Vegan Boom Boom’s Restaurant Survival Guide
When you’re vegan, a simple invitation out to dinner at a “regular” restaurant can be pretty anxiety-inducing. Navigating a non-vegan menu is often daunting – unless you’re lucky enough to end up someplace that has designated vegan options listed on the menu, there’s a good chance that finding something to eat (something good anyway) is probably going to be at least a little tricky.
Well, fear not, fellow vegan! Using this handy guide as your, umm…guide, you’ll be hacking non-vegan menus like a plant-powered supercomputer in no time.
So. Let’s dig in:
Quick disclaimer: any time you eat at a restaurant that isn’t exclusively vegan, there’s a chance of cross-contamination. Personally, it’s not something I care about very much; sure it’s gross, but no animals are being harmed because my Boca burger got flipped with a grease-tainted spatula. So no guarantees that your food isn’t going to come into some kind of contact with a dead animal, or something that came out of one.
Rule 1: Don’t be a Dick
Now, this rule really should just apply to life in general, but I think it’s extra important to keep in mind when at a restaurant – especially as a vegan. The moment you identify yourself as vegan, you’re an ambassador. A representative. Cop an attitude because your server doesn’t know off the top of his head if there’s honey in the balsamic vinaigrette dressing, and I guarantee that everybody working that day will be talking about “the asshole VEE-GAN that poor Steve had to wait on during his double shift.” And then they’ll get on Facebook and talk about it some more. And so will poor Steve. We don’t need that kind of publicity.
So please. Just don’t be a dick. And not just because you’ll make vegans look bad if you do. Be nice to your server because they’ve got a really hard, pretty thankless job, and because it’s been scientifically proven that you’re just kind of a shitty person if you don’t. Oh, and also because you don’t want them to add some bacon grease to your “vegan” dressing before bringing your salad out to you (I waited tables and tended bar for over a decade. I have actually seen this happen).
Do Your Homework
As Dumbledore said, “Knowledge is power.” At least I think it was Dumbledore. Maybe it was Batman? Whatever. Whoever said it, this is what it means: if you know ahead of time where you’ll be eating, you’ve got a huge advantage, so make the most of it.
If your destination restaurant has a website, there’s a good chance their menu is on it (and if they don’t have a website, there’s a good chance your friends just made the place up and aren’t actually taking you out to dinner but to an intervention). If you’re lucky, vegan-friendly dishes will even be marked as such. Some corporate chain restaurants have even started adding a “what can I eat if I’m vegan?” section/page to their sites (vegan protip: those same big name chain restaurants will almost always include allergen info on their sites, which can help a lot when doing your pre-meal detective work if nothing’s actually labeled as vegan).
But, things aren’t always that easy. There’s a chance you’ll need to actually communicate with another human being (something I generally try and avoid at all costs) to get the info you need.
Last year, I was invited to a holiday dinner party at non-vegan restaurant that I’d never been to. I checked out their menu online, and, well, it didn’t look very promising. So, I emailed and asked if they could whip up something vegan, or if anything on their menu could be veganized. Their super cool response:
“Dear Scot (that’s me),
Yes we can accommodate vegans. We have a scratch kitchen where we have a lot of versatility. Of course the number of options become limited to a certain degree. I know that salads do not count (This guy. He gets it.), but we do have some great homemade dressings to start. We always have tofu in the house and can ad lib quite a few options as well.
Hope this helps, and thanks for thinking about [restaurant name redacted because people on the internet can be super weird and creepy and I don’t want anybody harassing them]!”
Restaurants want your business. That’s how they stay in business. So as long as you’re cool about it (see previous section about not being a dick), don’t be afraid to ask them what they can do for you. Hell, two of the best vegan meals I’ve ever had at a restaurant were from places that put together something off-menu for me.
You’re not always going to know for sure where you’ll end up for a meal, though. There are going to be times when you find yourself having to improvise on the fly. In order to do so effectively, you’ll need to learn how to
Read the Room
Your friends have just dragged you out to an unfamiliar eatery. Your server greets you, and you drop the v-bomb on them. Did they respond by
A) giving a knowing nod and recommending the roasted veggie pasta special (with marinara instead of pesto, of course, because the pesto’s made with parmesan cheese)
B) staring at you as if you just casually informed them that you are from outer space and subsist exclusively on a diet of thumbtacks and baby spiders?
The answer will most likely depend greatly on where you’re eating. If you’re at a trendy popup where a handlebar-mustachioed bartender – sorry, mixologist – is serving comically expensive cocktails chilled with hand-cut artisanal ice cubes, then it’s a pretty safe bet that everybody there is at least familiar with the concept of veganism.
But what happens when you come to after a three-day bender and find yourself in a booth at Jimbo’s Feedbag just outside of Bumbledick, Arkansas? You’re obviously going to be hungry, and you’re going to want to be very specific and thorough when determining if there’s anything they serve that’s vegan (spoiler alert: there’s probably not).
I’d recommend doing your menu reconnaissance in stages – first, look for something that’s seems like it’s made without meat (sorry, that means the butt steak and eggs is probably out). Confirm the dish’s meatlessness with your server, being sure to politely (again, see above – I really can’t stress the whole “don’t be a dick” thing enough) make it clear that when you say “meat,” you’re talking about beef, pork, poultry, fish…basically anything that used to have a face. Once you’ve confirmed that the dish you’re eying at least vegetarian, you can then move on to stage two and determine whether or not it includes any dairy, eggs, etc.
Surprising exactly no one, your exhaustive line of questioning has revealed that there is nothing vegan on ol’ Jimbo’s menu. Now what? Well, put on your lab coat, Professor, because it’s time to
Frankenstein That Shit
Have you ever read Frankenstein? Basically, it’s about a guy who takes parts from a bunch of different dead bodies and makes a brand fucking new person out of them. That’s going to be you – you’re going to mix and match stuff on the menu and Frankenstein yourself up something vegan. You’re also probably going to sound like a crazy person, and that’s OK. Embrace it. Own it.
Me as a new vegan: “If it’s not too much trouble, can you please maybe hold the cheese on that? If not, it’s fine – I’ll just sit quietly and watch my friends eat. “
Me now: “I’ll have the chicken and bacon sandwich, but without chicken. Or bacon. Instead, I’ll substitute the sautéed portobello mushroom from this pasta dish. Is that cooked in butter or oil? Oh, and hold the garlic mayo. Do you have dijon? No cheese, either – can I get avocado instead? And I’ll need to switch the honey wheat bun for something else – sourdough, maybe? Now, my good man, about these delightful sounding side dishes of yours…”
I get it – if you’re not used to ordering like this, it may feel like you’re inconveniencing somebody. But you’re not. An inconvenience would be expecting your grandmother to veganize her famous Christmas goose stuffed with whatever-the-shit-people-jam-inside-a-dead-goose-on-Christmas just for you. Unlike dear old Gran, though, a restaurant is a business, and like I said, they want yours. So don’t be afraid to get freaky with your order. If you’re creative enough, you can learn to cobble together a pretty decent meal almost anywhere.
There are going to be times when, for whatever reason, things just don’t go your way and your “dinner” ends up being a plate of flaccid, not-quite-green-anymore steamed broccoli. When that happens, just remember that
It’s Just One Meal
Look, I know we all want every experience we have dining out to be a good one. But you’re a goddamn vegan, and that means you realize that there are more important things to consider when it comes to our food choices than making every single meal a culinary adventure.
There will to be times when you’ll have to settle for an anemic “salad” of iceberg lettuce and a single mealy tomato wedge, or a dry baked potato seasoned only with salt, pepper and disappointment.
When that happens, remember: it’s just one meal. Just get through it. Enjoy the time with your dinner companions (who will actually probably feel worse about your lousy meal than you do, which means they may just let you pick the restaurant next time), then go home and heat up that amazing leftover mac and cashew cheeze you have in your fridge.
But what if you don’t actually like your dinner companions, and the thought of social interaction with them makes the idea of filleting any given part of your own body and eating that for dinner sound like fun? Well, then it’s time to fire up barnivore.com, cross-reference their extensive list of vegan-friendly social lubricants with what’s being served in whichever level of restaurant hell you’re currently trapped in, and drinking until you wake up back at home, face-down in that glorious cashew mac.
Not of legal drinking age? Well, then I’m not really sure how to help you. Go snap some chats, or dab, or watch each other whip and/or nae nae. Whatever the hell it is you kids do. I’m old. You frighten and confuse me.
Assorted Tips, Hacks and Hazards
Italian restaurants love to sprinkle parmesan cheese on, well, everything. They treat it like it’s some kind of magical, vomit-scented (parmesan cheese smells like barf. Seriously. Google it.) pixie dust puked up by the world’s grossest fairy. This would be fine, if they would just mention it somewhere – anywhere – on the menu. But they usually don’t. So whenever ordering Italian, always assume everything will have parm dumped on it and order accordingly.
So, the restaurant you’re at has pizza on the menu. Great! It should be as easy as just ordering one without the cheese and loading it with veggies (and pineapple, because you’re not one of those awful people who don’t like pineapple on your pizza), right?
When it comes to pizza, there’s actually a lot of potential for heartbreak. Here’s how to avoid any pizza pitfalls:
- Cheese: Instead of just specifying “no cheese,” say something like “Can I substitute pineapple for cheese because I’m not one of those awful people who don’t like pineapple on their pizza?” Pizza places are generally pretty cool about letting you swap cheese for an ingredient, saving you money on toppings. And speaking of cheese, see directly above regarding parmesan; if you’re at an Italian joint, assume your “cheeseless” pizza will have parm on it. Because apparently that makes sense to some people.
- Crust: while a restaurant may not use any animal ingredients in their crust, some give it an egg wash or brush it with butter at some point in the pizza making process. Most likely just to spite vegans.
- Sauce: this shit might not even be vegetarian, let alone vegan. Some sauces out there are actually made with chicken juice or some kind of beef-based nastiness. This is really pretty rare, though, so while you can probably get away with just asking whether or not the sauce has dairy in it, I’ll let you decide if you really want to roll the dice on this one.
You may have found a veggie burger that’s vegan, but that (weirdly) doesn’t mean the bun is. If it’s not, find out if you can substitute some other kind of bun or bread that is. Or you can be one of those gluten-hating lunatics and skip the bread entirely and just get your burger wrapped in lettuce instead (wow…even just typing that made me sad). You’ll also want to ask if they butter the bun.
If cheese is an option, swap it out for avocado for that fatty, creamy goodness without the blood and pus.
No Soup For You (Maybe)
“Vegetable soup” doesn’t mean “just vegetable soup.” Unless otherwise stated, never assume seemingly meat-free soups are made with veggie broth and not something wrung out of a dead animal.
Also, some restaurants like to get cute and toss some croutons or other potentially non-vegan shit into their soups without mentioning it on the menu. It’s worth checking with your server, even if you’ve already confirmed that the soup itself is vegan.
Here’s a bunch of stuff that’s probably way more informative and helpful than what you just spent a chunk of your life reading:
- PETA: How to Order Vegan at Fast Food and Chain Restaurants
- Happy Cow: Find Vegan Restaurants Near You
- Barnivore.com: Vegan Beer, Wine & Liquor Guide (I know I linked to it once already, but the importance of having vegan booze at the ready at all times cannot be understated)
- Vegan.com: Vegan Guide to Dining Out