The art of dining out

One of the questions that you get asked the most as a vegan is “What do you do when you eat out?” (and I’m aware that one of the most common blog post opening lines on vegan blogs is, “One of the questions that you get asked the most as a vegan is…”).

Now although I have a whole bunch of tips and strategies up my sleeve, I generally rephrase the question as, “How do you eat out healthily as a vegan?” and “How do you ensure you get value for money eating out as a vegan?”.

See, you can almost always get bread, salad, rice, pasta, potatoes, or a combination of all of those. Personally, though, I’m neither too keen on paying a tenner for an assortment of what I know are cheaply bulk-bought staples, nor on eating a plate of tasteless starchy carbs. Well, alright, I could probably quite happily eat an entire plate of plain pasta, but if I’m going to eat something that won’t do my body composition any favours, I’d rather it be cake. Or chocolate. Or anything covered in syrup. You get the idea.

To start with the basics of eating out, although Angela has already compiled a very clever list which doesn’t include “Calling a month before and giving them a shopping list and step-by-step recipe of what you want to eat”, because to me that’s not what visiting a restaurant is about;

  1. Check the menu. Don’t expect to find vegan options jumping out at you, but look for vegetarian options which can deal with omissions; vegetarian lasagne, for example, is unlikely to be able to be veganised by an inexperienced chef, whereas a chilli served with sour cream and cheese can usually just have these left out.
  2. Adapt to the situation. If I am having a fairly casual meal with friends or family, I generally leave it until I get there to improvise. If we are looking at a slightly more formal occasion and I don’t want to create any sort of a fuss, I will call and double-check that options which look like they could be veganised can indeed be adapted, or ask if they can throw some sort of vegan dish together. It never bothers me to turn up and find there is nothing, but sometimes this can make fellow diners uncomfortable or even feel slightly guilty if they picked the establishment – it also doesn’t do veganism any favours if they see us reduced to pushing lettuce leaves around our plates.
  3. Be assertive. If at any point in either of the above two steps the establishment seems reluctant to adapt, it might be in everyone’s best interest to suggest going elsewhere – clearly they do not have much in the way of culinary skills, ingredients knowledge, or desire to please their clientele.
  4. Emphasise what you can eat, not what you can’t eat. Don’t reel off a list of all the specific items you won’t eat – suggest some easy basic meals like stir-fry or pasta in tomato sauce and vegetables, or simple variations. Instead of gesturing at the menu and implying you can’t eat any of their food, ask if this-or-that dish can have an item removed or replaced. For example, if they have a vegetarian risotto, check that it’s cooked in oil and not butter, and has no added cream; if they have a burrito with sour cream, ask if you can replace it with guacamole; if their salad comes with creamy dressing, ask for a balsamic vinaigrette. Or whatever you like!
  5. Think about the composition of the dish. A salad with goat’s cheese is not the same as a salad without goat’s cheese, especially not if you’re paying the same price. Ask yourself why they add cheese to a salad – usually to add creaminess, substance, and satiating fat and protein. So don’t settle for an omission, ask for something which will complement the rest of the ingredients; avocado is a favourite of mine for replacing cheeses, but a drizzle of olive oil or a sprinkling of pine nuts can work well too. Think about the cost of the ingredients too, as this is something they will be thinking about, so don’t ask for something unrealistic. Take inspiration from the rest of their menu.

So those are my basic go-to strategies – people who have eaten out with me a fair bit will notice that in some places I will ask straight away for the allergen menu, or I might just pick out a dish and ask to adapt it, or occasionally I might just ask them to make me something totally different. It depends on the establishment – but I very rarely mention the word vegan.

However, most of my concerns when eating out come from the fact that I do like to try and be relatively healthy. The key word here is “relatively” – if I had serious concerns around my diet I would simply not eat out (note that this doesn’t mean not going out – if you do find yourself in a situation where you really need to monitor your food intake, arrange to meet people beforehand or afterwards for drinks, and make yourself something either end of that).

To me, point 5 above is the most important point, but it is useless without point 4. Veganism or healthy eating is not about restriction, and it’s not about settling for something that nobody else would settle for. There is no harm in knowing what you want, what you like, and what is good for your body (and soul). Plus, if you enjoy your food you will enjoy your whole experience more, which the people you are with will feed off (pun not intended… sorry), and everyone will have a better evening. You’ll also obviously be more likely the recommend the establishment, so that works in their best interests – and if you recommend it to more vegans, they will get better at dealing with vegan dishes, and that can only lead to good things. Lastly, if you stick to your principles and eat things that make you feel good, you are more likely to perform better in the gym or your sport, or just be healthier and happier, and be an all-round better poster-vegan. The last point may be a bit tenuous but hey, everything is connected and who knows how much of an impact even the smallest choices may have on your medium-term wellbeing!

A few positive examples and anecdotes I’d like to highlight:

  • some random bar in Camden (I wish I remembered the name as I really want to give this place the credit it’s due!): I had had a long and stressful day at work and had agreed to meet friends afterwards, but almost turned back and went home I was so exhausted and hungry. However, they told me they were having some food so I thought, why not. I turned up to some dingy, dark and loud bar and a table of bar snacks and my heart sank. I glanced over the menu, saw a bunch of pizzas and sandwiches and thought there must be something that can be modified, and if not, well I could have potato wedges. Actually, um, no, I’m not spending a fiver on potatoes, I thought, so if that’s the case I’ll just have a drink and head home early. As I waited to catch a bartender’s eye, I got suddenly more defiant and decided I wasn’t going to pay for a slab of flatbread with tomato sauce, either. So on a whim I asked if they could make anything vegan – no cheese, no butter, no eggs. The bartender didn’t hesitate to call the chef out, which was in itself a surprise in a busy nightspot, but when the chef came out and started suggesting lists of ingredients at me without a single hint of a lamentation as to what they could possibly make me, I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm. Yes, rice is good, and vegetables, awesome, I wouldn’t have thought this place had a fresh vegetable in sight! Sure, I can eat tomato sauce. Oh and actually I’m quite hungry, could you throw together a side salad of some sort please? The chef nodded away, promised me he would make me something good, paused for a minute and suggested, “Is £4 OK?”. Excuse-me? Cheaper than all other items on the menu, tailor-made with fresh ingredients? Can I give you a hug please? Not long after that, a huge bowl full of rice and vegetables came out, perfectly seasoned in a rich tomato sauce, accompanied by an equally huge bowl of fresh, crisp and again perfectly dressed salad came out. It was all too big to fit on our little bar table, and I have never seen so many jealous faces!
  • Trader Vic’s at the Hilton, Park Lane, London: invited here for the birthday of a wealthy acquaintance, I was distinctly uncomfortable knowing that she had had to preorder a vegan meal just for me when I barely knew her and didn’t know the majority of other people attending. Sitting opposite one of the coaches at the gym, I braced myself for a tirade of abuse when the inevitable salad would appear amongst an array of tasty and varied dishes for the rest of the table. As the sharing platters of chicken skewers, spicy wings, and other animal bits and pieces came out, I was surprised to see the most beautifully presented plate of food placed directly in front of me; a little shot glass of delicately spiced chickpeas, little canapés of tender purple potato slices, and unfortunately I have forgotten the rest though I remember it was all delicious. Mainly, though, I remember a whole table of faces turning towards me, filled with admiration (for the food, not for me)… I bet if I had told these very same people an hour earlier that I was vegan, I’d have gotten a very different reaction!
  • La Riviera, Bereldange, Luxembourg: A family favourite for casual occasions, I insisted that it would be fine for us to come here as I knew if nothing else I could always get a pizza without cheese. Oh how wrong I was! I tentatively enquired about their fresh pasta, just in case it wasn’t made with eggs, but luckily didn’t entertain much hope as it was quickly confirmed that fresh pasta would not be happening for me tonight. Fine, I’ll have the vegetarian pizza without cheese, I said as I closed my menu with a smile. My face fell as the waiter informed me that the pizza dough contained eggs too. No no, I assured him, pizza doesn’t contain eggs. After my parents also piped up to inform this poor waiter that pizza isn’t made with eggs, he shuffled off to the kitchen and returned with the chef in toe who confirmed that their pizza dough was made with eggs. As I cynically sneered that I didn’t want their weird egg-based pizza anyway, he started to offer me alternatives; they had plenty of meat dishes, or fish if I was vegetarian. I waved him quiet and, going slightly red in the face with frustration, halfheartedly explained veganism in one sentence. So he offered me a plate of vegetables and potatoes. I gave up and agreed, for the sake of getting on with our evening, of which, after all, the food was only meant to be a small part. A few minutes later the chef reappeared, adding fresh asparagus to his offer. Yes yes fine, whatever, was the gist of my reply. So I had some speedy backtracking to do when my meal came out, a giant plate of three types of seasonal asparagus, served with beautifully roasted vegetables, a copious side-salad, and a little mound of golden sautéed potato. I enjoyed every mouthful, and though I may not return to the Riviera anytime soon, it’s nice to see a chef who cares.

I think chefs are scared to work with just vegetables, so they attempt to replace the filling heartiness of meat or fish with big lumps of starches and grains. France is where I see it the most – every meat dish will come with a garnish of assorted seasonal vegetables, yet they never think of making a meal out of those vegetables. From the point of view of taste and nutrition, as well as value for money, I would much rather have a plate of grilled vegetables than a plate of rice with a few vegetables sprinkled on top. So while you don’t need to give them a whole recipe, just a few key ideas to set them on the right track is often a good strategy.

The bottom line is, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. People with allergies wouldn’t hesitate I imagine, so nor should people with ethical concerns or even just nutritional requirements. Again, it’s not about sticking to a strict diet when you go out, but if you can get something with a little nutritional value which is also tastier, there’s no harm in asking or suggesting. I have been both pleasantly surprised by places I wouldn’t have expected, and disappointed by places I thought would be more vegan-friendly. So go in with an open mind.

Please do leave me some comments as to what your favourite strategy is when eating out – do you have a set approach, or do you vary it like me depending on where you go? Are you more or less demanding than me? Let’s share our combined knowledge as it’s in everyone’s best interests that all vegans get served as well as non-vegans wherever they go!