Bright Light, Big City

Candle 79 ‘sets the standard for vegan fine dining’—so says Zagat. Our woman on the ground, a veteran of the NYC vegetarian scene, agrees.

Bright Light, Big City

My early New York days spanned 15 blocks, from the west side to the east. In those days, each block was home to its own vegetarian restaurant, each indistinguishable from the next. The walls were drab, usually an earth tone. The tables were wood or an imitation version, vinyl-covered seats tucked underneath. Napkins were paper, stacked high on tables next to bottles of hot sauce and salt and pepper shakers. The bland aesthetic implied that proprietors’ energy went into concocting vegetarian dishes so complex in flavor, you wouldn’t want distracting decor to take away from the experience.

Unfortunately, the food was never complex, and rarely flavorful. But it was the status quo of vegetarian dining in New York City. Diners made do.

That is, until Candle 79 entered the scene in 2003.

Photo credit: Rita Maas

Striking a match

Candle 79 is one of three restaurants from Candle Cafe Hospitality. Bart Potenza purchased an ailing health food store on the Upper East Side in 1984, which he turned into the Healthy Candle; within the following decade, Joy Pierson went from regular customer to in-house nutritionist to part-owner and financial backer.

It was a dramatic progression for Pierson. “I’d spent years educating people on eating meat and doing so myself,” she says. “Bart made me a sandwich and my life was never the same.”

The partners grew the Healthy Candle into the Candle Cafe and, as demand for their superior vegan fare increased, they opened the high-end Candle 79.

It hit all the marks most other vegan and vegetarian restaurants had missed.

Step inside

Fifteen years on, the space is still inviting. There’s no vinyl or condiment-covered tables. Instead, there’s cloth napkins, plush banquettes and food that arrives perfectly dressed.

“To give vegetables center plate, to make it inviting, it has to be about the whole experience, not just the food. We pride ourselves on giving you a fine dining experience,” says Pierson.

Just as the restaurant’s appearance does not immediately read “vegan” for us jaded New Yorkers, the food does not either. With a quick glance at the menu, it won’t likely register that each dish lacks meat, cheese and egg; and while the menu shifts with the seasons, the cuisine is not specific to a particular region. For most restaurants, a lack of focus means each dish is good but not great. That’s not the case with Candle 79, where executive chef Angel Ramos is at the helm.

Light it up: Joy Pierson and Bart Potenza have illuminated what vegan dining can be at their restaurants: Candle Cafe, Candle CAFE West and Candle 79. Photo credit: Eric Marseglia

On a brisk fall day, looking for something hearty, I took the advice of manager Benay Vynerib and ordered the seasonal ravioli, which at the time was Wild Mushroom-Butternut Squash Ravioli with sautéed spinach, tomato-cashew cream and truffle oil. After a few bites, it became clear why this dish is a favorite of most guests.

The menu jumps from savory, European-leaning ravioli, hand-cut pastas and Zucchini Rolatini to Guacamole Timbale and Empanadas. But the real stars of the menu are the desserts—for which you’ll definitely have room, as none of the savory dishes fill you to the point of undone top buttons. Whether dining with friends or alone, the Peanut Butter Bliss, Mexican Chocolate Brownie and Cannoli cannot be skipped. Take a few bites of each and then carry the leftovers home for the best midnight snack you’ll have all month.

Should the adventurous home cook dare to recreate some of Candle 79’s more memorable dishes on their own, they can peruse three Candle cookbooks. For those not in the mood for an extra purchase, the Candle team is warm, helpful and willing to dish on the restaurants’ decades-long secrets.

A bar that gives back

Potenza, Pierson and Ramos support local farmers when stocking their restaurants. Where they really excel in giving back to the community is in Eco Bars at each Candle location. The Candle 79 bar is stocked with spirits that may seem foreign (you won’t see Absolut on their shelves). Each bottle is from makers whose booze also supports a charitable mission. Curating the bar has been a group effort. Pierson notes that the restaurant’s team often brings in suggestions for spirits that they’ve tried elsewhere, like the quinoa-based vodka on offer.

The bar serves an important role beyond giving back, Pierson adds.

“To appeal to mainstream diners, our innovative cocktail program through the Eco Bar helps,” she says. “We make sure to stock spirits, like a great scotch, to welcome even the guests dragging their feet on entering.”

Customers often leave with a list of where to buy the do-good spirits, which provide the base for innovative cocktails that merge the kitchen and the bar by utilizing the organic fruits, vegetables and herbs the restaurant carefully sources. Customers purchasing one of these cocktails directly support partner organizations focused on healthy school food and farms. Sales from an Açaí cocktail helped plant upwards of 70,000 trees in South America.

Candle 79 does nothing but surprise. Gone are the days of bland seitan, the same kale salad and vinegary house wine served in a chipped carafe that once characterized NYC’s vegetarian scene. In a time when people, vegan or otherwise, are focused on filling their plates with well-sourced vegetables, Candle 79 prepares plants in ways their guests only dreamed of.

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