Minimalism is having a moment. “Tiny” is an architectural style (micro-apartments, tiny houses). “Declutter” is a design aesthetic (white walls, a succulent or two, zero tchotchkes). In the culinary world, what isn’t in your fridge and pantry matters more than what is.

Living Kitchena restaurant native to Charlotte, now with two sister locations in Raleigh and Chapel Hillprides itself on what it doesn’t have. No animal products. No soy. No GMOs. Almost no gluten. Almost nothing cooked. Yet its menu is massive. The drink list alone lists sixteen smoothies and eleven juices, plus a variety of coffees, teas, wines, and beers.

So when it comes to food, is less really more? Living Kitchen thinks soand its cashew mascarpone makes quite the argument.

Juliana Luna opened the original location, called Luna’s Living Kitchen, in 2010. She grew up in Colombia and trained in hospitality across Europe before settling in the States. Just a year into her first venture, Stephen Edwards, a businessman with a background in “health food,” dined at the restaurant and approached Luna about expanding.

Both the Raleigh and Chapel Hill locations are spacious, filled with sunlight and raw wood, big, green plants, and bright, colorful paintings. A second location in Charlotte is slated for this spring.

Which can’t help but make me wonder: Just how many raw, gluten-free vegans are there in North Carolina right now?

A generation ago, a vegetarian identity was just progressive enough for our country. The legendary, hippie-souled Moosewood Restaurant opened in Ithaca, New York, in 1973, and was named “one of the thirteen most influential restaurants of the twentieth century” by Bon Appétit magazine. Perhaps more than anything else, Moosewood proved that you don’t have to be vegetarian to enjoy, and even seek out, vegetarian food.

It seems that Living Kitchen’s aspiration is to fulfill a similar role, but geared toward the trendy diets of today. And they do vegan very wellwell enough to make you start Googling vegan cookbooks. The cashew-coconut yogurt, layered with buckwheat granola shards, berries, and banana slices, makes your nonfat Greek seem vanilla.

The lemon-berry cheesecake is baby pink and ivory, like a candy striper, with an almost gooey pecan crust. It isn’t cheesecake, in the way an eighty-degree day in February isn’t winter, but we roll with it because it feels good.

Some items never set out to be vegan; they were just born that way. These are reliable picks. The massaged kale salad, with roasted oyster mushrooms, carrots, radishes, and cabbage, comes with a slightly sweet, very bright orange-ginger dressing. The salad can be ordered as a side, but you’ll want the entrée.

The sunflower seed hummusapparently non-GMO chickpeas are a raritycomes in three colors. And if you are seated but not greeted for fifteen minutes, like I was, it’s on the house. The service, overall, is well meaning and well informed if a bit uncoordinated.

That hummus, though: There is lemony parsley, yellow curry, coppery chipotle. The last, with its rush of spice, will leave you teary-eyed. The accompanying sun-dried tomato, sesame, and flaxseed crackers should be sold by the bag, like the chocolate chip cookies or cacao granola.

Smoothies and juices will cost as much as your food, if not more ($8.50 and $9.50, respectively, for sixteen ounces). Still, the names are better than nail-polish color labels: El Greengo, Incan Warrior, Purple Porpoise Magic. Get started with the Gateway Green juice, with kale, apple, orange, lemon, and ginger. For next time, I have my eyes on My Daily Salad, with carrot, zucchini, tomato, cucumber, kale, celery, garlic, lemon, cayenne, and Himalayan pink salt. Or, I could buy The Signature Cleanse, with a day’s worth of seven juices, for $58. (But I won’t.)


Gluten-free is hit or miss. The Tomatico Tart is sublime. And its crust is made from sprouted almonds, which are somehow buttery, crumbly, and saltyand all the better when filled with cashew mascarpone, then piled high with arugula, shiitakes, and cherry tomatoes.

The quinoa-millet burger is best in its “Fire & Brimstone” form, with that spicy hummus and guacamole. It can be served on gluten-free sourdough or wrapped in a collard leaf. I opted for multigrain toast, though the patty didn’t quite fill out the bread.

The Living Bagel, made from almonds, flaxseeds, and zucchini, is less New York City and more marathon aid stationdark-colored, gummy, and dense. I missed the hole, the fluff, and most of all, the crust. But maybe someone with celiac disease would feel differently.

The raw pad Thai, with spiraled zucchini, sweet potato noodles, and a spicy almond butter sauce, had me wondering whether inevitable comparisons to more familiar foods hurt or help Living Kitchen.

On one hand, such comparisons set expectations that are impossible to meet. But on the other, Living Kitchen never meant to meet them. It meant to shake them upto be creative and playful and delicious. And, most of the time, it is.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Alive and Well.”