As a fellow vegan, I can’t begin to list the disasters I’ve had to face when eating out, especially when I was still a novice at this lifestyle and thus completely naïve, thinking restaurants had to cater for everyone, otherwise, how were they supposed to get more clients, right?
Some restaurants could care less, especially if they aren’t warned about your food preference beforehand (yes, ‘warned’ is the word needed here).
Here I’m obviously talking about restaurants that aren’t vegan or vegetarian or have such options in their menu.
There are, however, certain steps and measures you can take to ensure that, at the very least, you won’t be disappointed.
I found out what these measures are through the power of hindsight, and I thought it best to share them in the hopes of helping you avoid similar unsuccessful outings.
If you’re new at veganism, hopefully, you can find these tips useful, but don’t be disheartened if you still have one negative experience, or two, or ten.
Remember you can’t hit the jackpot with every restaurant you go to, vegan or not.
Most of the time it all boils down to the restaurant or chef.
Don’t give up on eating out (or ordering in, for that matter), and certainly don’t give up on being vegan.
Otherwise you might miss out on some serious A-class vegan burgers that you can never replicate at home – trust me, I’ve tried and tried.
Tip #1 – Research
You can start off by searching for vegan-friendly restaurants on websites like HappyCow.
You can also visit specific vegan Facebook pages that deal with particular areas if you know where you want to eat.
You can act on reviews and ratings.
Fellow vegans who share the struggle of eating out are always willing to help out, so if you’re looking for advice, you can ask for suggestions on vegan fora.
Tip #2 – Check the Menu Beforehand
Most restaurants have their menus online nowadays, so it’s very easy to give it a quick look and check what options are available before you make the trip there.
It’s always better if you plan ahead.
That way, you won’t be at a loss at the restaurant, and you avoid being the last one to order because you would’ve chosen at your pace at home.
You would’ve also had the time to be creative with different dishes if the menu isn’t too vegan-friendly.
I have had some great dinners which were made up of different side dishes.
And remember, you can always choose dishes and omit certain ingredients from them if the chef is willing to do that.
Even though vegan options aren’t yet mainstream, more and more restaurants are including vegetarian dishes which are very easy to modify.
Tip #3 – Call the Restaurant
If you cannot find the menu online or you’re unsure about particular menu options, or even if you want to know whether you can modify individual dishes from the menu, don’t hesitate to phone the restaurant and clear up any queries or concerns.
I find that most restaurants are more than willing to ensure you’re completely satisfied.
Plus, if you’re planning on going to a particular restaurant, it’s always recommended you phone in and let them know when that will happen.
Most chefs prefer to be prepared when they’re serving people with specific food preferences and allergies, so go ahead and give them that heads up – it’ll usually work in your favor.
Tip #4 – Explain Your Preferences Well
Unfortunately, there will still be times when you’re assured that a vegan dinner won’t be a problem for the chef, only to turn up and be presented with a mountain-high pile of bland, steamed vegetables, a.k.a a sad excuse for a vegan meal.
The best you could do to avoid such an experience is to be as specific as possible with the waiter/chef – if there’s nothing on the menu for you, don’t be afraid to ask for something particular, and be as detailed as possible.
If you’re brave enough, you could also trust the chef to improvise.
Most of the time you’ll find they’ll offer to do so before you have to ask.
Most chefs will usually jump at the opportunity to break free and get creative.
I’ve eaten some incredible dishes this way, some of which have even been added to the regular menu after my rave reviews.
Tip #5 – Ask About the Ingredients
Whether you’re eating out at a restaurant or you’re ordering fast-food or phoning for take-away delivery, don’t be afraid to ask about the ingredients.
Even if there’s something on the menu that appears to be vegan, there’s no harm in making sure. The best way to go about this is also to ask how a dish is prepared.
A simple ‘mushrooms in garlic’ or ‘bruschetta’ might sound vegan-friendly, especially if you make them at home without having to substitute ingredients, but some chefs might use butter to make them.
You might think that the basic ‘Pasta with tomato sauce’ you ordered is vegan – after all, all the ingredients listed on the menu are safe – but that doesn’t guarantee that the chef doesn’t finish off the dish with parmesan shavings.
So, ask away – better safe than sorry.
Tip #6 – Steer Clear of Set Menus
If you think eating out at a non-vegan-friendly restaurant is already an ordeal, then definitely try to avoid situations where you’re faced with set menus.
Set menus are usually a result of a particular occasion, and (at least in my experience) they’re almost never vegan-friendly.
They tend to be the choice for birthday parties, planned work lunches, holiday dinners, weddings and any other organized event.
Normally the options you get, if we had to break them down, are chicken, meat or fish; and any other dish on the menu – appetizers, starters, desserts – might be vegetarian but almost certainly not vegan.
The problem with set menus is that they’re difficult to get modified.
If you cannot miss a particular event, what you could do is check with the organizer whether it’d be possible to have the chef prepare something just for you or whether you’re allowed to bring something with you.
If all else fails, you’ll have to revert to tip number 7.
Tip #7 – Eat Beforehand
If you’re certain there’s nothing suitable for you, and there’s no room for modifying dishes or for the chef to improvise, then you’ll have to be prepared, or at least your stomach has to.
Eating before going out to…well, eat, might sound like a defeatist strategy, but it’s better to be prepared with a full belly when you know you’ll be spending your time watching your family or friends stuffing their faces, rather than spend your time lusting, craving and drooling.
I will never forget the first wedding I attended as a vegan.
The only edible thing I could consume was the decorative pineapple slices on the cocktail glasses.
Don’t be that ravenous guest, day-dreaming about baked sweet potatoes, meat-free lasagna or black bean burgers, stalking waiters in the hope of them coming out of the kitchen with finger-food you can lay your hands on.
Trust me; no one wants to see that.
Tip #8 – Enjoy Yourself
Even though it’s seemingly illogical, eating out isn’t all about food – it’s an experience, a whole package.
It’s about meeting family, friends, co-workers, prospective wives or husbands.
It’s about socializing, catching up, having fun.
So don’t let confused waiters, incompetent chefs, and order mix-ups get under your skin.
You might have had to scrape off some mozzarella from your pizza, but that shouldn’t mean your night is ruined.
Save it for the reviews, and in the meantime, enjoy yourself.