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Dining Out Guide for Vegans
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 $2.99, 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
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.
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
– 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
– 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.
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.”
“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
– 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’
– 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
– 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
– 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!’”
“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.”
“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!”
“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.”
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.
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
– 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!”
“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
– 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.”
“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
– 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
- 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.”
“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
“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