Eating out is not that hard, even for vegans. It’s really not – especially in your own stomping grounds: your neighborhood, town, or city. But it does take some investment. First, you need to invest your time to find the best restaurants for you. Second, you must make a people investment – in your relationships with the staff and owners you meet there.
Let’s start with finding the best places. Via a web browser or an app on your smart phone, Yelp can give you restaurant locations, reviews, ratings, and menus. HappyCow is similar with a specific focus on vegetarian/vegan-friendly fare. Or, you can just Google “vegetarian or vegan restaurants near me”. If you want to go old school, your “social network” of family and friends can alert you to new and interesting dining options. Here are a few choice guidelines from my experience:
- Best bets: Ethnic restaurants, particularly Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indian), Mexican, and Middle Eastern.
- Worst bets: “American” chains and Italian restaurants (it’s hard to find anything without cheese or chicken broth mixed in). When in dire straits, look for veggie side dishes and bundle several of them into a meal.
- Best surprise: Steak houses with good salads or salad bars. You can often get a baked potato with steamed veggies on the side. Generally, though, I just don’t want to spend too much time supporting steak houses.
- Worst surprise: Vegan/Vegetarian specialty restaurants. I’ve been disappointed by menus comprised almost exclusively of mock “meat” and “cheez” dishes made from highly-processed ingredients.
- Support local mom-and-pop restaurants: They always seem more interested in really satisfying you as their customer.
Once you’ve found a handful of eateries that you’d like to frequent frequently, you can begin building relationships with the staff and ownership. Why bother, you ask? My take: people are supremely important – they have a tremendous impact on your life and how you live. Why not treat people well and make some new friends? You’ll be richer for it, and so will they. In addition, your friends on the staff make all the difference in getting the meal you want – and they’ll even help you avoid pitfalls when you forget to ask “is there any cheese in that?”.
Some tips for building these relationships:
- Learn your server’s name right away and introduce yourself as well. If they forget to give their name, say “I apologize, but I didn’t ask your name when we first sat down.”
- Let them know what you’re all about (in a short, simple manner), and ask for help with the menu. For example, “Hi Susan, I’m Tim. My wife Caroline and I are both vegans, and we’d like to order something that is all plant-based, made without animal products. Can you help us?”
- Become a “regular” and order your favorite dish all/most of the time. A bit of routine makes life easier for you and the wait staff. You don’t need to obsess over the menu, and your server can just write “Tim special” on his pad. Servers appreciate patrons who know what they want and who are happy and grateful to get it.
- Tip well, very well. Give vegans everywhere a good name.
Eating out is enjoyable and fun. It’s also an opportunity for investment – in the place and in the people. It does require effort, obliging you to build and use your best social skills, and ultimately, to be an ambassador for vegans and the vegan lifestyle. But it’s soooo worth it. Live well, make friends, and eat well.