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During a recent business conference, I dined with five charming non-vegetarian colleagues. Although we were headed to a restaurant known for steaks and seafood, I—the lone vegetarian—decided to take my chances with the menu. After all, I was in a sizable city and could probably get, at the very least, a great salad.
I passed on the salad, though, when I realized the restaurant’s menu offered a number of appealing vegetable side dishes. When it came time to order, I told the server I wanted fresh asparagus with lime hollandaise sauce on the side, an order of garlic mashed potatoes and an order of wilted spinach with roasted garlic.
The woman across the table from me gasped. She immediately asked the server to cancel her fish entrée and duplicate my order.
Then the woman to the left of me piped up: “Cancel my order too, and make that three!”
One of the women revealed that she likes to pair favorite vegetable dishes like this when cooking for herself at home. But it never occurred to her to order “off the menu” for a great-tasting vegetarian meal at a restaurant. My companions learned that day, as I had years ago, that getting a great vegetarian meal at a restaurant—any restaurant—often is just a matter of asking for it.
Navigating the Meat-Eaters’ Menu
Luckily for vegetarians, dining out is not nearly as challenging as it was 30 years ago. In the ’70s, we often had to settle for side dishes—potatoes and salad—or the vegetable of the day, unless we were dining in an ethnic restaurant. Ethnic eateries were great places to find a variety of vegetarian, even vegan, meals—and most still are. Dishes from around the world include many ingredients and flavors that vegetarians love. Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Thai restaurants incorporate the requisite vegetarian grains, beans, legumes, vegetables and herbs into their recipes.
No matter what kind of restaurant you’re visiting, it helps to know in advance if it offers appropriate, meatless meal choices. If you’re visiting a new restaurant, call ahead and ask what menu options are available for vegetarians. Or visit the restaurant’s Web site, as many now post their menus online.
Once you’re seated and your server has described any specials of the day, explain politely that you’re a vegetarian and would like to know which dishes contain meat or meat-based stock, because even tomato soup can be made with meat-based stock. If you’re a vegan, you might ask which dishes contain dairy products, eggs, honey or gelatin, then choose those without. Usually the server has to check with the chef for an answer, but it saves time in the long run, because you know you won’t have to return the dish. And, you’ll know that the meal you’ve ordered is appropriate for you.
It’s an Order
When you order, ask if the accompaniments to the dishes you have chosen contain ingredients you choose not to eat. For instance, does the salad have a bacon garnish? Or have the green beans been cooked with ham? Again, such questions will test your server’s familiarity with the menu, so be patient as the answer is sought.
Often you will find a variety of interesting side dishes that are served with the meat, fish and fowl entrées. Ask if the chef can create a vegetable plate from several side dishes—which you may prefer to ordering a labeled “vegetarian” dish. If you choose a vegetarian entrée such as pasta, again check the ingredients with your server. If they don’t appeal to you, simply ask if the chef is willing to adjust the recipe. Many restaurants are more than happy to accommodate your wishes and, in fact, receive such requests frequently.
Most often, however, you may want to order several appetizers—with or without a salad—to create a delicious, customized meal, making sure to select a variety of foods with varying tastes and textures. Or find one appetizer that appeals to you—for example, a stuffed portobello mushroom—and ask if it can be served as an entrée along with your choice of vegetables and a salad.
But if you want to enjoy a truly delicious vegetarian meal that isn’t simply cobbled together, seek out the area’s best vegetarian restaurant, and enjoy!