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The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Out

Restaurant Dining

Vegetarians like to wine and dine, too! Credit: Kempinski Grand Hotel

Perhaps one of the biggest complaints I hear from fellow vegetarians is the lack of restaurant options for those who choose not to eat meat. The offerings, if they exist, are usually starchy and plain: baked potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and pasta with marinara sauce. So what’s a food-loving vegetarian to do? Believe it or not, navigating the culinary offerings of your town doesn’t have to be difficult. Try out these tips next time you meet up with your friends for dinner!

Don’t Use the “V” Word

One time, I went to a restaurant where no vegetarian options were listed on the menu. I had told the server I was vegetarian, and she assured me the kitchen would whip up something that would delight both my diet and my taste buds. Imagine my surprise when dinner was served—and there was a giant piece of fish on the plate!
The word “vegetarian” has gotten lost in translation over the years. Though it means “someone who does not eat meat,” it has been used to describe particular omnivore lifestyles: “someone who does not eat red meat,” or “someone who eats fish on occasion.” Be clear: if you do not eat any meat (beef, pork, chicken, fish…), say so. 

Look for “Almost-Vegetarian” Dishes

Most restaurants will identify their vegetarian options on the menu with the letter V or a symbol, like a leaf or carrot. But don’t stop there—take a look at the menu for items that would be easy to convert to your lifestyle! Nachos can have the meat removed and replaced with beans or avocado. A chicken flatbread can be made with sun-dried tomatoes instead. Fajita veggies can top a taco salad in lieu of steak. And almost any kitchen will give you extra vegetables instead of the meat.

Don’t Be Afraid of Exotic Cuisines

Try that new restaurant down the corner. Yes, the one with the weird colors in the window and unique smells wafting out the door. Though the Standard American Diet is meat-centric, other cuisines showcase fruits and vegetables in their cooking:

  • Mexican: Veggie fajitas, bean burritos
  • Mediterranean/Middle Eastern: Falafel, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ganoush, pita breads
  • Chinese: Stir-fried vegetables, tofu, noodle dishes
  • Thai: Pad Thai without meat, curry dishes, rice wraps
  • Japanese: Veggie sushi, tempura, miso soup
  • Indian: Curry dishes, dhal, samosas, pakoras
  • Ethiopian: Inerja with bean and veggie wat

In these settings, be sure to very clearly ask if a dish is truly vegetarian—that includes chicken stock, fish sauce, lard or bacon fat—common ingredients used in restaurants. If a server is unsure, ask them to check with the chef before ordering.

Be Open-Minded

The best vegetarian meal I ever had was at a steakhouse. Yes, I know…I was shocked, too!
My partner, Neil, wanted to go to a fancy steakhouse for his birthday, and I’d never turn down a chance to see my good-lookin’ guy all dressed up. At the restaurant, I told the server I didn’t eat any meat products, and he smiled and said there was a wonderful platter for vegetarians. I fully expected a wedge of iceberg lettuce dripping with oil, vinegar, and the disdain of the chef. But the opposite happened: I was presented with a delicious plate of roasted asparagus, sweet potato risotto with truffle oil and grilled portobello mushrooms. I ate every single delicious bite. I still have dreams about that risotto.

Above All: Be Polite!

You’re not being any more demanding than any other customer when you ask for a breakfast dish without bacon, or when you cobble together a meal from side dishes. You are, however, a high-maintenance pain in the ass when you ream out a waitress for not offering a “formal” vegetarian meal. Rudeness will not get you anywhere.
Express your thanks when a restaurant takes the time to create a special item for you. Even if you’re served a giant pile of white rice and some steamed vegetables, be grateful. That’s good customer service, and deserves to be rewarded. Who knows? Maybe the next time you come in, there will be a new vegetarian dish on the menu.
Fellow veggies, what tips and tricks do you have for eating out? —Susan

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