It’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.
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.
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.
I 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!)
Some 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.
For 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,
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?