Tips for New Vegans: Restaurants

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Welcome to “Tips for New Vegans” week. For the remainder of the week, I’m going to feature tips on being vegan for the new convert. After the week is done, I’ll continue with occasional postings, as driven by your questions. Just submit ‘em over here.

One of the trickiest things for new vegans is eating at restaurants. This isn’t particularly true when you’re the one choosing the restaurant, but it gets more difficult when, say, you’re out for lunch with co-workers at Sweetwater Tavern, where a friend once told me “the only thing vegan there is the napkins.” So, here are a few tips on dealing with these outings:

  • E-mail or call ahead: Even after being veggie for over six years, I still don’t like to pepper the waiter with questions before ordering, particularly when I’m with a group of people who may not be sympathetic. If you have enough warning, visit the restaurant’s web site. See if they have a list of ingredients, mention preparation techniques, or even list specifically what’s vegan. If not, drop them an e-mail or give them a call. You’re pretty anonymous this way, so it’s even a good way for introverts to deal with it. Before my company’s holiday party this past year, I e-mailed the catering company and asked about obtaining a strict vegetarian meal since none were offered. The head chef got back to me and let me know I was covered. What resulted was, by far, the best catered meal I’ve ever had. The downside with this technique, particuarly with e-mailing, is that it’s really hit-or-miss with the restuarants. I’ve found that a lot don’t even bother replying, which is frustrating. But at least you’re no further behind than if you didn’t try.
  • Go with the safe bet: If you find yourself at a restaurant and are feeling the pressure, you can almost always ask for a salad with no cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. Sure, it’s kind of lame, but it’ll hold you over and you can always grab something a little later. The main thing here is to keep a good attitude about it. If you make yourself feel like you’re sacrificing something, you’re probably forgetting why you went vegan in the first place. Veganism’s not about sacrifice, it’s about doing what you know is right.
  • Ask the chef to prepare you something: This is one that’s always recommended in “going vegan”-type books. “The chef will like the challenge!” the books promise. Honestly, I have a feeling this isn’t so true. While it may be true in certain types of restaurants, I suspect it generally leaves chefs grumbling under their breath. However, as long as you’re not asking them for the world, most are perfectly fine with making minor alterations to existing dishes.
  • Know what to watch for. This kind of goes with the last one, so you know what to ask them to leave out. For instance, in Thai restaurants, you always want to be sure to specify “no fish sauce” since curries and even the dishes labeled “vegetarian” will often use it. In Indian restaurants, ask if they can make your meal using oil instead of ghee. And if you’re in a Hungarian restaurant… um, just run. Everything’s probably made with lard.
  • Eat ahead: Jenna over at Vegan Freak Radio has mentioned this a few times on their show. It’s interesting, because I never really thought about this option much. But, yeah, if you eat ahead (and no one needs to know), you can order something light and not walk away hungry or feeling deprived. While I haven’t tried this option often when eating out, I often do it when there are catered lunches in the office. I’ll eat ahead and then just hang out with everyone else afterwards while having a drink. No one ever seems to pay any attention to the fact I don’t have food.
  • Bring a hibachi and cook up some tofu while everyone else orders. Just kidding. Bring tempeh instead.

Initially, eating at restaurants can feel like a hassle, wondering if that really is non-dairy margarine on your bread or if it’s butter. Or worrying that they’ve cooked your pasta-that-might-have-been-made-with-eggs in chicken broth instead of water or veggie broth. But I promise you that with time, it gets much, much easier. These days, it’s almost never an issue. I either make sure not to put myself in uncomfortable situations to begin with or take responsibility for myself and make sure I have something to eat if things don’t work out.

9 Responses to “Tips for New Vegans: Restaurants”

  1. Marcy

    Don’t forget to make sure, even in ‘mostly vegan’/veg eateries, that there’s no casein/whey involved. I especially say this because most commercial soy cheeses have casein, a milk by-product, in them and nobody, not even the servers, remembers about it. same goes for honey in baked goods, and egg products in stuff like commerical veggie burgers.

  2. Brittany Jamison

    These are some really good tips. After reading this entry, I don’t feel as much stress when going to new restaurants. It’s a good reminder that you can always get the salad with no cheese and oil and vinegar dressing. Thanks a lot for the advise.

  3. Jared

    I was a chef for 11 years, believe me, the cooks/chefs are mostly grumbling, expecially if it is busy. :)

    Great tips by the way.

  4. Aubrey

    How long does it take before becoming comfortable with eating out and not worrying about if it doesn’t contain any animal products?

  5. Marcy

    Aubrey, I’ve been a vegan for about 11 years, and veg for about 16. I also travel a lot, but wherever I am, even here in New York, I have yet to get over animal product issues and this nervousness. Even veg or mostly vegan places can mess up, and the worst is when people assume they know what is or isn’t veg/vegan. To be blunt, you never get over it, you just try to find all-vegan places when you can, and you keep asking, and you keep learning. For similar reasons, I keep reading labels of food products I’ve purchased in past, because many brands (like Yves) decide to change their recipes or are forced to label more clearly, and either way, I don’t wnat to be snookered. To end on a positive note, you do feel a real sense of achievement to be long-term about this stuff, because you manage to get both more stubborn and more creative about it along the way. ;)

  6. Katie Miller

    I once pulled the waitress aside when i went to the bathroom and asked her for a plate of grilled veggies. I told her that i had been a vegetarian for a long time, and had recently gone vegan but i hadn’t “come out” to my very carnivore friends. she said she was just the same way, and changed my order. it was one of the best meals i’d ever had.

  7. Girl, I’m vegan. In a biz suit. « My Life is a Sitcom

    […] what happens when group dining comes a-callin’? Well. You suck it up. It just takes a little extra planning. People ask questions, but rarely are these questions offensive. Nobody has ever tried to force me […]

  8. Stephanie Pena

    Thank you so much for the tips, they are very helpful. I’ve been a vegetarian for about two months now, and have been trying to find vegan alternatives to everything I eat. It’s been extremely difficult converting since everyone in my family eats meat everyday at dinner. Both my parents have tried to get me to eat meat because of my diet’s inconveniences. Like when we ate at my cousin’s house and my dad pulled me aside and tried to convince me to eat the beef. (I didn’t cave). Anyway, thanks for the one less conflict when eating in groups. ^_^

  9. Cassie

    When eating out I strive to be vegan and settle for vegetarian. Try your best, but don’t beat yourself up if your meal isn’t 100% veg.
    Veganism isn’t about perfection, it’s about striving to do the right thing.

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