The Vegetarian's Restaurant Survival Guide

Stuck in a steak house or oyster bar? Here are some tips for staying true to your vegetarian diet at a restaurant.
By Vegetarian Times Editors ,

Stuck in a steak house or oyster bar? Here are some tips for staying true to your vegetarian diet at a restaurant.

Singer-songwriter Flip Grater wasn’t expecting the star treatment when she recently sat down at a popular Parisian café—but she also didn’t think she’d find specks of meat floating in her gazpacho. “Since when,” asks the New Zealander with a laugh, “did any version of gazpacho ever contain bacon?” Even for globe-trotting vegans like Grater who are well versed in the language of restaurant menus, navigating non-veg terrain can be tricky: dishes that appear meat-free on paper might arrive bearing meat ingredients, and servers can be irritated by substitution requests. Most of the time, though, we simply don’t want to make a fuss, and, thankfully, there’s no need to. With some tried-and-true strategies, you can enjoy restaurant meals that are unforgettable for all the right reasons.

Read the menu before leaving home

Visit a restaurant’s Web site or Facebook page to explore the menu, then check online reviews and search the page for “vegetarian.” If your sleuthing turns up a dearth of options, call the restaurant to ask if the chef can accommodate your preferences. “I find that 95 percent of the time, chefs are more than happy to accommodate such requests,” says Oakland, Calif.–based Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, author of The 30-Day Vegan Challenge. She also recommends having a script at the ready, such as, “I see that you have a fabulous-looking pasta on the menu—could the chef prepare it without the anchovies?” It takes some getting used to, but the more you do it, the less daunting it becomes.

Improvise

Dining out on the fly? Get creative. Mix and match items to make your own custom vegetarian or vegan meal. “I usually turn the menu into a smorgasbord of snacks,” says New York City–based luxury travel adviser Rabia Shahenshah, who finds the best vegetarian options amid the appetizers, salads, and side dishes. Scope out the sides that accompany the meaty mains too: the sweet potato mash from the pork entrée might go great with your spinach salad. Dining all’italiana? “Look at the contorni section of a traditional Italian menu to find delicious roasted, grilled, and sautéed vegetables,” suggests Patrick-Goudreau. “I can base an entire meal on that alone.”

Practice politesse

Graciousness and a good attitude go far. When confirming that a dish is vegetarian, do so with a smile; if you have to send a plate back to repair an erroneous order, politely request a re-do. Most important, when the kitchen staff prepares an off-menu dish, express your gratitude. “Ending with, ‘I’d like to personally thank the chef for this delicious meal. Is he or she available for a quick hello?’ adds a really nice touch,” says Patrick-Goudreau. This simple gesture will give you a boost, make the chef feel appreciated, and help pave the path for future veg diners.

Pre-Chow Checklist

Avoid unwelcome surprises by acquainting yourself with common animal ingredients lurking in seemingly vegetarian dishes. Japanese Diner Beware: Bonito A key flavor component in Japanese cuisine is dashi, a broth made from the bonito fish. Always ask before diving into dipping sauces, miso soup, or agedashi tofu, which is commonly prepared with dried bonito flakes. Korean Diner Beware: Shrimp and fish No Korean meal is complete without kimchi, the pungent, piquant cabbage-based side dish. Before tucking in, confirm the absence of shrimp or fish paste, and other sea-dwelling creatures, such as octopus or mollusks. Mexican Diner Beware: Lard At traditional Mexican restaurants, refried pinto beans are often made with lard (rendered animal fat), though whole pinto or black beans are generally veg-safe options. When in doubt, ask about the chips, tortillas, and tamales too. Thai Diner Beware: Fish sauce Red, green, and yellow curries are typically prepared with nam pla, a salty sauce made from fermented fish. Ditto for Thai dipping sauces and dressings. Ask if yours can be made with soy sauce instead. Paris-based writer Aurelia d’Andrea relishes the challenge of a non-veg menu—especially when it involves Italian food.

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