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When It’s Not on the Restaurant Menu

Dining out at a restaurant as a veg*n can present some challenges — along with some great opportunities…

So you’re vegan, mainly vegan, vegetarian, or some other variation, and you’re heading out with friends or family to dine out at a restaurant. Or maybe you plan on dining out with a veg*n and you are (correctly) assuming that a steak house is probably not the best choice for dinner.

Where do you go? What do you do when there’s nothing even closely resembling a veg selection on the menu? How do you enjoy the company of your friends without annoying the hell out of everyone around you with all of your special and awkward ingredient questions and dietary demands that seem to make others extremely uncomfortable? How do you enjoy yourself without the strong urge to lecture, argue or cry while surrounded by all that carnage?

Friends perusing the menu for plant-based options

Restaurant Selection

It took me a while before I realized that even if there appears to be nothing without meat, fish or foul on the menu, the chef will not complain about preparing a special vegetarian dish.

One time I was at an all-seafood restaurant in Southern California with a group of my friends — and there was absolutely nothing veg on the menu. The server actually had the chef come to the table to discuss some creative options with me. I joked around how I’d like a veggie pasta sans seafood dish, but could he please make it look like Patrick Swayze? Another time while booking reservations online, I entered a comment about being mainly vegan. The chef had prepared this fabulous veggie entree’ that was worthy of the cover of Bon Appetit.

Custom vegan dish prepared by the chef for me that was not on the menu...
Custom vegan dish prepared by the chef for me…

Over time, I’ve gotten more comfortable with making this type of request from restaurant staff and owners. It’s possible to do without attracting a lot of attention, or feeling like a pain-in-the-butt Prima Donna.

Menu Navigation

Without fail, my friends peruse the menu for something suitable for me way before it occurs to me.

Most restaurants / cafes have something on the menu — more than likely vegetarian (not vegan). Veggie burgers have cropped up over the years; some restaurants make their own veggie / bean patties that are quite tasty.

And it’s often easy enough to turn something from vegetarian to vegan if that is your preference.

Get creative. Don’t be afraid to ask. I was at an outdoor music festival where people were slinging eggs and sausage, making omelets to order. I just asked them if they’d throw some potatoes and veggies together, omit the eggs, and make a veggie hash. No problem. Delish dish.

Server Interactions

I’ve relaxed quite a bit about a lot of my more militant vegan requests and requirements while dining out. I want to enjoy the experience and not give mainly vegans in general a bad reputation. So I’ve learned to choose my battles. Eggs in the pasta? I don’t even ask anymore. Butter or dairy in the sauce? Of course there is — so I either order it knowing that or choose something else. Yes, it’s okay to ask if the rice pilaf or tomato soup were made with veggie broth (vs. chicken broth). Or if the refried beans contain lard (pork fat) (likely unless you’re at a very vegetarian-friendly restaurant). Just be prepared to have to wait for the server to run back to the kitchen to ask those questions.

Vegan man asking waiter questions about menu optionsHopefully, the server returns to the table with a definitive answer within the same day…

It’s also okay to confide in the server (or chef / owner if they’re around) that you think it would be awesome if in the future the restaurant made vegetarian dishes without any animal products in them.

Flexible and Accommodating Chefs

I imagine it gets pretty boring preparing the same dishes in the same  ways over and over again. So maybe having a mainly vegan on the premises presents the chefs with a challenge to test their culinary skills.

You really can’t expect them to have a jar of Veganaise or a block of almond cheese at their disposal. But you can politely ask whether they’d be willing to omit the butter and use olive oil instead. Or perhaps skip the cheese altogether, and definitely substitute any meat with lots of vegetables and/or tofu.

Mainly Vegan's list of restaurant dishes that often contain animal-based ingredients
Mainly Vegan’s list of restaurant dishes that often contain animal-based ingredients

When You’re in the Middle of Nowhere

Road side diners and cafes with white bread, iceberg lettuce salads, and deep fried meat dishes as far as the eye can see. What to do? If you’re vegetarian or a mainly vegan who consumes dairy products, you’ll have an easier time of it. But try not to panic — you probably won’t starve. Maybe get into the habit of carrying some munchies like granola bars, fruit and nuts with you while on the road just in case of an emergency.

When You’re Surrounded by Meat

So there you are sitting at a restaurant with primarily meat on the menu wondering how you’ll be able to sit across the table from your sister watching her eat a bacon cheeseburger. Or how do you remain true to yourself and your mainly vegan diet without your mere presence becoming impossible for others to endure?

You most likely will get asked about why you chose to stop eating meat — usually while others are eating meat at the table. So before you dim the lights in preparation for the informative slideshow, my advice is to keep it as brief, light, and free from guilt-inducing statements as possible.

“Personal preference.”
“I can tell you more about it later.”

Even more intriguing: What others really want to hear in response? “Allergies.” Or for some reason these two also seem more acceptable: “Weight loss” or “doctor’s recommendation / dietary restrictions.”

When asked what caused me to give up eating meat, I’ve used this one to mixed reviews:

“I looked at my dog one day and something just clicked.” Ooh. Maybe that one is just a little too unsettling for those with dogs or cats who they wouldn’t dream of any harm coming to them.

Much less digestible for friends and family while at the restaurant table:

“It’s animal flesh, not food.”
“Meat is murder.”
“Could someone please get the lights? I’ve got a brief but very illuminating video for you folks to enjoy during your meal…”

Friends raising glasses for toast at restaurantConclusion

Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to dine out among carnivores in restaurants with grace, ease and style. You can put the focus on the quality time and fun spent with others sitting at the table with you. Or maybe choose to view it as a study in human behavior. It is interesting to witness how uncomfortable your decision not to do something (consume animal products) makes others. And if a server, manager or chef goes out of his or her way to accommodate your dietary requests, please make sure to thank them. And to also perhaps suggest they add a veg option or two on the menu in the near future.

But wait, one more question, Susie Server: “Do you offer any organic vegan wines or beers?”

I’ll cover other interesting table and social gathering dynamics experienced as a mainly vegan in separate articles…


I've been spending time in the kitchen for as long as I can remember. My mother taught me how to cook when I was just a kid, and I've always found it to be very therapeutic. I've also been writing journal entries, short stories, articles, and other documentation for eons. And the only regret I've had since moving to a plant-based diet in 2002 is that I didn't discover it sooner...

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