Having been on a family vacation in Florida, I’ve visited more restaurants in the past two weeks than I had during all of 2013. (That’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one.) I love cooking, and while I have my few favorite vegan restaurants I’ll drop everything to go to, I usually eat most of my meals at home because it’s cheaper and, frankly, easier. Like many people with dietary restrictions and/or food allergies, I’m uncomfortable in restaurants. Best case scenario: I have to ask for some form of special treatment, which the server and chef willingly give. Worst case scenario: I’m a burden on everyone everywhere on the planet in the history of time. (As you can see, I’m really good at keeping things “in perspective.”)
Although neither the frequency nor venues were my ideal choice, I made the best of every restaurant experience. Unfortunately for me, I’m related to people who, while lovely, don’t have the most adventurous pallets. Between the chain, Italian, and chain Italian restaurants, I found myself eating either a salad or a pasta marinara dish every night.
You, however, don’t have to end up like me. The next time you go to a restaurant, follow these simple tips to ensure a satisfying, plant-based meal.
1. Plan ahead.
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.
There’s even an app, called PlantEaters, which shows restaurants with vegan and vegetarian meals that can be found at non-veg restaurants. The content of the app is created by users so not all areas will have a vast amount of options. (Unfortunately, the Orlando, FL area was lacking. Get on that, you guys!)
No matter what method of “research” you choose, the more you know ahead of time, the easier the ordering process will be. The worst part of many vegans’ dining experience is simply ordering the meal; however, if you use the proper tools you can make the process quick and painless for you, the server, and your fellow diners.
2. Go abroad.
American restaurants, especially diners, are not the ideal place to find plant-based options. Even the entrees that don’t include meat are filled with eggs and dripping with dairy. Ethnic restaurants, such as Thai, Ethopian, Indian, and Middle Eastern, however, 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 that’s one less worry. If you’re unsure, you can always double check with the server, but the chances are greatly decreased.
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. (I will say, however, that no matter what you order, Italian food can become tiresome after you’ve eaten it for the fifth night in a row…)
3. Look past the salad section of the menu.
Many times you walk into a restaurant, and you can just tell there’s going to be nothing for you in the entrees section. Still, there’s no harm in looking, even if you’re at a burger joint. (Many burger places now offer veggie burger substitutions. Red Robin, for example, can replace any meat patty with a vegan Boca burger!) While, yes, 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.
4. Mix and match.
If you do get stuck 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.
Many chain restaurants are beginning to offer hummus plates as appetizers so that’s a great starter to share with friends that 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!
5. If you don’t know, ask.
This may just be the cardinal rule of vegan eating out. You never know what hidden ingredients may be 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.
So there you have it— your handy dandy guide to eating out! What are some of your tips for going to a restaurant as a vegan? What’s your favorite PlantEaters worthy meal?