A common concern about going vegan is that it will be complicated to find places to eat. In a world littered with fast food restaurants on every corner, there aren’t nearly as many all-vegan restaurants. Does going vegan mean a lifetime of hummus sandwiches from home? Hardly! Even in small towns, you just have to know where to look and what to ask to find compassionate, animal-friendly options.
Most of the time I don’t ask servers, “Hey, do you have anything that’s vegan here?” Not everyone knows what that word means. Some people don’t know the difference between vegetarian or vegan. Some people mistake it for meaning gluten-free. Instead, I peruse the menu and see what is already vegan or what looks like it could be made animal product-free with a few substitutions. When the server comes to the table and it’s my turn to order, I tell them that I don’t eat meat, eggs, or dairy.
Visit ethnic restaurants & pizza places
Typically it’s easier to find and/or request plant-based meals in restaurants that serve Indian, Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, or Mexican food. You just have to know how to ask.
- At Indian restaurants there are lots of bean and rice dishes and many appetizers that are already vegan or can easily be prepared that way. I ask if a dish is made with ghee (i.e. clarified butter), and I let them know I’d prefer it to be made with oil instead.
- At Thai restaurants, I ask them to omit fish sauce, oyster sauce, and egg from any dishes that look like they could be made vegan. If I’m ordering a noodle dish, I opt for one with rice noodles instead of egg noodles.
- At Ethiopian restaurants I look at the vegetable, lentil and bean-based wots (stews) and ask if they use butter or oil in their niter kibbeh. (Niter kibbeh is the flavored oil that is the base of many Ethiopian stews.)
- At Mexican restaurants, I ask about lard in the beans and tortillas, chicken broth in the rice, and ask them to omit any dairy from dishes like guacamole, fajitas, bean burritos, or mushroom tacos.
- At Mediterranean or Middle Eastern restaurants, it’s a vegan paradise with hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, tabouli, vegetable kebabs, mujadra, and chickpea salads. I just ask if they’ve included any dairy in the dishes and ask them to omit that.
- Most pizza places are happy to make a vegetable-heavy pizza and oftentimes the crusts are vegan. I simply ask that it is made without cheese. In lieu of cheese, extra pizza sauce, sauerkraut, avocado slices, hot sauce, or jalapeno slices give pizzas extra oomph.
Visit chain restaurants
Some chain restaurants have made it easier by being really upfront about their vegan options. Noodles & Company, California Pizza Kitchen, Sharkey’s, Jason’s Deli, P.F. Chang’s, Baja Fresh, and Chipotle are a few vegan-friendly chains that come to mind. If you live in a city with an all-vegan chain like Native Foods, Veggie Grill, or Loving Hut, it’s even simpler! (The above photo is of the Greek Gyro Bowl from Native Foods. Highly recommended!)
Do some research
A great tool for finding vegan restaurants is the Happy Cow website and iPhone app. Type in the city of your choice to see if they have any vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants, clothing stores, or grocery stores listed in that area.
Other good resources are Yelp (just search under the key word “vegan” in your city) and Google to see if any vegan bloggers have reviewed vegan options in your town. (Make sure that you put quotes around “vegan” or else Google will default to showing vegetarian options as well, which isn’t always as useful.)
Have a restaurant in mind? Check out their menu online and see if anything jumps out at you. If it doesn’t look particularly vegan-friendly, give the restaurant a call during a time that’s not busy and ask to speak with the manager or chef. Oftentimes restaurants are willing to help, especially with a bit of warning.
Finally, when you get to a restaurant, don’t be afraid to ask for what you want! Look over the menu and read all of the listed ingredients on each entree. Make note of which vegetables they have and create a hodgepodge meal of your own. The steak is served with a baked potato? The chicken tacos are topped with guacamole? The nachos come with black beans and salsa? Ask for a baked potato with black beans, salsa, and guacamole for a Mexican potato that is filling and flavorful.
A smile and friendly attitude goes a long way towards getting what you want. And remember, most restaurants want their customers to be happy. So don’t be shy!
Image Credit: Photo by Cadry Nelson