Monday, 23 November 2015

Vegan and vegetarian food while eating out

A lot of questions people ask me generally, or if they are considering giving up meat and/or dairy, is about eating at restaurants. 

I had my first meal out as fully vegan last week (before I've noted vegan choices but not necessarily always picked them), I made a little extra effort than I had before and rang the restaurant we planned to go to in advance to check what they had available. We went to the Storyteller in Cheltenham.

They were very helpful on the phone advising that at least 2 of the vegetarian options could be made vegan easily if I just ask for no cheese or dressing. It’s south west American food, the fajitas and burrito could easily be made vegan I was informed. It was no hassle ordering, the waiter got what I wanted straight away and adjusted my order with no problems. It was also really nice and I got extra guacamole with my starter as I wasn't having the cheese dip, without me even asking. Great service, and the food is reliably tasty, fresh and interesting every time we go and the vegan option was no different. 
Over the years I have had a few sub-par meals but only been to one place where they had literally nothing for me, so I’ve put together a brief guide on what type of places I find best for providing decent options and what type of places to avoid. Most of these are UK based but some of the generic cuisine groups will apply in other countries. These are places I have just found to be good or not so good in my own experience, but it is always worth reading the menus as there will of course be exceptions to this – or maybe I’ve been to the exceptions!
Let’s start with where I have struggled as it’s a shorter list:
  1. French – I find not many French restaurants have a great choice, some will have vegetarian but it is usually very cheese laden. The only restaurant I have ever had to leave after sitting down and ordering drinks, as they had nothing and didn’t want to modify any menu items for me, was a French place in San Francisco. In Paris I also struggled and didn’t even sit down in a lot of places. I’m sure there are places in Paris but it was a surprise trip and I wasn’t prepared.
  2. BBQ or steak houses – Obvious really.
  3. Chain pub/restaurant places – Talking your reasonably price family eatery/pub, Beefeater etc. Most will have some vegetarian options, but not much vegan in my experience. Also the food is sometimes pre prepared so there can be little room for alterations, or the places I have been are just unwilling to alter. Harvester do have a salad bar that you can fill up on.
These kind of places will likely have something but you are often going to only have one option, or have to have an array of side dishes rather than a main course.

Places/cuisines that are better:

  • South American/Mexican – You can usually have the fajitas, quesadillas etc with meat or vegetable filling, ask for no cheese and no sour cream and a lot can be made vegan. Check about dairy in the refried beans and quesadilla filling though.
  • Indian – Again curry usually comes with option for meat or vegetable, and they use coconut cream not dairy cream in many recipes. Be careful of things being cooked in ghee for vegans, just ask what they cook in.
  • Chinese – A lot I’ve been to have a vegetarian section of the menu, and lots from that can be vegan.
  • Thai – Use of tofu in Thai food seem more common and it’s part of the main menu not a side option for vegetarians, after eating lots of carbs and wine in Napa I was so happy to find a Thai restaurant with vegan options and tofu, and cider!
  • Caribbean – We have a small Caribbean restaurant near us called Marinades with a vegan section of the menu, I hear this is quite usual for Caribbean places, Turtle Bay also have good vegetarian options although in our local one they are not marked with a v or anything you have to ask to be sure.
  • Local pubs – I am always surprised by the choices in small local places. We have a pub in town called The Swan who do quite a few vegan options, most pubs nearby also do plenty of vegetarian things. If it’s somewhere you go often and they know you will be a repeat customer if they enable you to eat there then independent places are usually quite receptive to feedback in my experience.
  • Carvery – Toby Carvery have multiple vegan options for main, and even dessert. We have a local carvery that also do great vegetarian options. It’s the last place I expected to find such choice!
  • Italian – LOADS of vegetarian options, vegan possibly without the cheese.
  • Pizza – Lots of vegetarian, and vegan if you find a place where the base is vegan and have it with no cheese. Most places will do pizza without cheese if you ask but the base may contain dairy so worth checking. Papa Johns, Pizza Hut (I hear not delivery only restaurant) and Pizza Express do vegan bases, sometimes you have to order the gluten free or light bases so check the menu or ask.
    Papa Johns Pizza with some Tesco soy cheese
  • Tapas/small plates – Usually a few options for vegans, and quite a lot for vegetarians, in the places I’ve been. Great for group meals as you just order all the vegetarian and vegan choices, and then some others if you have people who can’t live without meat.
  • Vegan and vegetarian cafes and restaurants are becoming more common – always worth looking up to see if there is one near you. We have 2 in Cheltenham. The hardest part is persuading people to come with you!
I started taking these cards to anywhere that I go that has good options, as I think giving positive feedback and praise, and highlighting that I have chosen to eat there for their vegan choices is as important as asking restaurants with poor vegan choice to improve. I saw similar online and thought it was a great idea. I’m always looking to give praise where due, and selfishly if it helps give more choices when I go back or ensures their vegan options stay on the menu then great!

General tips for eating out when starting as a vegetarian or vegan are:
  • Most places will do something vegetarian at least, vegan is a little harder and you might have to ask them to modify a meal. Most will be able to at least do you something even if it’s just a jacket potato with beans, or some chips and salad. It’s just about smart choices and picking where you eat.
  • Most places use the V symbol to mark vegetarian, but not all places mark vegan out of those options. Some put Vn or Vegan by them, but you will often have to ask. Not all places will mark vegetarian although it is becoming common, again just ask if you aren’t sure.
  • If in doubt ask to see the allergy booklet. This will include what has dairy in it.
  • Sometimes things look vegetarian but don’t have the V by them although they are in use on other dishes on the menu – they may use meat stock or something so always ask don’t assume.
  • Be polite, but remember this is not an unreasonable request, don’t take poor customer service just because you need to ask a question, sometimes people can think you are being fussy or just don’t get what you want. Maybe they don’t even know what vegan means. Be direct but polite, explain what you need simply and clearly, stick to your guns and if the waiter can’t answer your question ask them to go ask the chef or manager. If they can’t do anything then advise you will have to take your custom elsewhere, which usually gets them motivated.
  • Set menus. Bane of my life, say you are going to a big banquet or have to pre order for a Christmas meal at a restaurant. There will often be a vegetarian option, but usually only one and I’ve rarely seen that be suitable for vegans. Again the best thing is just to phone the venue in question and explain what you need, as early as possible too so that they can have time to sort something different or alter an existing dish. Starters and desserts are usually ok to work around. Main course is the trickiest as often there is only that restricted menu being served. I’ve had plain risotto with some sprouts on top for a Christmas do, and had the menu redone to include something for me so the results can really vary.
    yay rice and sprouts for main course.
  • If there is nothing on the menu outside the door but you have limited options or you really want to try the restaurant (or the people you are with do) then it is always worth asking if they have any specials or could alter a dish for you. Most places will, some won’t but it is always worth checking.
  • If you are going with a large group and they book somewhere that is totally unsuitable like a steak house or something don’t automatically assume you can’t go, it’s always worth phoning the place to see what they can do for you.
  • If going abroad learn the phrases ‘I do not eat meat/fish/dairy’ ‘Do you have any vegetarian/vegan food?’ ‘no meat/fish/cheese’. I also learn the words for please, thank you etc too just for being polite, and of course the most important ‘1 white wine and 1 beer please’. If you can’t learn them maybe print them off or write them down to take with you, when we went to Albania I struggled to master any phrases (man it is a hard language!) so took a little sheet of phrases to read off, and if you can’t say what you mean just point to the phrase you want!
Good luck if you're starting out, and if you have any tips to share please do in the comments. I'll write up any restaurants we go to that have good vegan/vegetarian options. Toby carvery are probably next but their vegan choices are so good I need to go a few times to try them all off the new menu :)

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