Ask the Vegan: How Do You Eat in Restaurants?

Contrary to popular belief, vegans can find satisfying and healthy options at non-vegetarian/vegan restaurants. While it may take some creative thinking to find vegan options in some restaurants, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Many chain restaurants offer multiple options that, with a few modifications, can be made vegan. For example, Ruby Tuesday serves a delicious spaghetti squash with marinara entree that is completely vegan if you order it without the parmesan cheese sprinkled on top.

Although it may seem like a vegan’s only option in most restaurants is a salad, you should look at the entire menu before making your decision. Even if you’re at a burger joint, you may be surprised by the plant-based options available for entrees. Red Robin, for example, can replace any meat patty with a vegan Boca burger. While more often than not, you may very well end up ordering a salad at many restaurants, it doesn’t hurt to check out all your options.

Recently, at Rainforest Cafe, I ate a delicious portabello wrap that was completely vegan without making any changes to the original menu item.

Of course, I double checked with the server just to make sure, but it was good to go. As veganism becomes more mainstream, you never know, the menu might surprise you.

While vegans may find limited options in American restaurants, especially diners, because even vegetarian entrees cannot easily be made vegan due to eggs and dairy.  Vegans will have much better luck in ethnic restaurants, such as Thai, Ethopian, Indian, and Middle Eastern because they almost always offer delicious vegetarian entrees and sides. What’s more, many ethnic restaurants don’t use dairy or eggs in any of their dishes so their “vegetarian” options are actually vegan without trying to be! If you’re unsure, you can always double check with the server, but the chances are greatly decreased.

Falafel, anyone?

Even Italian restaurants, though they may use a lot of dairy and eggs, are a good option if you can’t find any more exotic fare. Many Italian restaurants offer a variety of yummy salads, and as long as you order dry, not wet, pasta, you’ll never have to worry about going hungry. Marinara sauce is almost always vegan, but many restaurants also offer a light garlic and olive oil sauce if you want to mix it up.

If you’ve surveyed the entire menu, but can only find solace in the salad section, look for sides to match with it to create a more filling meal. Many restaurants offer an array of vegetable sides which you can order separately for a minimal price. Just make sure they’re not cooked in butter, and, if they are, ask if they can be cooked in olive oil or steamed instead.

Interestingly, many chain restaurants are beginning to offer hummus plates as appetizers. That’s a great starter to share with friends, which also pairs well with a salad. Another great appetizer to add to a salad is salsa or guacamole with tortilla chips. Of course, you may be happy enough just ordering a salad, and that’s great!

Above all, the cardinal rule of going to restaurants as a vegan is: If you don’t know, ask. You can never be entirely sure of all the ingredients in a certain dish, so if you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask them. Having worked as a server, I know that servers can find the answer to any question by simply asking a cook, the manager, or checking a menu book. Many servers know the answer to these questions offhand, so it’s not a big deal to ask if something, like a sauce, has dairy or egg in it.

That’s the number one question I find myself asking when I eat in restaurants, especially with salad dressings. It’s obvious which dressings have dairy in them, but it’s not as obvious which ones have egg in them, especially “house” dressings. To put it simply: ask and you shall receive…knowledge, if not the actual menu item.

Apps & Websites

Smartphone to the rescue! Even if you only know the place you’re going to eat a few minutes before, you can check out the menu online to see what possible vegan options are available at first glance. Furthermore, if you’re going to a chain restaurant, you can always google “vegan options at [insert restaurant here]” to see if other members of the vegan community have already paved the way for you.

Vegan Eating Out: This website contains multiple lists of the vegan options at many chain restaurants throughout the US. They’re always updating the options on each list, so the information is very accurate and as up to date as possible. Although the website isn’t the most-user friendly, after visiting a few times, it’s relatively easy to navigate through the multiple lists of casual dining, fine dining, diners, buffets, etc. to find the perfect vegan meal.

Happy Cow: If you’re looking specifically for a vegan restaurant nearby, Happy Cow is, by far, the best and most comprehensive app to use. Their color coded system easily distinguishes between vegan, vegetarian, and veg-friendly restaurants in nearby areas. If you’re dining with omnivores, Happy Cow can help you find a restaurant with both meat and veg options. The app also shows local grocery and health food stores with specialty vegan items. It’s basically the vegan version of Yelp and perfect when you’re looking for a vegan-friendly restaurant in an unfamiliar place.

PlantEaters: Unlike other vegetarian and vegan apps, PlantEaters is based on finding vegan and vegetarian meals at non-veg restaurants. The content of the app is created by users so not all areas will have a vast amount of options, so the amount of readily usable information is dependent upon the area in which you’re searching. As the app increases in popularity,

These are only a few of the many vegan apps and websites available to make going to restaurants easier. No matter what method of “research” you choose, the more you know ahead of time, the easier the ordering process will be. Although going to restaurants as a vegan may seem daunting at first, it’s completely doable and can be absolutely delicious!

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4 Responses to Ask the Vegan: How Do You Eat in Restaurants?

  1. Thanks so much for writing this. You probably saw the article in Huff Post UK the other day with the writer whining about it being sooo difficult to eat out with friends as a vegan (because she’d done precisely zilch research!). This is a fantastic counter article!

    • lindsay says:

      I actually didn’t see that Huff Post article, but I’m happy to provide another perspective on an important vegan issue! And I completely agree– research is the best way to ensure a healthy, yet satisfying dining experience. Thanks for your kind comment!

  2. Susie H. says:

    I went vegan about a year ago and I cannot count the times I left a restaurant disappointed and hungry at the beginning of my herbivore journey. There were times when I was so discouraged that I decided to stay at home and make a vegan meal instead of dining out with friends. Very few people in my circle of acquaintances are vegan and so I always ended up getting an overpriced veggie salad or a tomato soup, while everyone else was treating themselves to pasta, sushi or steak. Then I got the Happy Cow app and everything turned for better. I highly recommend using this handy tool, whether you want to explore unfamiliar food scene or look for a restaurant that serves both vegan and non-vegan food. I always check what reliable reviewers have to say about any food spot so that there is a very little chance of my ending up disappointed. I found some of my favourite vegan restaurants thanks to reviews and the experience was so good that I always return at least once a month. I haven’t used PlantEaters yet, since I have already got the gist of the vegan food sphere here in Toronto, but I might bring myself round to checking it out if I am stuck for ideas about new vegan restaurants to visit.

    • lindsay says:

      I’m so happy to hear Happy Cow worked for you! It’s definitely one of my favorite apps, and I use it whenever I’m in a new city or simply want to discover new places in my home, Boston. I also recently discovered Healthy Out, another very useful app that lists dining options at many local restaurants according to your dietary restrictions. I like it because you can do more than one dietary restriction, like vegan AND gluten-free for example. That’s another app you can try out, and I hope you do! I wish you the best of luck on all your future vegan foodie adventures!

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