In a perfect world, we would never have to eat out anywhere but at vegan restaurants. There is nothing like being able to relax and order whatever sounds good on the menu and not have to ask a thousand questions about the ingredients. Sadly, we don’t live in a vegan world (yet) and sometimes we are going to find ourselves in mainstream eateries. While more and more restaurants are becoming sensitive to dietary restrictions, allergies and ethical food choices, it’s getting easier to eat out and have delicious animal-free food. Mostly, it comes down to making your needs known in advance, communicating clearly and making smart choices. Here are some helpful tips on how to order a delicious vegan meal at any restaurant – and don’t worry, you won’t have to just eat salad.
1. Check Out the Restaurant Online
As soon as you know which restaurant you’re going to, take a look at their website. Most places have websites and post their menus online. See if they offer any accidently vegan dishes or vegetarian dishes that can be easily veganized (i.e. leave the cheese off). If you have an idea of what the restaurant offers, it will be easier than being faced with a strange menu minutes before you have to order.
2. Call Ahead
Even if you can look at the menu online, it’s a good idea to call ahead to the restaurant, for you and for them. If you call and let them know your dietary needs, they get a heads up to prepare something great. From their point of view, it’s hard to be super-busy with customers and then receive a special request out of the blue from someone seated at a table. If they know in advance, they can coordinate with the chef and come up with something much better than if it were on the fly. For you, calling ahead can let you know whether they can accommodate you and whether they think a plate of steamed veggies will keep you happy (and then you can go somewhere else). When you call, you can ask specific questions about dishes, how they are prepared and whether any can be veganized.
3. Go Ethnic
Many ethnic cuisines are very veggie-centric making it easy to find vegan options. Thai, Japanese and Chinese cuisines have lots of veggie dishes, soups, spring rolls, and noodle dishes. Just be sure they don’t contain egg, fish sauce, fish broth, or chicken broth. Take a look at The Best Veggie Items on the Menu in a Chinese Restaurant for more tips. Go Middle Eastern and you can fill up on falafel, tabbouleh, tahini, and couscous. Indian restaurants serve vegetable pakora, rice, lentils and chickpeas. Just ask for no ghee. Italian restaurants have grilled vegetables, salads, and pasta with marinara sauce or garlic and oil. Just say no eggs or cheese. As long as you avoid the sour cream and cheese, Mexican cuisine has a lot of options like rice and beans and veggie fajitas.
4. Special Menus
One of my favorite restaurants has an entirely separate vegan menu. They also have a separate gluten-free menu but unless you specifically ask for either of these, you will only get the main menu. When I first saw this, I was so excited I took pictures of the menu! It’s a smart move – it saves the wait staff a lot of time trying to answer questions or deal with substitutions. Some restaurants have a section of their menu reserved for vegetarian and vegan options. Others have codes such as a “V” or an asterisk for vegan dishes. Ask your server; you just might get as surprised as I was.
5. Subs and Sides
Sometimes menu items can be made vegan with a few substitutions. Ask if the can leave the cheese off the salad or sandwich. Maybe they can cook the veggies in oil rather than butter. Some restaurants are willing to make substitutions and some charge extra for them but either way, you might be able to turn a dish into a vegan dish with just a change or two. Side dishes are often more likely to be vegan but be sure to ask. Ordering several side dishes such as rice, veggies, and beans can make a beautifully composed meal.
6. Smile and Be Nice
When you want people to accommodate you, they will be more willing to do so if you’re nice, polite and friendly. Don’t turn it into an adversarial situation and expect to be disappointed. Most people want to help and make their customers happy. Ask nicely what options are available for you and be polite about requesting changes in the menu. Remember, you are representing all vegans so make us look good. Don’t be that angry, rude or sarcastic vegan everyone makes fun of. Also be sure to thank the manager and/or chef for your meal and tell them how much you appreciate their offering vegan options. Tell them you are going to recommend the restaurant to all your friends. Show them it’s in their best interest to be vegan-friendly. Sometimes mistakes happen. That restaurant with the separate vegan menu once served me a salad that had cheese in it which I accidently ate before I noticed it. I was so upset I cried but they were upset by their mistake too. At a Chinese restaurant, I ordered vegetable tempura and got shrimp and at a Japanese place, they put fish broth in their miso soup. Some cuisines don’t think of fish as meat so those mistakes were because of cultural differences. The point is mistakes happen and they aren’t intentional. Point out the error politely and ask them to fix it. Most places will even comp you the meal. Think of it as a chance to educate people about eating plant-based.
7. Helpful Apps
There are many apps and websites that can help you find veg-friendly restaurants near you. These are essential when you travel and aren’t familiar with the local places. Happy Cow lets you search for veg-friendly eateries worldwide with interactive maps, reviews and contact info for the restaurants. Vegman is another global restaurant guide app for vegans that can be helpful when you travel. VeganXpress is vital if you like dining out with your meat-eating friends. It has a comprehensive list of vegan options at mainstream restaurants, candy, supermarket products and alcohol. Check out even more helpful apps in The Top 10 Apps Anyone Remotely Interested in Eating Vegan Should Download. Going out to eat is supposed to be a fun experience but it can be frustrating for vegans who often have few choices. Being prepared and knowing how to communicate your needs clearly and politely will help you better navigate the mainstream restaurants. Then you can focus on enjoying yourself with your friends and family.
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