In the early 1970s, Americans were experiencing their first strong wave of vegetarianism, as hippies and environmentalists alike were embracing the meatless movement. The people were speaking up, and they were speaking loudly, calling for vegetarian meals to become normalized and incorporated into everyday dining. At the same time, in wintery upstate Ithaca, a group of young adults banded together, not knowing yet the legacy they were soon to create. Some were Cornell students, while others had traveled to Ithaca to join the Lavender Hill commune, a coterie of LGBT+ hedonists. Together, they formed the Moosewood Collective, serving as founders, owners and operators of Moosewood — what is widely recognized as one of the longest-running vegetarian restaurants in the United States.
Since its genesis in 1973, Moosewood has expanded, renovated multiple times and has become the name behind one of the most popular vegetarian cookbook series of all time. The restaurant has served thousands of college students, Ithaca locals and tourists, survived a pandemic, participated in the environmentalist movement and stood firm against the test of time. Next year, the restaurant will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Now, for the first time, Moosewood is being passed over to new (but still familiar) hands.
Danica Wilcox, the restaurant’s new owner, is no stranger to Moosewood. I got the chance to sit down with her and her husband Nicholas and learn all about the enthralling history of the business. Danica’s mother, Kit, was one of the 19 original collective members, so Danica grew up working in the restaurant. Since leaving Ithaca, she’s lived in New York City, London and Spain. When the collective (all in their 70s and ready to retire) decided to sell the restaurant, she was determined to help them find the perfect new leadership. Then the pandemic hit — a time where one would have needed to be a little crazy to purchase a restaurant.
Thus, two options remained for Moosewood: Danica and Nicholas could take over the restaurant, or they could let the business close for good. Despite the strained climate for business owners due to the pandemic, they knew what they had to do. They officially took over ownership on Jan. 1 and have since renovated the dining area, revamped the menu to highlight local produce and reinvigorated the space with fresh concepts, including an elevated new bar to accompany a new array of beverage offerings. Only one year older than Moosewood, Danica speaks of the restaurant fondly, like a childhood friend she grew up alongside. “We felt like she deserved a more grown-up aesthetic,” Danica told me with a smile, waving an arm at the freshly redesigned dining room. “You know, she’s 50. She needs to be regal now, because she’s a lady.”
In order to achieve this, Danica, Nicholas and their team have made deliberate decisions about every aspect of the business. One of their main priorities is to have a concentrated seasonal menu sourced from local purveyors. Additionally, their extensive bar serves exclusively Finger Lakes wine and beer. Although a focus on local products has been a part of the Moosewood framework since the very beginning, it’s fallen away over the years. Starting April 1, a wine tasting program will be available for booking so people can take classes in the restaurant and learn about regional viniculture. Even the new dining room is designed to be more service-driven, all with the aim of maximizing the interaction between customers and the source of what they eat.
In addition to making sure diners understand the origins of what they order, Danica is interested in enhancing the consumer experience through further interactive opportunities. For example, the collective members have always been invested in the local food justice movement, and Moosewood’s future will likely hold harvest dinners in collaboration with nonprofit farms. Equity has always been a cornerstone of the Moosewood model. When it first opened, the motto was “worker managed, worker owned.” There was no employment hierarchy — each worker rotated between each job, and all tips were pooled. It’s not easy to make a collective model like this work, and it’s even more rare to see it turn into such a successful business. If there’s a place to do it, though, it’s probably Ithaca, as civilians of this region have long recognized a need for sustainable spending and local sourcing. This still holds true today, as most of Moosewood’s neighbors in the time-worn Dewitt Mall have been there just as long as the establishment itself. Community support is the backbone of almost every Ithaca establishment, and Moosewood is no exception.
While the restaurant does feel like a precious gem within our town, its legacy has certainly spread across the country. This fame can almost certainly be accredited to the iconic Moosewood Cookbooks, which are kitchen counter staples all around the U.S. Every member of the original collective was involved in the cookbooks in one way or another, with some (including Kit Wilcox) choosing to step back from the restaurant to focus on recipe testing or writing. The cookbooks and the restaurant are two different businesses, but together they represent so much of what makes Moosewood the shining star that it is — something unique, something genuine and something accessible that will genuinely make your everyday life better. Plus, word on the street is that there’s a special 50th birthday cookbook on the horizon, so we all have some new recipes to look forward to.
Toward the end of my conversation with Danica and Nicholas, we reflected on the pleasing dual paths of Moosewood and American vegetarianism. When the restaurant opened, the definition of “vegetarian” was looser, and the fad was soon overtaken by the stronger pulls of capitalism and cultural norms. A 1982 New York Times article titled “In Defense of Vegetarianism” remarked, “Being a vegetarian in a largely carnivorous society has often meant second-class gastronomic citizenship.” Today, the “plant-based diet” is on the rise, once again bringing the conversation of environmentalism to the dining room table. For the first time, we are seeing meatless options incorporated into the norm, and we truly have restaurants to thank. We can all make our own ethical eating decisions in our own homes, but when the restaurant industry cements them, that’s when society really begins to change.
Moosewood is located on North Cayuga Street and now open for lunch and dinner. But wait, there’s more! Cornell students and faculty get 10 percent off when they dine in. The lifespan of Moosewood has been long, but thanks to Danica and Nicholas, it’s far from over. Amidst the flurry of renovations and beautiful new menus, the restaurant is closer to its roots than ever before. Delicious food that’s good for you and benefits the wonderful community we live in — what more could a college student ask for?
Sadie Groberg is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].