Lunch with the Omnivores: Tips on Dining Out Vegan

Sometimes I daydream about the future.  As the years and decades speed by, I can imagine the number of vegans growing exponentially as the compassionate, environmental, and healthy bandwagon races on.  In the future, farmers will be growing acres and acres of food for people instead of animals.  Sounds crazy, right?  Pharmacies and farmers markets will merge into one seamless unit, dispensing fruits and vegetables instead of antibiotics and antidepressants (side effects may include clarity of thought, a healthy glow, excess energy, and regular bowel syndrome).   I can even imagine a glorious future where Starbucks will reverse their current practice of charging extra for soy and will instead start charging extra for dairy.  It will be a vegan paradise.

Then there is the Mother of all Daydreams for the future: living in a world filled with an overwhelming majority of vegan restaurants.  I can see it now… the street corners and interstate off-ramps will be covered with plant-based dinners and eateries.  Drive-thru food will involve driving through fruit orchards and picking what you want.  McDonald’s will rebrand itself as McHerbivore’s with the slogan: Billions and Billions NOT Slaughtered.

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These daydreams usually start at about 10:30am while I am at work listening to my co-workers discussing lunch options.  While they try to decide between a lunch of Meat Lovers Pizza or Bar-B-Que’d Barnyard Animals I am stuck trying to decide how to be a part of the social aspects of lunch without any of the murder.  I mean meat.

I enjoy hanging out at lunch as much as the next guy who doesn’t really feel like getting any work done.  I love the people I work with and I want to hear what craziness they got themselves into.  It’s not that I don’t love talking about my vegan lifestyle, I just don’t want to spend time on that when I could hear about someone’s drunken bender and subsequent new tattoo.  However, you can’t avoid the topic of veganism when you start each meal by asking the waiter if the fettuccine has butter on it.  To avoid this unfortunate conversation starter I have to put a lot more planning (and sometimes even covert operations) into my lunch plans.  Here are a few tried and true tricks for restaurant dining with omnivores.

1. Scout– There are a finite number of restaurants within five miles of your job.  Scout each of them thoroughly.  Start with the closest and work your way out. Visit each one several times requesting a menu and asking all of the questions you don’t want to ask in front of your co-workers.  Costumes are not required but they can be a lot of fun.  For some reason people are more willing to talk to a pirate with a stuffed parrot on his shoulder.

2. Prep– Based on the information you gather from your scouting adventures begin to prepare for any eventuality.  Using spreadsheets and some mid-level database programming, create a grid of each restaurant and the data you collected: safe foods you can eat, menu items to avoid, their reaction to pirates, etc.

3. Plant– If you have the luxury of knowing where lunch is going to be a day or more in advance you have time to plant some vegan options for yourself that might not normally be available.  I like to visit the restaurants ahead of time and ask to speak to a manager.  I then let the manager know that I’m returning the next day to eat a meal which will be written about in a restaurant review column in a national restaurant publication.  Then I explain that I’ll be returning with a bunch of other reviewers and that the review is supposed to be top secret.  However, as the only vegan I wanted to give a little warning and education about the lifestyle.

You would not believe how well our group is treated the next day and how cool it is to tell the waiter that I’ll have whatever the manger recommends.  Being vegan never looked so James Dean.

4. Emergency Back-up Plan Alpha– There is the very good chance that you can end up a very un-vegan restaurant.  If you find yourself at Meaty McMeats House of Meat in Meatville, Wisconson you may have a bit of a challenge.  At that place, even the bread has meat in it.  You could spend your time picking bacon out of the salad or you could do what 4 year-olds around the globe do with the food they don’t want to eat: move it around the plate, mash it together, drop some on the floor, and spill your drink on it.  If you make a big enough mess, everyone assumes you ate.

This list may make it seem like dining out is a challenging event for vegans.  It can be.  In a world where around 2% of the population is avoiding all animal products, restaurants can ignore our complaints without effecting their bottom lines too much.  Fortunately, vegans have a growing number of easy options available when dining out.  Fully vegan restaurants are available in some locations and there are an increasing number of vegan friendly menu items found at regular restaurants.

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I like the idea of voting with my dollars and I do my best to reward herbivore options with my vote.  If protecting our animal-free menu items means ordering three entrees and two appetizers, I am willing to make that sacrifice.  I won’t think of myself as a hero even if everyone else will… but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who wants to name a new vegan restaurant after me… or a high school.