Tips for vegan dining out. Going to restaurants with friends doesn’t have to be a hurdle. Here’s how to get a vegan meal anywhere.
If you’re new to vegan dining out, going to restaurants can feel like a challenge. Fully vegan restaurants may not be prevalent in your area. And menus at non-vegan restaurants may seem like an endless list of animal products that you don’t eat.
But don’t worry! Dining out with friends doesn’t have to end because of your compassionate lifestyle.
Here are some tips for vegan dining out at non-vegan restaurants.
Vegan dining out
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 restaurants like Thai, Japanese, Ethiopian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Mexican, or Indian cuisines. Typically, it’s easier to find dishes that are already vegan or that can easily be made vegan in those restaurants.
Dining at a non-vegan restaurant? Here’s a list of special requests for easy ordering.
Make these requests at non-vegan restaurants:
- At Thai restaurants, ask them to omit fish sauce, oyster sauce, and egg from any dishes that look like they could be made vegan. If you’re ordering a noodle dish, opt for one with rice noodles instead of egg noodles.
- At Ethiopian restaurants look at the vegetable, lentil and bean-based wots (stews). 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, ask about lard in the beans, and chicken broth in the rice. 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. Ask if there is any dairy in the dishes and ask them to omit that. (Occasionally, dairy will slip into dishes where you wouldn’t expect them.)
- At pizza places, ask if the crust & sauces are vegan. Then add as many vegetables as you like. You can really taste the toppings with a cheeseless pizza. Also, nowadays more and more pizza places are carrying a vegan cheese option.
(Have you ever wondered, Should vegans eat at non-vegan restaurants? <—– Here’s my answer.)
Search on Happy Cow
To easily find vegan options in your area or on your travels, I recommend checking out the Happy Cow website or app. Type in your city to see if any vegan or vegan-friendly restaurants are 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. Offer your own review and add restaurants that you know have vegan options.)
If you have a smart phone, the Happy Cow app 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 David and I do after checking into a hotel is to look at Happy Cow and see our closest options.
Look on Yelp
I also like to use Yelp and search with the keyword “vegan” under the city I’ll be visiting.
Be warned, Yelp can be a little less useful sometimes because a reference like “A vegan would hate this place” also comes up in the search.
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. Otherwise, Google defaults to showing vegetarian options as well, which isn’t always as useful. Vegetarians might love a place that specializes in cheese sticks and eggs Benedict, but that doesn’t mean it will be a great fit for vegans.
Chain restaurants are adding vegan options by the day
Some chain restaurants have also made it easier by being upfront about their vegan options. So even though chains aren’t always the most exciting, at least they’re a known commodity and easy to search.
I share more of my favorite vegan fast food options here.
Visit natural grocery stores
I’ve also gotten some really tasty (albeit casual) meals at natural grocery stores. If you are open to a very laid-back lunch, many natural food stores have delis, sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and more. And they tend to be very vegan-friendly.
Do some research
It can be useful to look at the online menus and/or Facebook pages of any restaurants you’re thinking of visiting. Obviously, it’s super helpful (and better for everyone) when restaurants add vegan labels.
Still, sometimes restaurants that don’t immediately appear vegan-friendly may be able to prepare something plant-based using ingredients they already have on hand. It just takes looking at the menu with a vegan lens and a few well-placed questions.
Then either call ahead, send them a message on their social media, or ask your server if they can prepare something vegan.
In case your server or the person answering the phone doesn’t know what vegan means, look at the menu and glance over all of the entrees and sides, even the very meaty ones.
See what vegetables they are incorporating. Use that to guide your ordering.
If they already use black beans, for example, in one dish, and have tacos in another, perhaps they could make black bean tacos with ingredients they already have.
Or look at the side dishes and have a hodgepodge meal with a baked potato or hash browns, a salad, and sautéed mushrooms.
Sometimes a dish can easily become vegan with a small shift in preparation. 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 out for pizza with my in-laws, the restaurant in their town doesn’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.
Check out my vegan travel section
Finally, check out my vegan travel section. I’m always visiting new cities and trying out the vegan options while I’m there. Who knows? Maybe I’ve already visited your town or the city you’re hitting on vacation.
With these tips for vegan dining out, a bit of patience, and an open mind, plant-based meals can be found anywhere.
Originally posted January 2014. Content updated March 2019.