcher sweetened with raspberry hibiscus tea syrup. For those not imbibing, there is a quartet of zero-proof choices, including the G&T riffing Balcony Views made with Seedlip Garden, a spirit-less gin, along with tonic, lime, and basil oil.
Of course, everything behind the bar is animal-free, a difficult feat when putting together the wine list. Distributors often don’t know if winemakers use any animal products in their filtering or finishing processes, since those elements aren’t listed as ingredients. Often, the co-owners had to contact the winemakers directly to divine the details.
All the extra effort was worth it. The couple has created a whimsical Shangri-La of a bar that will give vegans all the feels, as well as anyone else lucky enough to visit.
DC Vegan’s Botanical Bar, 1633 P St. NW (downstairs), (202) 297-0886, dc-vegan.com/botanical-bar