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Vegan Living
Dining Out Guide for Vegans
Dining Out Guide for Vegans

From my many conversations with people over the years, I know that of the challenges people often feel worried about as they are transitioning to veganism, dining at restaurants is near the top of the list. There is nothing that sets off the scarcity alarms and the fears of failure of a fledgling vegan quite like the worry that food will not be available. While I understand the anxieties, we have never lived at a time that was easier for eating vegan meals out and this is due to significant factors that have worked together and independently to boost availability, such as an increasing familiarity with the word “vegan” and what it means; a diminishing resistance and expanding normalization; a growing consumer demand; more products (such as vegan cheeses, mayos, milks and burgers) on the market and increased distribution in response to the aforementioned demand; easier contact with one another and restaurants via online communication and access to menus on websites. These are just some of the elements that have combined to make it easier and easier to dine out as a vegan and they are all quite consequential in and of themselves. This is not to say that we are walking in a vegan wonderland quite yet: increased restaurant options vary widely. For example, less affluent communities tend to have fewer options and in different cultural traditions, there can be a different interpretation of what constitutes animal ingredients, such as meat-based broths, which present significant roadblocks to vegan dining. That said, we are light years from what the dining out scene was like when I first went vegan and while there is much room to improve, there is also no going back.

For this piece, I decided to query my many vegan Facebook friends – a diverse group of people who live all over the world and are both new and seasoned vegans, including many who travel a lot for business and try to create more vegan options where they live – for their advice. As when my sweet kitty was missing, my friends delivered the goods with an ample supply of wisdom, strategies and excellent counsel. I hope you will find their advice to be as useful as I have.

First, though, you can’t talk about food without thinking about apps, which in this case is not shorthand for appetizers but applications. Technology has transformed the ease with which we can find food in many ways, and I think apps have been one of the best resources the average smartphone-carrying vegans can have at the ready. HappyCow is the most thorough vegan dining-out resource I know and at just $3.99, it more than earns its worth on just one road trip. Vegman is an international dining app that is similar to HappyCow but is free (and less comprehensive). VeganXPress helps users find chain and fast food restaurant options and Veggagogo is especially useful for international travel, translating your dietary needs into 50 languages along with helpful graphics to avoid miscommunication.

Being prepared

Being prepared is essential to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout mottos and it should be to the vegan motto as well. (Wait: do we have an official motto?) (Motto is a strange word.) Anyway, the point is that being prepared is probably your single best strategy for finding great vegan food options. With the information that is quite literally at our fingertips today, there are rare occasions when I will just walk into a restaurant I’ve never been to without having done some research ahead of time. Whether it’s looking up menus or reviews, emailing or calling to inquire about vegan food options, we can do it all pretty easily today and I would encourage people to do just that: put on your Nancy Drew or Hardy Boy hat (or go wild and wear both) and do some investigation. Restaurants want our patronage and our positive reviews, we just need to set ourselves up for success.

“Whenever I'm going to a place for social reasons that doesn't look like they have anything - I call first and ask. I've had several good items made for me off menu this way. For example sometimes they have a vegan lunch item but no dinner option or can make enough adjustments to another it to make it work. Giving them advance notice really helps too. If I have menu questions I almost always try to call on off hours - it's way easier than making the server run to the kitchen sometimes more than once and I think they are less annoyed if they aren't busy.”
– Sara A.

“Planning ahead is key. Look at menus, reviews, and, if necessary, call the restaurant to discuss options. Suggest substitutions that the staff may not consider.”
- Anne B.
[Ed. note: I love this idea. Just because something is not on the menu, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be prepared together; they just might not have thought of it. If you see baked potatoes in one section and veggie chili in another and avocados somewhere else, ask if you can get these together to make a complete meal. More on this in the hacking section below.]

“I always look at the website and/or call ahead, if possible. That way, there is time for the chef to be consulted properly, meaning 1) I get accurate info, 2) they don't get annoyed at detailed inquiries and special requests during already stressful serving hours, 3) they see that it's possible to respect other animals AND provide/receive wonderful food in a positive setting.”
– Susan C.

“If possible, call ahead and clarify which menu items are vegan or can be vegan. I find this particularly helpful before a work or family outing where I don't want to hold up the ordering process by asking a million questions and having the server run back to the kitchen to ask questions. This also makes it look easy to order vegan to others around you (oh, look at that, she just ordered a side salad and that pasta without the meat and cheese, how easy, I thought vegans could only eat at vegan restaurants!)”
– Taylor W.

“I've had great luck emailing restaurants ahead of time and letting them know I'm vegan and will be coming in with some friends soon. I tell them I was looking through their online menu and am curious if any items are vegan, or if any can be specially ordered to be vegan. Sometimes I will ask if they have ingredient or allergen lists available, especially if it's a chain restaurant.”
– Adam E.
[Ed. note: If you are coming with a group, definitely use that as a leverage point with the restaurant. The “vegan veto” is a real thing and if one person can’t eat there, they could be missing out on lots of orders.]

“Don't expect to walk into a restaurant and demand vegan on a Friday or Saturday night. Best to contact in advance after reviewing menu online, let them know you're a'coming and discuss what can be done. Be nice, tip well.”
– Mark S.

“I always email ahead of time to try to get some ideas from the manager BEFORE I talk to a server who may not know as much about what is in the kitchen. That way I already have something in mind, and can make it easier on the server by giving them permission to make substitutions by citing the manager by name (ex: ‘The manager here, Gary, said that I could swap out black beans for the meat on any salad. So I'd like to replace the chicken with black beans on the Italian pasta salad, and please no cheese’).”
– Mary M.

How to order

Different people have different approaches with placing orders; some use humor and self-deprecation (“Yes, I am that annoying vegan so I have some questions…”); some find it safest to fib a bit (“I am deathly allergic to all animal products so you should probably be ready to call an ambulance in case I fall into a anaphylactic shock right here at the table if anyone makes a mistake in the kitchen,”) (or fib more than a bit), and others believe that honesty is the best policy (“I’m vegan. Whatcha got?”). I live in an urban area that generally had wide familiarity with the word and concept of veganism, so I tend to take the last approach. When I first went vegan, awareness was not where it is today and I was not as confident in talking about it always so I found myself taking the fibbing route a lot. This eventually struck me as not the approach I wanted to take because a) it wasn’t the truth, b) there are real people with life-threatening allergies and I did not want to contribute to society not taking those allergies seriously and it felt exploitative and c) if we want to increase familiarity and exposure to the word “vegan,” we must be willing to use it. Last words of advice from me: one thing that nearly all responders said is to be friendly and kind to your servers. Not only is that just a good approach for interacting with people in general, it’s in your own best interest to not have pissed off anyone who is handling your food. Smiling, using a friendly tone and a calm demeanor can make a big difference in how you are perceived and, plus, you’ll be doing some great vegan representing in the meantime.

“I have had great success by being bold and asking the server to check with the chef and ask their recommendation. 99% of the time I get a custom creation unlike anything on the menu. Most chefs are bored and love a challenge. As the only vegan at the table most of the time I enjoy my food way more than the others who ordered off the meat menu.”
– Laurie G.

“I've noticed you have to be precise, and never assume anything! Instead of asking for ‘no dairy’, it's better to say ‘no cheese, milk, butter or cream’. I know it sounds dumb, but some wait staff really don't know what ‘dairy’ includes.”
– Vee T.

“I usually go off the recommendations of friends, or I use my Yelp app. I simply put ‘vegan restaurants’ in the search engine. When I arrive, I let them know when I sit down that I'm eating at their restaurant because they got great reviews and offer vegan options. If they don't know what vegan is, I tell them I don't eat anything that had a face or a mother. I say it with a smile and I keep it kind. I'm always appreciative if they offer to check with the chef or cook, (and they usually offer to do so).”
– Mary K.

“I was at a somewhat expensive restaurant for a party and there was not one vegan thing on the menu. I asked for the owner, he came and talked to me and we came up with a penne pasta dish with veggies. The chef came out and talked to me also with ideas. He was excited because he got to create something new that wasn't on the menu. Non-vegans said they would order it the next time they went there.”
– Cody W.

“I understand that it's more convenient to use the ‘I'm allergic’ strategy, but I think that's a missed opportunity for vegan outreach. I want them to say, ‘Hey, I just served scrumptious food to lovely people, without sacrificing the well-being of other animals. I feel great!’ Not ‘Oh lordy, why are there so many freakin' dietary restrictions these days??’”
– Susan C.

“I have to travel a lot. Knowing what general terms and methods are is your best defense. Depending on the company you are with you might jokingly say ‘I know there's one at every table, I'm that one...I have a few questions!’”
– Colleen O.

“The best advice - don't be afraid to speak up. More and more restaurants understand dietary preferences are changing and vegans are growing in numbers. I often tell the managers I appreciate the options/accommodation and hope they'll make more available. And when wait staff kick it off with the specials, I very politely stop them before they start and tell them I'm vegan. They actually really appreciate that they didn't go through their spiel for nothing.”
Linda R.

“Smile. If they don't deal with vegans much, we don't want to give them a reason to hate us off the bat. If I don't see something vegan right off the bat, I'll ask if they can make me a plate of pasta with marinara sauce and whatever veggies they have on hand. I specifically say no butter, milk or cheese because they don't always know. I am ALWAYS polite, no matter how much explaining they need. I've never had a negative experience.”
– Jana V.

“I never say I'm vegan, unless I'm in a vegan/vegetarian restaurant, because most people don't know what that means. I always specify no animal products, and then enumerate them - no meat, no cheese, no dairy, no butter, no eggs, no animal broth. And never assume that anything DOESN'T contain animal products - even things that are typically made without them!”
– Rebecca A.

“I have no problem sending my food back when it isn't made correctly, no matter how annoying it is for me, the people I'm with, or the restaurant.”
– Jaci P.

“Sometimes I'll make suggestions if I get a deer in headlights look, such as ‘Why don't you just cook the veggies in olive oil instead of butter?’”
– Alesha R.

“For nice restaurants/fancy dinners I look at the menu online and see what they have that could be modified. Then, I will call ahead and ask to speak to the chef. I always call during down times. The chefs have almost 99% of the time been pleasing, friendly, agreeable, and excited to make something special for me.”

– Annette C.

Menu tips and meal hacks

I believe that vegans are set for total global domination if only because most of us are MacGyver-like in our ability to thrive in less than hospitable environments. Having seen more than a few omnivores have toddler-like meltdowns over not having every dietary demand catered to (“What do you mean you’re out of whipped cream for my specialty blended drink?!”), I believe that this is true more and more. A vegan being stuck with a menu or a restaurant that is less than amenable to our diet? Well, this may be part of what has earned us the “PITA” reputation but what we do is we turn lemons into the best vegan lemonade possible. Here’s an example: there aren’t many less vegan-friendly environments than a highway overpass oasis but even when you’ve got all the helpful apps sometimes you’re hungry and there is nothing for miles. In this oasis example, I was able to find rice from the Chinese chain (that has no other vegan options, bizarrely), hummus from a Middle Eastern place, black beans and hot sauce packets from the taco place, mixed it all together and it was surprisingly good, as well as filling and thrifty. (I have an extra challenge in being gluten-free or it would have been easier.) This is what I am talking about: don’t be afraid to adapt and be creative. As was mentioned earlier, sometimes knowing how to cook yourself can help you to get in the best mindset for figuring out how to throw together a meal that is greater than the sum of its parts.

“I scan the wrap and salad section for beans, knowing I can ask for extra beans to make a hearty salad or wrap. And I very specifically ask for an amount, like one measured cup of beans. This ensures I'm getting an amount I need to satisfy my protein needs for that meal...I tell them that I will pay extra for the substitute so they know I'm serious about the quantity and it isn't just a sprinkle.”
– Molly D.

“[A] salad bar is usually an easy fix, if they have one. Also, baked potatoes with avocado/guacamole and/or salsa and other veggies - from the salad bar! Pasta with a mix of side veggies, and/or marinara sauce and/or avocado.”
– Holling G.

“Look for items that would be vegan if you just 86 the meat and dairy. Explore the side dishes and sides of entrees for options as well. You can often make a meal out of sides like salad, broccoli, and a baked potato topped with salsa. Sometimes you can request the items from side dishes be used to replace the meat in another dish like mushrooms or black beans on top of a salad or in a burrito. Or perhaps a variety of veggies from the sides can be added to something to make it more exciting like with a marinara sauce with sautéed veggies. Get in the habit of asking for no cheese or dairy on anything as often butter or cheese is added but not mentioned on the menu. Look for vegan-friendly condiments or spreads that could replace dairy ones like hummus, guac, or avocado. I just imagine what I could make with the ingredients they must have in their kitchen to make what's on the menu. Many restaurants will get creative for you especially if you can give them an idea what you might like!”
– Kimberly G.

“I ask if they have an allergen menu I could look over. This will help me selection which bun or wrap I will purchase as well as other tidbits of info, like Red Robin's BBQ sauce contains anchovies and their salt seasoning contains eggs.”
– Molly D. [Ed. note: Fantastic idea, Molly!]

“I typically look for the vegetarian dish on the menu and ask for no cheese. Most of the time that works for a quick no fuss vegan dish. When going out with groups we usually pick a type of food like Italian, Japanese or Mexican where we know they are likely to have good easily vegan or veganizable items. I almost always check the menus of new places we are going to before hand. I personally don't ask the staff to make special dishes unless there is nothing veganizable already there.”
– Briggitte D.

“…[I bring] a little bag with a mix of nutritional yeast, sunflower seeds, walnuts, spices, etc. - to put on potatoes, pasta, or rice - in a pinch. This is my go-to for travelling, too.”
Holling G.

“Unless it's a high end restaurant (and it's usually not), we're not above bringing small containers with vegan butter, sour cream and cheese shreds for baked potatoes, or dressing for the salad. Chef Skye Conroy's bleu cheese makes a wonderful salad dressing!”
– Steve G.
[Ed. note: Great ideas, Steve! Check out Chef Skye’s recipe for gorgonzola, a variety of bleu cheese.]

“One of my hacks at a local restaurant is to take the bruschetta chopped tomato, garlic, basil, and reduction and have it on top of romaine. Inevitably, 2-3 people ask what it is when they walk by and order it.”
– Lynn V.

General words of wisdom

“I was served pho in beef broth after saying no meat or dairy. When I questioned the server they told me meat broth is not meat... I learned to say ‘No animal products, they make me ill’ - which they do…”
– Dawn R.

“My advice for navigating a menu is to know truly the food you are eating. For example, know what an aioli is...because your server has typically no idea how it's made but with advance knowledge, you now know it's a sauce made from eggs and from there you can ask for a vegan-friendly substitute for that item or simply look for something else. Servers are there to help but being one step ahead always comes handy.”
– Robin F.

Robin’s thought was seconded by Kimberly G.:

“Right! People don't know that fried food is often dipped in milk/eggs before the breading or that fresh pasta is made with eggs. Learning to cook is your best tool even when eating out!”
– Kimberly G.

“When dinner is over I thank them with a good tip, a card from the Humane League that thanks the manager and tells them I ate there because they offered vegan options, and a personal note of thanks on the receipt for the server with one of my favorite documentaries such as Cowspiracy...that says, ‘Thanks for the great service! Check out this great documentary.’”
– Mary K.

“The only thing I can think of right now is that they need to state all of the ingredients clearly, as so many non-vegan places get vegan options wrong.”
- Michelle A.

“Guacamole sometimes is made with sour cream. Sautéed mushrooms may be cooked with meat broth. Most people don't know what vegan really means, so you have to be very specific. Michelle A. is right on, ask for all ingredients. Fast food restaurants maintain lists of them, usually on their websites, and on brochures they have hidden away at the restaurants. Ask for the manager. Not all employees will know about those brochures. Also, turn over is huge, so employees may not know, but the manager should.”
– Amie H.

“Although I'm not shy to ask servers, I don't always trust that they or the kitchen staff know for sure if something is vegan (and sometimes, they don't). If it's a chain, you can usually Google the name of the place + ‘vegan’ and some sites will come up that will tell you what is vegan on the menu (down to which bread you can order for a sandwich).”
– Neda E.

“One thing that can help vegans (especially in non-vegan-friendly small towns) is to consistently update restaurant review sites like Yelp for vegan options in their local restaurants (be sure to use the word 'vegan' in your review)…I think Happy Cow is great if you're already vegetarian or vegan, but it's not very good, say, if you're a *non-vegan* looking for a place to eat with a vegan friend. It's something vegans can do every time they dine out at a non-vegan restaurant, and it helps make it easier for the next vegan (and gets the attention of the restaurant owner/manager). It makes the world seem more vegan-friendly, and after all, isn't that the mission - to create a vegan world not a vegan club?”
– Jeannie T.

I start by looking at the pasta and salad dishes to see if I can build on those for a nice entrée. Then, I look for the veggie options that are marked with the Veg symbol. If they have pizza, I look for gluten-free crust to build on, and still ask if it is vegan. I like to ask the wait staff if they know what vegan means, and educate them, if they don't know. I have found that chefs are happy to be able to use their creativity in making a special dish, when their menu does not offer vegan selections. And, when they do make a great tasting off-menu dish, I am sure to share my compliments with the staff and suggest it be added to the menu as a vegan option.”
– Heather F.

“I go to business dinners often all over the country and usually at restaurants not of my choosing. I always look for a website and look for a vegetarian section which alludes to the potential for vegan. If there is not a vegan or veg section on the website, I look through for specific options. If nothing looks vegan, I review the sides, to include what is offered with meals that I may be able to make a side. If possible, I call ahead - I prefer to not catch them off guard; this does a couple of things, if they typically bake their potato with butter rubbed on them once a day, they can keep some back for me and same with veggies - it also lets the chef or main cook know to plan for something. I have very rarely had an issue, in fact, often the chef comes out and checks on me and comments they like the challenge. One of my bosses has learned to just ask the chef to make her what I'm getting because mine always looks better than her food. It usually means my food is very fresh as well. I've been vegan a long time and there have only been two restaurants where I found nothing - both Italian (everything had chicken stock and dairy). The key for me is to call ahead whenever possible.”
– Lynn V.

“When forced to go to a chain restaurant (in-laws, it happens ;)) I Google the word 'vegan' and the restaurant name, lots of hits come up about what to order. PETA2 especially has done a lot of work on this.”
– Stacy O.

“I recommend taking the pressure off of yourself at first and carry a Lara bar or other meal replacement with you wherever you go. That way if you just can’t make something work, you will not go hungry and get pissy and ruin the evening with friends. Never be THAT vegan who makes everyone suffer at mealtime. Be creative but always gracious.”
– Laurie G.

“For casual dining (the family steak house) I will ask the waitress to help me build a salad from items in various salads and other meals. Usually by asking for help you can get it. With friendly wait staff we've made amazing salads filled with greens, beans, peas, olives, fruits, avocado, nuts, and whatever else and topped with oil/vinegar and lemon.”
–Annette C.

“1) Ask if they have any vegan items on the menu 2) If they don’t, ask them to make an item they have on the menu vegan 3) Done.”
– Matt M.

So, you see, it’s not that difficult. With a little preparation, a positive attitude and a willingness to be adaptive, we can eat out without compromising our vegan values and it gets easier all the time.

© 2013-2016, Vegan Street

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