This Washington Post article discusses how some chefs won’t change their dishes at the request of a patron, whether it’s for dietary reasons or simple preference. Though the article doesn’t mention vegetarians, this is something that we deal with anytime we’re eating out at a non-veggie restaurant.
I’m of the mindset that if you’re extremely picky (close-minded) about your food and how it’s served, you shouldn’t be eating at a restaurant. Especially nice ones. If you have well-trained chefs, trust their taste and try what they has to offer. At the same time, I also believe that chefs should have a little bit of flexibility, when it’s reasonable.
For instance, if a dish comes with a meat side, then it’s not unreasonable for a vegetarian patron to request a vegetable side in its place. It won’t ruin a dish’s artistic integrity, it’ll please the patron, and it has the added benefit of saving the restaurant money (a bowl of lightly seasoned steamed broccoli will be cheaper than almost any meat-centric side).
As vegetarians, though, I think we need to be conscious of how we come off when we visit a restaurant. It’s one thing to ask whether a particular dish is cooked with chicken broth, it’s quite another to ask a chef to replace the chicken broth with vegetable broth, leave out the Worcestershire sauce, and add tofu in place of chicken chunks. I also don’t think it’s reasonable to ask that your meal be cooked on a surface separate from where meat is cooked… again, if you’re worried so much about personal purity or unavoidable traces, you probably shouldn’t be eating at a restaurant that serves meat. Of course, that’s also a compelling argument for supporting vegetarian restaurants… these things aren’t nearly as much of an issue.
Yes, restaurants and businesses in general strive to be customer-centric. However, visits to restaurants are more enjoyable when the customers themselves aren’t too customer-centric. As vegetarians, we’re automatically labeled by many as a hassle not worth dealing with (remember this article where chef Anthony Bourdain referred to vegans as “a persistent irritant to any chef worth a damn”?). It’s in our best interest to be friendly—not confrontational—and flexible without compromising our beliefs.