You Deserve a Meal Out! Dining Out Vegan
Eating out has never been easier and you deserve a meal out once and a while! Vegan and Whole Food Plant-Based (WFPB) options are more common than you might think, and with 2019 being the Year of the Vegan (see Forbes and The Economist), more and more establishments are adding vegan options to their menus. When I first became vegan ten years ago, it was rare to find a dedicated vegan restaurant, so I developed my own strategies for eating out, in any town. These strategies still work today, and I’m sharing them with you so you can have a great dining experience, too. And besides, we vote with our wallets, and dining out helps encourage restaurants to vegan options available to attract our business.
Pick a vegan restaurant! There are many vegan restaurants out there, even in the Seattle area. Do an internet search for “vegan restaurant [city you’re looking for]” and you’ll undoubtedly get a list of options. You can also search www.happycow.net/ or their smartphone app Happy Cow, or the site www.vanilla-bean.com/ who also has a smartphone app Vanilla Bean. Open Table even has a category for vegetarian/vegan, www.opentable.com, and has a smart phone app as well.
Look at non-vegan restaurant menus before you go. Most restaurants these days have websites or Facebook pages where you can look through their menus and see what options are available. A bit of forewarning, however, not all restaurants keep their online menus current, so if you do see something in particular that looks like it will work they may no longer have it available when you go. So…
Email or call ahead and ask. There’s no harm in contacting the establishment prior to going and inquiring what options they have for you. You’ll often learn that places have separate allergy- and dietary-menus that you wouldn’t even know about if you didn’t ask. Many times chefs are delighted to have an opportunity to make a customized dish for you if they know ahead of time.
Ask if there is a vegan menu. It’s not uncommon for restaurants to have separate vegan menus. Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, WA and Departure in Portland, OR, for example, have separate menus, but you have to ask for them, they don’t automatically let diners know they have them. A lot of restaurants are putting little codes on menus to indicate whether dishes are gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, etc. But make sure to ask what the symbols mean—a V next to a menu item might mean vegetarian and contain dairy, so don’t assume it means vegan.
Ask the server if they can tell you which items on the menu can be made vegan. While most servers and chefs know what vegan means, it is usually best practice to let them know you are looking for options that are meat-, seafood-, dairy-, egg-, and gelatin-free. You can also ask for low- or no-oil options, too, if you are not eating oil, but that is a little more difficult for restaurants to accommodate, so you might have to contend with a little oil. Servers usually know the menu very well and can point out which things will work or how they can make adjustments to items for you. And a lot of restaurants have allergen guides where servers can look up dishes for specific allergens—California Pizza Kitchen is wonderful with that! If not, they will ask the chef for their recommendation and come back to you with a suggestion. For example, Chef Sean Langan, owner of Flavour Bistro in Duvall, WA, tells me that he loves having the opportunity to create off-the-menu items, that it brings back the excitement of creating for him. It is extremely rare to have a restaurant come back and say they that nothing for you to eat—they want to serve you (it’s only happened to me one time, in Venice, Italy!).
Be patient and nice and offer modifications you would be happy with. Sadly, some restaurants have had bad encounters with demanding and rude patrons and may seem a little bristly after those experiences. Be kind and gentle in your requests, be patient, and have some modifications in mind when you ask. You can ask if you can have the Asian Chicken Salad without the chicken with perhaps some added avocado or chopped up vegan burger patty that’s also on the menu as a burger option. Be prepared for them to charge you a little extra for the change and just go with it—don’t argue with them or make a big deal about it, many restaurants have change fees built into their billing and the server doesn’t necessarily have any choice in the matter. Enjoy a meal out.
Get dessert. Most places have sorbet and a lot will have fresh fruit or a fruit cup. Ask if they have a vegan dessert, they might surprise you. Or have a cup or coffee, tea, or dairy-free liqueur (port wine or Amaretto, for example, so you don’t feel like the odd-one-out when others are having dessert).
Have go-to items in mind at particular types of restaurants.
Here are some things that are accidentally vegan and commonly on specific cuisine menus:
Guac! Veggie burrito, veggie enchilada, or veggie fajitas. Order without the sour cream or cheese. Check to make sure the beans are vegetarian (made without lard), generally whole beans are veggie while refried often have lard. Chips and salsa! Taco salad without meat, cheese, or sour cream. Use Salsa for salad dressing.
Dried pasta usually vegan (egg-free) while fresh pasta is not—you’ll need to ask. Pasta with marinara, arrabiata, or puttanesca (make sure it doesn’t have anchovies in it), Salad with balsamic vinegar, bread without butter. Veggie pizza without cheese—try it, it’s really great!
Falafel!! Hummus, pita bread, roasted veggies, baba ghanoush, veggie wrap, rice, olives, tahini sauce. Ask for no yogurt or cheese.
Lots of veggie dishes, curries, biryani, masala. Naan, dal, samosas. Ask for no ghee (butter), paneer (cheese), or cream.
Veggie sushi! Veggie tempura, rice noodle dishes, miso soup, tofu, edamame. Ask for no egg, fish sauce, or bonito (fish flake).
Stir-fried veggies, veggie fried rice, veggie spring rolls. Ask for no egg, fish sauce, or oyster sauce (some may have vegan oyster sauce if you ask).
Salad rolls with tofu, many veggie dishes, curries, rice noodle dishes. Ask for no egg, fish sauce, and that the curry is vegan (no seafood).
My fire crew used to call my pizza order, “Pizza without the Pizza,” that is, a veggie pizza without cheese. You know what, I love it that way! I can eat more slices that way! Get bread sticks with marinara (ask them to hold the butter and cheese when they make them). Get a salad with vinegar or see if the Italian dressing is made without cheese. There are some amazing artisan pizzas being made out there and it’s easy to have them hold the non-vegan items.
Steakhouse, yes, steakhouse
Believe it or not, steakhouses can be great places for vegan options. They usually have wonderful huge baked potatoes, steamed vegetables, and huge salads that are usually sides that you can order for your meal. Get salsa for your potato and vinegar or lemon for your salad dressing. Veggie burgers also an option, make sure no mayo or butter on the bun and no cheese.
Similar to steakhouse. They usually have something as not everyone likes seafood and people have allergies. Steamed veggies, baked potatoes, fries, salads are on the list there.
Fresh fruit bowl, oatmeal (without milk, cream, or butter), hashbrowns. Order the veggies from an omelet without the eggs or cheese and oftentimes you can get a big hash with veggies only.
Complimentary Continental Breakfast at Your Hotel
They usually always have oatmeal, fruit, peanut butter, and toast. But here’s my trick if they have an omelet station…Ask them to saute all the veggies in a pan without oil or pan spray! They’ll usually do it! The veggies are usually onions, spinach, mushrooms, peppers, and tomatoes, perfect for us. While they are cooking up my veggies, I get a big bowl of oatmeal, some salsa and hot sauce and when the veggies are ready, I dump them on my oats, top with sauces, and enjoy a steaming bowl of savory oatmeal—trust me, it’s the bomb!
Veggie burger (inquire if vegan without egg or cheese mixed in), make sure no mayo or butter on the bun and no cheese. If they are using a brioche bun, which seems to be popular right now, ask for a different bun or go without a bun. Red Robin will do a lettuce wrap or wrap in a tortilla. Grilled or steamed veggies, hummus plate with veggies and pita without feta, home-fries, onion rings, dinner salads that leave off meat, dairy, i.e. Chicken salad without chicken, etc. and use balsamic or lemon for dressing. Soups are good, make sure they are veggie broth and no cream, and often there is a bean chili that is vegan.
Fast food options. Believe it or not, there are vegan fast food options.
- Subway is great for a veggie sub and they’ll even make it into a salad instead of a sandwich if you want. Make sure the bread is one of their honey-free options. You can get guac instead of mayo. They have a veggie patty, but it has egg in it, so not vegan, even if the staff insists it is vegan, it’s not (we’ve encountered this).
- Wendy’s has baked potatoes and some vegan dressings for their salads.
- McDonald’s fries are NOT VEGAN as they have beef tallow in them for flavoring, but lots of other places have vegan fries.
- Taco Bell is easy vegan too, as the beans, potatoes, tortillas, guac, and rice are all vegan. If you ask for it “fresco style” they’ll sub pico de gallo for cheese and sour cream.
- Whole Foods has an amazing salad/buffet bar with all kinds of vegan options. It’s not cheap, but you’ll have lots of things to choose from. We use them a lot when we first get into a town and haven’t had the time to scope out other options, especially if we are needing to do some grocery shopping too.
- There’s a handy app for finding vegan options at fast food places too: VeganExpress. It’s good to have if you find yourself in a pinch.
When traveling outside of the US. Here’s my post just for traveling, but Veganagogo is a great app (unfortunately only for iPhone at this time) that translates “I am vegan. I do not eat any meat, poultry, fish or seafood or any animal products including all diary products, eggs and honey” and other useful vegan meal questions into 50 different languages! It’s fantastic and a must-have if you travel. It will also work if you are in a US restaurant with a non-English-speaking waitperson too! Happy Cow and Vanilla Bean, mentioned above, include establishments outside of the US as well, so they’re a great resource.
Being vegan doesn’t mean you have to be deprived or antisocial. Go out and enjoy yourself, eat with friends and family! Show everyone just how easy it can be and show restaurants that vegans want options at their establishments! The more we go out, the more they’ll start having options available.
Where are your favorite places to dine out? Any surprises?
Cindy Thompson, MS, is a certified Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator; an American Council on Exercise certified Health Coach, Peer Fitness Trainer, and Fitness Nutrition Specialist; Tilth Alliance Soil and Water Steward; 5 Gyres Ambassador; Rouxbe Culinary School Plant-Based Professional; and retired fire captain and paramedic. She provides health and lifestyle coaching at Trimazing! Vegan Lifestyle & Health Coaching. Cindy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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