06 April 2012

Going out to eat, vegan style: Navigating through mainstream restaurants as a vegan

You get the call, a friend wants to go out to eat with a group of omnivorous friends.

As much as we all love going out to eat, it can be tough to navigate our way through menus at mainstream restaurants.  Don't fret!  There are usually sufficient options in many restaurants.  It may not always be the healthiest meal on the planet, but eating out rarely provides that anyway.

Here are some go-to options that many places offer:

oatmeal - add fruit and nuts for a nutritious/tasty boost
bagel - top with jam, peanut butter or hummus
fruit cup
cereal - know which cereals are vegan and which are not, many places offer non-dairy milk
tofu scramble - if you're lucky enough to find one

salad - get something with beans or nuts for extra protein
portobello or veggie burger - hold the cheese, make sure the bread is vegan and load up with toppings
veggie sandwich/wrap
add-ons like fries, chips, pickles, etc.
peanut butter and jelly - a true classic
deli salads - you'd be surprised what you can find (pasta, potato, three bean)
hummus plate
veggie sushi with edamame or miso soup

bean or veggie soups - check on the base/stock
chips and salsa
veggie spring rolls - make sure the wrappers are egg free
samosas and pakoras -make sure they are butter and egg free

pasta dishes - check on the noodles first, but get something loaded with veggies in a nondairy sauce
stuffed mushrooms - watch out for egg and cheese
eggplant parmesan - check for egg in the coating and hold the cheese
tofu/tempeh/seitan dishes - many non-chain restaurants are beginning to offer these options
pizza - hold the cheese, or some places even have vegan cheese
veggie burgers
baked potato with a salad - salsa is a great alternative topping for potatoes
rice and bean based dishes
vegetarian tacos/burritos - hold the cheese and sour cream, check on the guacamole

sorbet - most sorbets are dairy free
seasonal fruit crumble - a lot of places can make this without butter
chocolate-dipped fruit - make sure the chocolate is dairy-free

These are not your only options, but they are a good place to start.  Don't be afraid to get creative.

Here are a few more tips:
  • Peruse the online menu before you go.  It will give you time to carefully read through your choices, and figure out what questions you might need to ask when you get to the restaurant (i.e. does your pasta have egg in it?  what are my choices for nondairy dressings?). 
  • Don't hesitate to ask questions, but when you do, kill your server with kindness.  Once you start asking, you automatically become higher maintenance.  That being said, tip your server well!
  • When in doubt, have a snack before you go and grab a salad and fries when you get there.
  • You will probably have to modify a lot of your dishes (i.e. hold the butter, no cheese, on the sourdough instead of the honey wheat).
  • A lot of places only have one fryer/grill.  They may use vegetable oil, but your vegan deliciousness may be mingling with meat and dairy.  You can definitely ask about this.  Ultimately if it's all thrown in together, the choice is yours - consider it vegan or stick to steamed, baked, or raw foods.
  • A la carte, baby.  A lot of restaurants have really great and nutritious sides - beans, veggies, rice, potatoes, etc.  Just don't forget to request to hold the butter.
  • Go ethnic.  Tacos, stirfry, bean dishes, and more!  I usually have a lot of luck at Indian, Mexican and Japanese style restaurants.  Make sure to stay away from fish sauces, egg and dairy when it comes to sauces and coatings.
  • Happy Cow is a really great resource for traveling the US.  Put in your location, and you can often find a variety of veg friendly restaurants, cafes and markets.  
With a little flexibility and patience, we have plenty of options for eating out.  Bon appetit!

Have your own tips for dining out as a vegan? Feel free to share them on our Facebook page.

Amanda Chary
Vermont Amanda's dream is to one day tend a sustainable garden, take care of pigs, and edit novels in the desert, or at least somewhere much warmer. She likes to read, doodle, watch movies, sing (poorly), take in sunshine and goof off. All things robot, squid or whimsical are of interest.

Photo credit: Killick1