Owner CD Young founded Spirit Elephant to redefine misconceptions about maintaining a vegan diet. With a 100% plant-based menu and upbeat ambiance, the restaurant’s mission is to create delicious vegan food that benefits body, mind and planet — without compromising on flavor or creativity.

Since opening in Winnetka 2020, Spirit Elephant has amassed a dedicated following of omnivores and herbivores alike. In light of their popularity, a fast-casual version of the upscale eatery called Elephant + Vine will make its way to Evanston in March 2022. Young said the Church Street location will feature fan favorites from the original kitchen and new options geared towards the college lifestyle. Buffalo fried “chicken” sandwiches, veggie-packed salads and Cauli-Wings will be made available at a budget-friendly price. Elephant + Vine will also open its doors in Lincoln Park near DePaul University

Sowing the Seeds

Vegan for well over a decade, Young said her transition to animal-free eating did not occur overnight. The Iowa native spent her childhood on a farm, riding horses, feeding chickens and enjoying a classic American diet of meat and potatoes.

Influenced by personal research, online articles and documentary films highlighting the detrimental effects of the farming industry, Young made the decision to cut out all animal-based products from her diet. Initially, she thought of establishing a sanctuary for farm animals, but Young said opening a vegan restaurant allowed her to spread a planet-friendly sentiment and love of plant-based eating to an even broader demographic of Chicago residents.

The hallmark of the Spirit Elephant experience is the extraordinary menu and the innovation apparent in every appetizer, entree, dessert and cocktail. The seasonal menu brings together “Primecut” dishes like the Meatless Loaf Bourguignon or BBQ Burger made with Impossible meat or a house-made lentil patty, with produce-forward dishes like the Spirit Salad (with sauteed persimmons!) or crispy Glazed Brussel Sprouts.

During our visit, we were treated to an impressive spread of Young’s favorite eats — all of which we devoured.

Stephanie Shields


We started with Spirit Elephant’s most popular dish: the Cauli-Wings. Sure to satisfy any Super Bowl craving, the bite-sized bits of cauliflower serve as a “meaty” vehicle for the four flavors of sauces. The BBQ, spicy Buffalo, Wasabi-Dijon and Mango Chili were complemented by a homemade dairy-free ranch and carrot sticks on the side.

Stephanie Shields

The vegetable base maintained the chewy element synonymous with a classic chicken wing and the battered outer layer gave off the effect of a crunchy skin-like coating. Whether going for the sticky and savory glaze of BBQ or a fiery Buffalo, the Cauli-Wings did not fail to deliver.

Pad Thai

Partial to Thai cuisine, Young worked with her team of chefs to create the best possible version of the classic noodle dish, regardless of its meatless status. She wanted to ensure the Pad Thai featured on the Spirit Elephant menu was undoubtedly delicious and could hold its own against any traditional versions.

Stephanie Shields

The bowl of perfectly-prepared rice noodles included blackened tofu, crunchy peanuts, edamame, rainbow carrots and a sprinkle of green onion to top it off. The diverse components covered every possible texture: crunchy, silky, crispy and smooth. The zesty undertone and garnish of lime made every forkful euphoric. There are unlikely to be any leftovers when it comes to the Spirit Elephant Pad Thai.

Fig Flatbread

Stephanie Shields

Poached figs, mint pesto, cherry tomatoes… each element of the Fig Flatbread imparted a distinctive taste to contribute to the layered flavor profile of this masterful pizza. Melted cheese, chewy figs, sweet balsamic glaze, bright pesto, and tart arugula came together to form a beautifully complex symphony for your tastebuds. The thin-and-crispy crust held its shape nicely and did not fall apart under the weight of the many toppings — a rare feature to come by in gluten-free flatbreads.

Calamari Fritti

The Spirit Elephant spin on the beloved Italian seafood dish transported us straight to beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Unfamiliar with King Oyster mushrooms before our visit, I left addicted to the battered and fried version I was served. Paired with a spicy marinara dipping sauce, the crispy texture and savory flavor of the “calamari” would make even a seafood lover think twice about their squid consumption.

Stephanie Shields

The Forbidden Bowl

Any vegan restaurant is incomplete without a classic grain bowl. The Forbidden Bowl tossed tri-colored cauliflower, fresh mango, creamy avocado and thoroughly-marinated tofu over a base of earthy black rice. Beyond the diverse textures and balanced ingredients, the mango-chili drizzle gave flavor throughout every grain of rice and provided just as much color as it did tangy sweetness.

Stephanie Shields

Warm Brownie Bliss

Stephanie Shields

The Brownie Sundae was a flawless end to our evening — the fudgy richness of the chocolate mocha cake juxtaposed with creamy vanilla gelato. Like all good brownies, the Spirit Elephant version did not skimp on the chocolate chips. The simple smoothness of the coconut-based gelato could not be overstated and was the more impressive given the lack of actual cream. Each bite brought me back to childhood with a creation I would never pin as being both gluten-free and vegan.

“Eat Plants, Feel Beautiful”

Each item we enjoyed featured a mouthwateringly flavorful sauce or spread—the complexity of which brought the overall dish to new heights. The batter on the Cauli-Wings paired with creamy ranch created a meaty and hearty bite; pesto drizzled on top of caramelized figs was a meld of a garlicky kick and jammy sweetness; the Pad Thai sauce was near good enough to swim despite the omission of traditional fish sauce.

Young said plants have endless potential and with a bit of innovation, the sky's the limit. Spirit Elephant (and soon Elephant + Vine) offers a place for all diners to enjoy delicious food that just happens to be plant-based.

But their eco-friendly impact does not stop in the kitchen. Spirit Elephant prides itself on efforts to be more sustainable by minimizing food waste, repurposing vegetable scraps and composting. An uncommon practice for most businesses and homes in the Chicago area, Young said she hopes to see composting become more widespread in the restaurant industry.

According to Young, conscious efforts to improve the planet can be small in size, but delicious in nature. Each dinner is an opportunity to make an impact, each meal a chance to improve the planet a few Cauli-Wings at a time — and that is something to feel beautiful about.

Young said she is excited for students to experience the Spirit Elephant brand and cannot wait to warmly welcome them into the colorful world of plant-based eating.

Photos courtesy of Stephanie Shields, Jess Bradford and Steven Zheng