image of Cafe Gratitude in Venice, CA from Eater.com
When I decided to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan, one of my more pressing concerns was whether or not I’d still be able to eat out at restaurants like a normal human being. I was worried that I’d be doomed to ordering sad little side salads for the rest of my life, but, thankfully, this has not been the case – I’ve been able to dine out fairly easily with minimal inconvenience, keeping a few simple tips for eating out as a vegan in mind…and since you know I’ve got your back, I’m going to share them with you! Of course there are a steadily growing number of all vegan restaurants out there (hallelujah!), but these tips are for eating vegan in a non-vegan world.
1. Think ethnic – many ethnic restaurants are very vegan friendly, requiring little to no substitutions to be made to existing menu options. Plus, the food is usually crazy flavorful and really vegetable centric (read: slightly healthier).
Chinese: Plenty to choose from, so long as you ask them to leave out the egg and fish/oyster sauce. I order vegetable dumplings, vegetable spring rolls, vegetable fried rice, vegetable chow mein, garlic broccoli with fried tofu, General Tso’s tofu, to name a few.
Thai: Thai is one of my absolute favorite cuisines, so it’s a huge relief that most menu items are already vegan friendly. Just be sure to ask that dishes are made without egg, fish sauce or shrimp paste. I often order spring rolls, vegetable coconut curries over jasmine rice, and pad thai.
Mexican: Plenty of Mexican restaurants offer really delicious plant-based fare, like rice and bean burritos (with extra guacamole, hot sauce, and pico de gallo), vegetable fajitas, and taco salads with black beans. Just be sure to specify no cheese, and ask if the beans are cooked in lard, and if the rice is made with chicken stock.
Middle Eastern: Middle Eastern restaurants are vegan paradise! Hummus, falafel, baba ghanoush, dolmas, tapenades, olives, pita bread…the list goes on!
Indian: Another one of my all time favorite cuisines, and another great option for a wide selection of vegan fare. Many south-Indian restaurants are exclusively vegetarian, so with a few simple tweaks, you will have more menu options than you’ll know what to do with. Just ask for no ghee (clarified butter), no cream/yogurt, and no paneer (Indian cheese). A few of my favorites include Papadam (lentil wafers) with chutney, Aloo Ghobi, Dal, Eggplant Bhartha, Vegetable Biryani, Vegetable Curry, and Chana Masala.
Japanese: I don’t get Japanese often, but I really should – there are so many yummy and healthy menu options for vegans: tempura, vegetable nori/sushi rolls, salads with carrot ginger dressing, vegetable dumplings, miso soup (ask if it contains fish-based dashi or bonito), and edamame.
Italian: Put it this way – I would be a very miserable human being were it not for the fact that I can still eat Italian food in abundance. Lots of options here, especially at more authentic Italian restaurants. Just ask them to hold the cheese, heavy cream, and chicken stock. Also note that many fresh in-house made pastas are made with eggs, so double check before ordering. Some of my favorite options are fresh green salads with roasted red peppers, olives, and Italian vinaigrette, tomato and basil bruschetta, minestrone, lentil and pasta fagiole soups (make sure there’s no chicken/beef stock!), good Italian bread with olive oil, Spaghetti Aglio e Olio, Spaghetti Arrabbiata, Pasta Primavera, Cavatelli with Broccoli, etc. Almost every single pizzeria I’ve been to can also make pizzas without the cheese, piled high with your favorite veggies instead.
American: Navigating a menu at a diner or burger joint can require some finesse. Still, it’s not impossible – I usually look for veggie burgers (ask if they contain eggs, and request that the burger bun not be buttered), the ubiquitous (bland) grilled vegetable wrap (ugh…can we state once and for all that NO ONE ACTUALLY ENJOYS THESE), salads loaded up with veggies and avocado, and the occasional vegan soup option. If none of the above are available, let this be your chance to justify eating a ginormous plate of french fries for dinner (been there, and I ain’t mad at it).
Ice Cream: It’s summer, you’re on vacation, everyone else is getting ice cream – what’s a vegan to do? Thankfully many places offer really good sorbet, including those self-serve fro-yo places. Some of the more progressive ice cream shops offer vegan ice creams, which is like striking gold. You can also order Italian Ice (also known as Water Ice to some), which is almost always dairy free. If you’re ordering sorbet and still missing “the real thing”, jazz it up with flavorful toppings that add good texture – granola, nuts, fruit, etc, and make yourself feel better by remembering that you are also saving many calories, fat and cholesterol grams by ordering the dairy-free option.
2. Scan the menu ahead of time and look for “accidentally vegan” (or easy-to-veganize) options. There might be a pasta dish with wild mushrooms and herbs that isn’t marked as vegan but likely doesn’t contain dairy, or a salad that is 90% vegan – just ask them to leave off the cheese, or shrimp, or whatever, and you have yourself a meal. Honestly, you can modify so many dishes to exclude animal products, it just doesn’t occur to most of us to think outside the box!
3. Ask if there are any vegan options available that are not on the menu. You’d be surprised at the delicious off-menu items I’ve gotten in the most unlikely places. The high-end steakhouse chain Capital Grille immediately comes to mind, as they have an incredible grilled tofu dish that is not printed on the menu, but they are happy to serve it if you politely request it.
4. If there are no readily available options, ask if the chef can make you something (and offer up a few easy suggestions). If you don’t want to “inconvenience” the restaurant and/or are too embarrassed to ask, remember this: any chef worth his or her salt should have the culinary know-how to whip up something really delicious for you, provided you give them a little guidance. If they can’t work with you, it reflects poorly on them, not you! Also, you are paying for them to give you a rewarding dining experience – it’s in their best interest to ensure you leave the restaurant a happy customer. Ask confidently, be positive and polite, and be specific with what you want.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you’re not sure if something contains meat/meat broth/cheese/cream/etc., just ask. The waitstaff should be trained on ingredients used in the menu items, and if not, they are almost always happy to ask the chef and report back to you. I rarely run into problems when I ask questions, so don’t be shy!
6. Do your homework before going out. I usually search Yelp, TripAdvisor, and HappyCow.net for veg-friendly restaurants wherever I’m going out to eat. You can usually check menus online and read reviews from other diners.
7. Be prepared for the occasional worst-case scenario. If you know you are going out to eat at a restaurant with zero viable options, or if you are heading into unknown territory (a wedding or similarly catered event), it’s best to either A) eat in advance B) plan on eating afterward C) pack healthy snacks and/or D) make peace with the fact that you might have to get creative and make a meal out of a baked potato topped with salsa with a few carrot sticks, olives, and hummus that you snagged from the antipasto/crudite platter. Thankfully these situations are few and far between. I also would attempt to call the wedding venue ahead of time to ask about vegan options, or ask the bride/groom (if you are close enough with them) if they have planned for veg-friendly options to be available.
In the words of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, one of my favorite vegan cookbook authors, “If you look for lack, that’s what you’ll find. If you look for abundance, that’s what you’ll discover.” Wise words and so true!
What are some of your tips for dining out as a vegan?