Friday Mail Day: Tips for Vegan Travel & Dining at Non-Vegan Restaurants

Tips for Vegan TravelIt’s been a while since we’ve had a Friday Mail Day!  Today’s letter comes from S.J. who is having a problem finding vegan options in non-vegan restaurants.  She was kind enough to let me share her letter here with you.  I’d love to hear any advice you have for S.J. or thoughts about what you have done in similar situations.

S.J. writes…

Hello,

I hope you’re having a good holiday season. =)

I’ve been reading your blog for a little over a year now, and I really appreciate all the work you put into making your blog such a great place to get information.

I was hoping I could get your advice about going out to eat with friends. I have a good group of friends whom I really care about. It takes me a long time to get comfortable with people, so I am lucky to have this set of friends. I’m not currently living close to them, so it’s important to me to make an effort to see them when I can. 

I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life but in the past year transitioned to being vegan. My friends are aware of this, and they have been supportive of me (none are vegan/vegetarian). The only problem is that they often aren’t sure where to eat if I’m attending, and they think the only places I can eat are places like Sweet Tomatoes/Soup Plantation (i.e. salad bars). 

I told them that I am usually able to find some sort of option even at places that are not exactly “vegan friendly”. Whenever we want to get together to go out to eat, they usually give me a handful of places and I’ll call and ask the restaurant what their vegan options.

I’m getting ready to spend about a week in their area, so today I called around to about 10 different restaurants and I’m nearly in tears! They all said that either 1) I could have one of their salads (usually a side salad) or 2) They don’t have any options because their soup base is beef, their dishes or baked goods all have eggs/milk, etc. 

Do you have any advice?

Thank you so much.

S.J.

Tips for vegan travel - IndianHi S.J.,

Thank you for your letter!  Such a good question!

There are a few things I do when I’m going to be eating with non-vegans in a restaurant setting.  First, I try to steer people towards ethnic restaurants like Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, or Indian.  Typically, it’s easier to find dishes that are already vegan or that can easily be made vegan in those restaurants.

* 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 wots.)

* At Mexican restaurants, I ask about lard in the beans, 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 there is any dairy in the dishes and ask them to omit that.

* Another option is pizza.  I’m always happy with a cheeseless pizza and oftentimes the crusts are vegan.  You’ll just need to ask.

Tips for vegan travel - mediterraneanI recommend checking out the Happy Cow website.  Type in the city you’ll be visiting to see if they have any vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants listed.  (Happy Cow is largely updated by recommendations from users.  So it’s also a big help to others who live in your city or are visiting to check out the listings in your town and add any restaurants that you know have vegan options.)

If you have a smart phone, Happy Cow also has an app that is incredibly useful when traveling.  In addition to being able to search a location you plan to visit, it can also tell you which vegan, vegetarian, or vegan-friendly restaurants or grocery stores are near your current location and within what mileage.  One of the first things I do after checking into a hotel is to look at the Happy Cow app on my phone and see my closest options.

I also like to use Yelp and search with the keyword “vegan” under the city I’ll be visiting. Yelp can be a little less useful sometimes because a reference like “Vegans would hate this place” also comes up in the search.  However, I’ve heard that Yelp is working on that.

In addition, it can be helpful to do a Google search for the city you’ll be visiting with the word “vegan” to see if any bloggers have written about vegan meals in that city.  It’s best to put quotes around the word vegan, or else Google defaults to showing vegetarian options as well, which isn’t always as useful.  (I don’t know where your friends live, but on my blog under the Travel section in the header I have all of the states and cities I’ve written about on my blog.  Just pull down the list to the state you’ll be visiting.  Who knows?  Maybe I’ve gone there!)

Tips for vegan travel - Noodles and CompanySome chain restaurants have also made it easier by being really upfront about their vegan options, and so even though chains aren’t always the most exciting, at least they’re a known commodity and easy to search. Noodles & Company (shown above), 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.

I’ve also gotten some really tasty (albeit casual) meals at natural grocery stores.  If your friends are open to a very laidback lunch, many natural food stores have delis, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and more and tend to be very vegan-friendly.

Barring that, it can be useful to look at the online menus of any restaurants you’re thinking of visiting, maybe even ones you’ve already called.  Sometimes restaurants say out of hand that they don’t have vegan options, but it’s because they’re not used to looking through a vegan lens.  If you look at the menu and glance over all of the entrees and sides, even the very meaty ones, see what vegetables they are incorporating.  It may be easier than they think to put black beans in their tacos with guacamole instead of sour cream or have a hodgepodge meal with a baked potato or hash browns, a salad, and sautéed mushrooms. It’s also possible that you could request that they make an item a little differently by sautéing in oil instead of animal-based butter or use water instead of milk in their oatmeal.

Crust Pizza in Bettendorf, IowaFor example, when I go to my favorite pizza place, they don’t have any vegan pizzas listed.  However, I look at all of the pizzas as if the toppings are a grocery list.  I imagine what I could pull together out of the options to make a really great pie.

It’s not an ideal scenario, but as a last resort I’ve also been known to smuggle my own additions into a restaurant if I know they won’t have much for vegans and the restaurant is being chosen for me (i.e. for a large family get together).

* For breakfast buffets, I’ve smuggled in a small individual pack of rice milk, so that I could have rice milk in their cold cereal and in my coffee.

* I’ve brought in individual packages of hummus (they make shelf stable ones now too that you can just keep in your purse for such an occasion) and added it to the packaged bagels they had on offer.  (Of course, you’ll want to check that there’s not an egg wash on the bagels, but lots of bagels are vegan.)

* Having nuts in your bag to add to salads or packaged coconut bacon to top a baked potato make them considerably more interesting.

Restaurants frown on people bringing outside food, but as long as you’re discreet and are still buying other food there, I doubt anyone will complain.

Good luck, S.J., and please let me know how your trip goes and if there’s any other way I can help.

All the best,

Cadry

Have you ever been in a similar position?  What advice would you give to S.J. or anyone else concerned about being vegan while traveling?

19 thoughts on “Friday Mail Day: Tips for Vegan Travel & Dining at Non-Vegan Restaurants

  1. There’s nothing more depressing than that sad iceberg lettuce salad sitting in front of you (with one unripe cherry tomato and a few dried out carrot shreds on top) while your friends have big plates of food. *stomach growling angrily* Sometimes I think: just give us vegans ONE decent item on the menu, for crying out loud!

    You’ve covered all of the bases, Cadry. Great suggestions. Cheese-free pizza is one of our a go-tos; or rice and beans; veggie fajitas. Usually restaurants will steam up a pile of veggies (yeah, pretty boring, but…) – or can create a meal of veggie sides. As Cadry says, just make sure they don’t sauté in butter.

  2. This is a great post, Cadry! You’ve covered pretty much everything, and what I do in a tough situation is see if the restaurant has baked potatoes that aren’t pre-cooked with butter. Top it with green onions and salsa (if available), maybe olives or veggies if you’re lucky and you have a decent plate (way better than iceberg lettuce IMO.

    Also, there’s a terrific post on this topic over at Vegan backpacker! http://veganbackpacker.com/featured-articles/how-to-order-vegan-food-at-any-restaurant/

  3. Good advice, as always. It’s true that if you ask a restaurant what is vegan, then the answer is usually very few things. It’s better to ask how a dish is prepared (using butter, cheese, chicken broth), and then see where you can customize. Sometimes it’s a hybrid of two dishes. Breakfast places are particularly tough. My husband started ordering the filling of a veggie omelet, but with fried potatoes (which were elsewhere on the menu) instead of eggs. Brilliant!
    I’m also glad to hear you’re not above smuggling!!

  4. oh no. that sucks. 10 restaurants with just side salads. pfft.
    I think you covered most everything Cadry. I am a fussy traveller(when i do) so hubbs makes sure we know all options at pit stops. ethnic restaurants and cheeseless pizzas are definitely the better options most times.

  5. What a great post Cadry! I recently have transitioned to vegan and I used the Happy Cow website to find vegan-friendly restaurants when I was travelling to Brazil in September, and when I’m visiting friends and family outside of my familiar areas.

    Another thing I thought I mention was calling restaurants ahead of time to see what their vegan options are (I suggest calling before 3/4 pm while most kitchens are prepping their dinner service), and ask if they can make a dish special for you if they don’t have a vegan dish at all. I find that restaurants are usually a lot more accommodating when you call in advance to give them a heads up. (I’ve sat at many a restaurant with a sad plate of salad or garlic oil pasta because of being unprepared for going out to eat).

    And whenever I find that the service has been really helpful and accommodating, I tip extra well for good karma and obviously in gratitude. I had one server at The Works in Toronto go back and forth between the kitchen to go out of her way to find out if the veggie burgers and specific toppings (sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, etc.) were vegan even though I was willing to stick with a portobello mushroom cap to be safe. She made the dinner much more enjoyable and I left with a happy belly of a filling veggie burger and great, veg toppings =)

  6. Another thing to always remember when you’re frustrated or discouraged because of the lack of vegan food options is that you’re not there for the food. You’re there for your friends, to spend quality time together enjoying each other’s company. You can eat amazing, wonderful, blow-your-mind vegan food at home where you’re comfortable.

    Yes, it’s great when restaurants have wonderful vegan options, but nearly every American restaurant has a baked potato and some sort of steamed veggie. Get the potato plain (I always get Italian dressing, provided it’s vegan, as a sauce) and ask for veggies. I recently ate with some omni friends at a bar-b-que place, and the only thing I could eat on the menu was a baked potato, corn without butter, and steamed veggies. Even the green beans were made with bacon! Just be polite, ask nicely, and most restaurants are more than happy to oblige. I left feeling full, even though it wasn’t a special meal, and had a great time with my friends. Besides, I often eat a potato and veggies at home.

    Don’t stress. You’re there for your friends. A few days of iceberg salads won’t kill you, but if you’re stressed out about it, it will certainly turn your friends off from veganism.

    • Thank you for your advice, I never thought of it in this way.

      I think that “You’re not there for the food. You’re there for your friends, to spend quality time together enjoying each other’s company” is true to an extent.

      However, at this point in my life I feel like a major component of my social life revolves around eating out and having drinks. When I’m the only one having to say no, or the one who takes 20 minutes to get your order correct, I wonder how much patience my friends will have with me? I don’t want to come off as picky but I do need to stick to my choice of not eating animals. I think it’s good about what you said to not show my stress and to stay positive.

      • S.J. – I know what you mean about not wanting to try your friend’s patience! Not to mention, not wanting to lose your social life because of your more limited restaurant options. I think this is why reviewing the menu online, and calling ahead is a really good idea. If they don’t have an online menu, see if you can get a take out menu from them. Get all the decision making out of the way before you even get there! And plus, then you get to spend the whole few days or hours leading up to it drooling and getting excited anticipating a vegan meal at a restaurant! That is, unless you do have to settle for a boring side salad :-/ But, at least you can anticipate it, and ordering will be easy.

  7. This is such an informative post, Cadry! I’m highly impressed by how you’ve covered the answer from pretty much every possible angle. And I like how you’ve mentioned Indian twice on the list of Ethnic Restaurants. Hehe

    Vegetarian food is such a big part of Indian cuisine so many of the dishes are either already vegan-by-mistake or fairly easily veganise-able. One just needs to watch out for that dreaded ‘ghee’ (clarified butter) which tends to sneak in all over the place.

    When we lived in the US a decade ago, we’ve stayed at cities which have been vegan havens, as well as smaller towns in the middle of nowhere where veganism barely existed. A post like this one would have encouraged us to eat out a lot more often in these towns. :)

    My one suggestion to SJ is: when you call the restaurant to check for vegan options, it is a good idea to ask to speak to the chef directly. Often the person who answers the phone is pretty clueless about how the food can be customised. Chefs tend to be a lot more helpful. Just be polite and smile when you talk to them on the phone. You know what they say, “They can hear the smile in your voice”. ;)

  8. I think talking to people is key – people automatically assume they don’t/can’t do vegan food, but after a quick chat, they find they have a couple of things that can be veganised – pasta and a simple sauce with some extra veggies isn’t overly imaginative, but it gets the job done. Failing that, depending on SJ’s location – go for a picnic!

  9. Cadry, this is the best advice ever! As I was reading, I was thinking, “Yea, I’ve got some advice, I’ll leave a comment for S.J.,” but you literally said it all! S.J., between Cadry’s post and all the commenters, you’ve gotten some really great, thorough advice! I always go online and check over menus (partly because I want to know if they’re vegan friendly, but mostly because I’m so excited to try a new restaurant that I can’t wait to think about what I’m going to order…). Recently, I called ahead to an Italian restaurant (probably one of the most un-vegan friendly restaurant types ever) and they actually had three things on the menu that were vegan! And they even made a note with my reservation that I am vegan. I never thought to ask for a hodgepodge of veggies on the menu together, but that’s a great idea!

  10. This is a great post, Cadry! I use some of these tricks already but need to remember about fish sauce when I’m out for Thai. So often I’m super hungry, and when I see tofu curry, my stomach gets ahead of my brain!

  11. Awesome advice Cadry! I follow many of the tips you suggested. The Thai one is good and I don’t think I would have ever known that had I not grown up eating Thai food. And boy, I don’t think our recent trip across the country would have been easy without that Happy Cow site! Technology is so wonderful sometimes :-) Happy New Year!

  12. These are great suggestions. For years, I avoided restaurants because I thought it was too difficult. I’ve found that chefs are usually very willing to help too (and especially when you are gluten-free, which I am because I have Celiac’s).

  13. This is such a great post for new and seasoned vegans a like; we all know what it was like being a new vegan in a restaurant, it can be so overwhelming, this post breaks it down and is such an amazing tool. You rock Cadry!

  14. Pingback: Cronuts in Cronulla and other stories | Great Vegan Expectations

  15. Such a great post! I think that research and phoning ahead is the best tool! Instead of being disappointed when they say they have no vegan options, it’s always good to follow that up with “okay then, well I noticed you have XYZ on the menu – can you cook it a different way to make it vegan?” I’ve had a lot more success that way, as often they won’t have thought of that! When all else fails though, a side salad, a side of (vegan friendly!) baked beans or veg, and a sprinkling of nuts from my purse will keep me going! The most important thing to remember is that you are going to these places to spend time with family and friends :). Concentrate on that :). You can always treat yourself to a meal out at an all-vegan restaurant another time!

  16. What a brilliant post, Cadry, you’ve covered most of the important tips when eating vegan with non-vegans or even families/friends! Happy Cow is pretty useful for Europe and English-speaking friendly countries. It’s difficult to ask restaurants that don’t know vegan options very well esp in a different language, for example, there’s a restaurant in Vegas recommended by a vegan food blogger that offers vegan-friendly options, and the waitress suggested a real mayo instead of cheese for the sandwich (we knew she had no clue), and we left because we don’t want to waste our time there discussing our vegan options. Crusts for pizza may contain animal products or even lard in some countries, so def ask if they are vegan. When it comes to international traveling, I always look for locals’ vegan/vegetarian directories and forums in a different language, and/or “Yelp”-like page, because the locals don’t speak English and they are more updated than Yelp or Happy Cow and it’s amazing to find new information there. For example, I found a 100% vegan restaurant in Bogota, Colombia and it wasn’t mentioned anywhere in Google or Happy Cow or Yelp. Happy Cow should be more international, allowing non-English speaking people, to type information in whatever language they are comfortable with – and there will be a translator of course. -Rika

  17. Hannah Siegmund on January 4, 2014 at 8:29 am said:

    “Another thing to always remember when you’re frustrated or discouraged because of the lack of vegan food options is that you’re not there for the food. You’re there for your friends, to spend quality time together enjoying each other’s company. You can eat amazing, wonderful, blow-your-mind vegan food at home where you’re comfortable.”

    I’m afraid I have to strongly disagree with this sentiment as it follows that nobody should ever expect good food in a restaurant, omnivore, vegetarian or vegan. When I pay a professional chef to prepare meals for I expect it to be better than what I can prepare at home because I am not professionally trained. Therefore, I am not willing to pay for iceberg lettuce and no good friend would expect me to accept such an awful “meal”.

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