Is there such a thing as a low-maintenance vegan?
July 10, 2014 9:14 AM   Subscribe

What are some ways to navigate the menu when eating vegan in a mainstream restaurant?

I sometimes go through periods of not eating animal products. I'm fairly flexible about this, and particularly flexible in restaurants because it seems to be nearly impossible unless I go ahead and order something essentially non-caloric or depressing. To make matters more difficult, these are generally mainstream US restaurants, i.e., not like they are Thai or Indian or anything that is a bit more flexible and less reliant on the existence of cheese (my dining companion is "not adventurous").

I was wondering, though, if other people had found good ways of navigating this in a non-annoying fashion. My ex-husband waited tables, and so I have built-in radar about being an annoying customer who wants to substitute this for that and get that on the side and etc etc. I also like a nice smooth restaurant experience. I've seen people order food like they're two steps away from going into the kitchen and preparing it themselves.

However, I also like food and consuming calories and not feeling deprived.

So: does anyone have any tips for eating vegan in restaurants without being super annoying or do you just give up and cook at home? I'm looking for specific things I can look for or ask for in not-obnoxious way that will put me on the path of eating something other than lettuce for dinner.

For clarity's sake, I'm not the type who wants food cooked in separate pans or would be terribly upset if the green beans touched butter in the cooking process or anything, and I am not going to ask for an ingredient list to find out whether their pasta contains eggs or not--just giving it a good faith effort.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Food & Drink (12 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If the restaurants you're going to are moderately nice, calling ahead will often work wonders (or will let you know that you'll be eating undressed lettuce and to snack ahead accordingly). I've had some pretty great meals that way (and have been given terrible veggie plates after being promised good vegan options too, but that's life as a vegan).

If I haven't been able to call ahead, I'll generally just throw myself on the mercy of the kitchen and ask for whatever they can most easily make vegan. That tends to go over pretty well and sometimes I've gotten nice meals out of it (something made specially, or at least a selection of sides and apps that add up to a reasonably balanced meal) and sometimes I get the super sad steamed veggie plate or house salad scaled up to dinner plate size (which sucks, but I figure the more people who show up looking for vegan options, the more likely the restaurant is to actually develop some). The most common decent option is pasta with sauteed veggies, just specify that you want olives or some kind of flavoring agent since they're scrambling to put it together, it doesn't get a lot of thought and can be super bland.
posted by snaw at 9:38 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

During my vegetarian days, many a meal at a boring suburban place was soup or appetizer, a side of fries, and a decadent dessert. Once I add fries and a dessert, I can feel like I really went out. Admittedly, desserts often have dairy, but maybe splurging on a cocktail will work for you.
posted by advicepig at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2014

I've no experience with not having to do this in a restaurant (vegetarian, though, not vegan) and one way that usually works out well is to (after having combed through the menu for the likely options and settled on things) say "and, let me know if anything I'm ordering has any meat?" Almost always it is "Oh, vegetarian? Sure, I can let you know!" and they weigh in where it's needed if it is.

The internet is terrific for this because you can do all your menu research in advance nowadays. I rarely go somewhere unprepared, even if I've only glanced at the menu on my phone ten minutes before going. Seek out appropriate places instead of just going in blind. I mostly don't eat Thai food because I don't want to have a "I don't eat fish" exchange in a place that's made perfectly clear that the majority of their menu is reliant on fish sauce.

I have had good meals in mainstream places by ordering a lot of side dishes. Most restaurant veg stir-fries are pretty overcooked, sad, cornstarchy main courses, but some of my favourite restaurants are steakhouses because they're happy to bring me enormous dishes of asparagus! grilled onions! tomato salad! sauteed mushrooms! etc. Side-dish smorgasbord is pretty good, especially when the alternative is "weird eggplant/quinoa thing we only make once a week."

I feel like you risk tripping people up with the 'okay with pasta with egg' part. Are you okay with deep-fried stuff that has egg in the batter? I think vegetarians end up eating a lot of deep-fried zucchini and that's good because deep-fried zucchini is delicious, but it's not vegan -- I think the 'good faith effort, but not fussy' part would confuse a lot of servers. Maybe the optimal phrasing there is "But I'm not, you know, allergic or anything; if there's a tiny bit because that's how it's cooked I'm fine"? I don't know.
posted by kmennie at 9:52 AM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is the best guide I've ever seen, hands down: How to Order Vegan Food at Any Restaurant. Clear and supremely useful, even if much of it sounds like common sense.

Basically, find menu items that look like they might already be vegan, and ask after the particular non-vegan ingredients you think they could contain. Does the marinara sauce have parmesan in it? Is the rice simmered with chicken or vegetable stock? Were the beans cooked in vegetable oil or lard?

I'd also recommend telling wait staff that you're vegetarian, and only indicating that you're vegan if they appear to completely understand what vegetarianism actually entails (i.e. they don't immediately offer you that night's seafood special). I've been vegan for over 10 years but some people still look at me like I'm nuts if I use that particular word to describe my diet. Vegetarianism is much easier for most folks to grasp, so I normally just say that I'm a strict (no chicken/fish) vegetarian who doesn't eat eggs or dairy.

A combination of PETA's guide to eating vegan at chain restaurants, HappyCow, and VegGuide will help round out your options.

You will, however, be SOL for dessert the vast majority of the time. Even vegetarian restaurants don't often carry vegan desserts. Apologies in advance!
posted by divined by radio at 9:53 AM on July 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm often dismayed by the number of people – including waitstaff – who don't understand what the word "vegan" means. I recently had a bad experience with an upscale restaurant. I called ahead to see if I could get a vegan meal, since there was nothing obviously vegan listed on the menu. I was assured that it wouldn't be a problem. When I arrived, I informed both the host and the waiter that I had made accommodations for a vegan meal. When my meal finally arrived (it was a potato rösti), it was covered with melted cheese. And I'm pretty sure that the side-dish was cooked with butter. My guess is that the chef thought that "vegan" meant "ovo-lacto-vegetarian".

So, anyway, my advice is to be very specific when you request a vegan meal, and make sure that they understand that you can't eat any dairy products, eggs, or honey.
posted by alex1965 at 10:14 AM on July 10, 2014

I have a friend who is vegan but pretty laid back about food environments she can't control. When ordering at an unfamiliar restaurant, she narrows her choice by what looks vegetarian, then asks the waiter if it is--in fact--vegetarian (we've had things which appear vegetarian on the menu show up as a side with steak tartare. . . that was awkward). She'll clarify if the pasta is egg pasta, too, or sometimes specify that she does not eat eggs and then ask if it can be made dairyfree as well (ie, no cheese or served in olive oil instead of a cream sauce). She's okay knowing that she's consuming some nonvegan food this way, but is very much a believer that perfect is the enemy of the good. YMMV.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:19 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding calling in ahead of time. I did this before and it worked well, (note: make sure to call in at off-peak hours, the staff appreciate this a lot)
posted by crawltopslow at 10:54 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

My dad is a chef. He just likes to know, and he has fun putting together random dietary-specific meals.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 12:29 PM on July 10, 2014

I am not vegan myself but as part of my job I arrange dinners and meals for speakers and VIPs in a city (actually I should say country) not exactly known for vegan food.
My experience is that at restauraunts with several vegetarian dishes on the menu (look on their website or call) it is no trouble to call ahead and order a vegan menu. I found many are quite willing to modify their vegetarian dishes to vegan.
Mind you, these are generally slightly upper price range restaurants with only freshly prepared dishes, not relying heavily on processed and frozen industrial products.
posted by 15L06 at 2:18 PM on July 10, 2014

I was vegan for several years, and my approach was similar to crush-onastick's friend. Unless the menus are crystal-clear about what is/isn't/could be made vegan, you are probably going to be high-maintenance if you're unwilling to risk any contact with animal products. Being a high-maintenance customer is fine, IMO, as long as you tip well.

There's also a big difference between asking "is this made with beef broth?" and asking about which of the following 16 menu items contain animal products. I think if you narrow your list down to 1 or 2 things that look like they ought to be safe and ask a clarifying question to determine which you'll order, you're not going to be "that customer."
posted by duffell at 6:38 AM on July 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm a bit phobic about being considered high maintenance in restaurants. I tend to just order something that looks close to being vegan and just clarify how I want it -- eg "ketchup instead of mayo", "there's no egg in that is there?". Admittedly this isn't foolproof and probably won't work if you're strict about there being absolutely no traces of dairy (something I'm not very strict about at the moment).
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:11 PM on July 11, 2014

Many larger chain restaurants now have allergy menus - often a binder kept behind the server's station that contains allergy or sometimes even full ingredient information on menu items. Luckily for you, egg and dairy are both common allergens and so will be listed. I've seen some that list substitutions/changes the kitchen is able to make, which isn't always easy or straightforward in modern day chain restaurant freezer/microwave heavy kitchens

I have been able to get fairly adequate meals this way. There's not usually much of a range of choice but it's better than a plate of undressed leaves every time.

(But please don't tell them you're allergic - maybe just say you have "personal dietary requirements" if you don't think they'll understand "vegan".)
posted by mosessis at 11:00 PM on July 11, 2014

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