Pinky Cole is on a mission to show that vegan food can be decadent and exciting. For proof, look no further than Bar Vegan, Cole’s latest endeavor. Located on the second floor of Ponce City Market, the posh locale serves up cocktails with flair alongside vegan Philly cheesesteaks.
Cole first made waves in the plant-based food scene in 2018 with her food truck, Slutty Vegan, which sells burgers made with Impossible plant-based protein and outrageous topping combinations (the Dancehall Queen, for example, is an Impossible patty topped with sweet jerk plantains, vegan cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and their signature “Slut Sauce”). Slutty Vegan has since morphed into a restaurant with three locations (including one by her alma mater, Clark Atlanta University) that attracts throngs of people who stand in line for upwards of an hour. Bar Vegan is a departure from the grab-and-go vegan burger joint, but similarly looks to bring indulgent vegan food to the masses.
Also, Bar Vegan is aptly named: It primarily is a bar that happens to serve vegan bar food. During the day, a limited number of cocktails are available. At night, the drinks take a theatrical turn and are referred to as “experiences,” something that Cole compares to the cocktails served at Sugar Factory. For example, one of the drink vessels is a Ferris wheel, while a tipple called Foreign Fruit Punch is served in a smoking volcano. All juices used are organic, and a large selection of nonalcoholic drinks are on hand, keeping non-drinkers top of mind.
As for the food at Bar Vegan, right now would be a good time to ditch any preconceived notions of “health” food conjured when you hear the word “vegan.” That is hardly the case at Bar Vegan, where it’s all about Philadelphia-style comfort food. Cole partnered up with Derrick Hayes of Big Dave’s Cheesesteaks to open Dinkies, a permanent fast-casual concept within Bar Vegan. “I’m actually excited about this one because this is an opportunity to show people that veganism doesn’t have to just look like burgers and fries. It can look like all things,” says Cole — even juicy, “cheesy” sandwiches.
Cole and Hayes were initially brought together when they responded to a tragic event in the Atlanta community, but their shared love of off-the-rails vegan food led them to collaborate on the food at Bar Vegan, giving Atlantans the chance to try a style of dining that’s not as prevalent in the South. While restaurants designated as vegan exist, and even more restaurants offering vegan dishes, Bar Vegan is the first glammed-up spot where diners can go for a vegan cheesesteak, a fancy cocktail, and maybe also catch the game on TV, for those so inclined.
The bar’s location in bustling Ponce City Market is a testing ground for Cole, her first foray into a market outside of the underserved communities in which she usually operates. In contrast to her other locations, Ponce City Market is a high-end mixed-use development that’s adjacent to the east side trail of Atlanta’s BeltLine. But she wants to reach people across all socioeconomic backgrounds, so this move made sense for her, both ethically and professionally.
“It was a good opportunity to be an anchor tenant upstairs,”says Cole. “A lot of this is trial-and-error when it comes to business, especially in a very brand-new market.” In addition, she continues, “I felt like Ponce was a really good place because a lot of families go there. A lot of people who want to eat a little more consciously. So we’re just trying a new thing. And I’m believing that that thing will work, while continuing to build out my Slutty Vegan brand.” She hopes that her restaurants, and she herself, will become ubiquitous vegan brands; opening in Ponce City Market is a step in that direction.
Upbeat tunes and a vibrant interior greets you at the threshold, and you’ll realize that you want to stick around for a while. Although there’s a subtle industrial vibe (the structure that houses PCM was once a Sears Roebuck facility, originally built in 1926), the interior of Bar Vegan is inviting and modern. To add warmth, designers from the Johnson Studio at Cooper Carry wove in earth tones, found in the wooden accents, from the bar to the club chairs and green-hued velvet booths. Plenty of plants adorn the dining room, naturally, where diners can enjoy their cheesesteaks and food ordered from a counter in the back.
About those cheesesteaks: Cole’s collaborator, Hayes, is a Philly native known for making a mean cheesesteak, so they combined his know-how with her vegan panache. The result is a hearty sandwich loaded with Impossible meat, vegan American and Provolone cheeses, peppers, and a signature blend of seasonings. Served with tater tots, the sandwich is mystifyingly gooey and has you questioning everything you thought you knew about vegan food.
In addition to drippy cheesesteaks, there’s also a choice of Philly cheesesteak egg rolls and a newly added quesadilla. The response to the bar bites has been positive. “People love the savory bar bites we serve, and we plan to expand [those],” says Cole. Although the food is designed to be taken to-go, you can also order it from your table in Bar Vegan.
Last but not least on the menu: water ice. The iconic Philadelphia dessert is a staple of Hayes’s restaurant so he brought it to Dinkies, too. The flavors rotate often but mango, lemon, and strawberry make frequent appearances. The refreshing sweet treats are worth taking on the go, but the team is also in the process of concocting a spiked version, too.
Bar Vegan is an experiment for Cole, but one with a good chance of succeeding if her success with Slutty Vegan is any indication. “It feels good to be able to just try new things out, especially because my goal is to be able to monopolize and dominate the vegan market. I think we’ve already proven ourselves through Slutty Vegan,” she says. “So now this is the true test, if we could do the same thing with Bar Vegan.”