The Omni Restaurant Survival Guide

April 21, 2010

Steak house

With proper planning and the right mindset, anything's possible. Photo by Daquella manera

As veganism continues to grow in awareness, if not in actual population, there are more and more restaurants popping up that offer exclusively vegan cuisine, which is a pretty amazing thing.

But what about the other places? What if there’s nothing vegan in your area, or you’ve been invited out to a – gasp! – omnivore restaurant?  This is just a starter guide to some of the ways to cope and prepare for the occasion; I was on the verge of splitting it into a mini-series, and might do that sometime, but I thought it was at a good point to start asking for feedback, so please let me know what you think!

Plan ahead

For starters, it might not even be a problem. Increasingly, restaurants are adding menu items for the “diet of the month,” and while most of us cringe at the idea that veganism is on the same level as Atkins or South Beach or whatever the newest fad is, this is one of those cases where it can work out to your advantage.

Review the menu online ahead of time if at all possible. It’s very likely that there’ll be something on there that can work or that can easily be converted to a vegan dish by substituting or leaving out a sauce or some cheese. There’s also little that’s worse in the dining experience than scanning the menu with a growing sense of dread as you get closer and closer to the last page without immediately finding anything (sometimes it takes me three or four skims to discover the vegan stuff,) so reviewing ahead of time can at least save you that anxiety and give you a sense of what you’re looking for.

Next up, give the restaurant a quick call to address any questions you might have about the items you think might work, or to see if they can accommodate a special meal order. Many chefs enjoy the opportunity to do something special that’s not the same stuff they put together every single day, but they also don’t appreciate surprises: the only times I’ve been “stranded” at a restaurant, I’ve almost always heard the phrase “if you’d called us a day before, we definitely could have done something.”

When calling, be sure to pick a time that isn’t their busiest (i.e. the peak lunch and dinner hours) so you’ll have their full attention.

Decide if it’s a Big Deal

FIgure out where your standards lie before you even get the invitation. If you’ve decided that you only go to vegan restaurants (for some of you, yes, this is a viable option,) then you’ll need to either decline or suggest an alternate venue. Ditto if you’ve chosen not to frequent restaurants that lack an easily identifiable vegan menu option. It might sound extreme, but simply declining is an option, and it might be one you’re comfortable exercising.

You’ll also need to figure out where you stand on things like foie gras, rabbit and veal if they’re on the menu. All meat involves killing animals, but some of these dishes are acknowledged as crueler or at least less socially acceptable than most. Will you go to a restaurant that serves these? If you do, is it something you’ll be bringing up, either in conversation with your party or to the server or management? What if someone at your table orders something like that?

These can be emotional issues, and emotions can easily run out of control. Prepare yourself for these scenarios ahead of time and figure out where your comfort levels lie before you get faced with an opportunity to respond. The venue, the occasion, and the people you’re with may or may not influence your actions, so it’s best to give it a bit of thought to make sure you do what you believe is appropriate – and remember, these scenarios might not even come up, so try not to tense up waiting for them!


As the sole vegan at a table of omnivores in an omnivore restaurant, the odds are pretty good that you’ll be a topic of conversation. I don’t know about you, but I hate these talks. There’s no way for everyone to come out feeling good about themselves: the meat eaters are either going to feel guilty – either for their actions or for making you feel uncomfortable – or they’re going to think you’re a flake.  Or  both.  You, on the other hand, are going to end up either feeling like you didn’t speak out enough, or that you made veganism look bad.

A talk about veganism is an outreach opportunity, and there’s no worse time to talk about the problems with meat consumption than when someone has meat in their mouth. People are wired for consistency, it’s just how our brains work, and in the vast majority of “outreach while chewing” cases meat eaters are going to think you’re wrong at a very deep, almost primal level even if they seem to be saying encouraging things.

Instead, I recommend a quick response to the “why vegan” question with an invitation to follow up later on, when food isn’t so prominent.

Outside of conversation, your meal is going to speak for veganism even if you don’t. Is it as awesome as the other meals on the table? Was it a hassle to get? Or does it look like a sacrifice? If you’re able to use some of the planning ideas mentioned above, this can be a win, but if instead you’re munching on some plain greens because they can’t even find you a vegan salad dressing (hint: oil and vinegar) then it’s just not going to look very good.

Make yourself comfortable

Ask whatever questions you need to ask to deal with your concerns about ingredients, food preparation, or anything else. If you don’t like being the centre of attention at order time, excuse yourself beforehand and speak privately to the server.

Brace yourself

Plain salad can happen. It’s not the end of the world, and it’s rarer every year, but be aware that you might find yourself in these scenarios.

That said, you should also brace yourself for some very pleasant surprises. I’ve had some incredible meals at restaurants without even vegetarian options on the menu. Some of these places were fancy, some not so fancy, but I’ve got a lot of memories of having the best looking dish at the table, for no other reason than that I asked for it.

In either case, remember why you’re there – the eating of food in a group is a social act, so socialize. If you’re with friends, be with your friends. If you’re with business acquaintances, take the time to get to know them better. Enjoy the company even if you don’t enjoy the meal – you eat several meals a day, but shared memories and stories are unique and need to be enjoyed.

What about you? What’s your favourite tactic to get a kick-ass vegan meal at an omnivore restaurant? What’s the best “off the menu” meal you’ve ever had? Let us know in the comments!

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Colleen April 21, 2010 at 11:23 am

I’ve never had a special meal made, but because I called the day before, I got a lunch item (the restaurant’s only vegan, or even vegetarian!, option) at dinner time. It was at an Egyptian place by Union Station, I think called The Sultan’s Tent. It had couscous and chickpeas and was ridiculously tasty. All the omnis were complainy about their food but I was pleased with the taste of mine and my dish had way better presentation too.

One thing I’ve learned: never assume that waiter staff, or even cooks, know what “vegan” means. In fact, I’ve found things go better if I ask what doesn’t have dairy or eggs, both for accuracy and for not invoking some negative stereotypes in the minds of the people handling what I’m about to eat. I don’t explain why I don’t want these things, I just kindly say I can’t eat them and ask if they can help me out, and 99% of the time they really try to do so. For the other 1%, I tell them I’m horribly allergic to these things and that tends to get them on board.

Jason April 21, 2010 at 11:33 am

Wow, I’ve been meaning to check out the Sultan’s Tent!

Best reaction to the “v” word I ever had was in a Moncton, New Brunswick restaurant. I asked if they had any vegan options, and her face screwed into an interesting pattern while she said “vegan? What the heck’s that?” It was the ’90s, but I haven’t been back to see if things have improved…

And yeah, the allergy card is a handy white lie, not sure how to position it in the piece though.

Colleen April 21, 2010 at 1:03 pm

For me, the allergy thing isn’t a total lie – I am, in fact, allergic to dairy but I only found out after I went vegan. It sure explained some things about my life though.

As for making it part of the piece, maybe just as a note in a section about how to get wait staff on side, rather than putting them in opposition to you? I think there are lots of ways to do that that can both make individual meals better but also help vegans’ image in the general public.

Sami April 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

I’m totally against the allergy thing, although my friend/family at one point preferred to say I’m intolerant to eggs/milk, which is true since I wont tolerate them in my food!

I rarely have problems picking something (A few side dishes on one plate, please – usually ends up with fewer plates than side dishes ordered!). I have only twice (in three years) left a place because there was literally nothing (not even the always-safe-chips-and-salad).

Phoning ahead is also a good way to guage whether or not they know what a vegan is, but its much harder to get them to talk on the phone – I recently phoned ahead to an Indian place who wouldn’t talk menu with me because they had 200 dishes! But knowing roughly which dishes I like let me ask direct questions like “Does the Naan bread have milk in?” rather than “What bread doesn’t have milk/eggs etc”.

Don’t forget to check the drinks menu too!

Nichole April 21, 2010 at 10:29 pm

I usually check out yelp to get good ideas of where is safe/unsafe to visit for dinner. Lots of times even non-vegetarians will make mention if there are veg/vegan items on the menu!

The best “off-menu” meal I’ve ever had was at California Grill at Walt Disney World. They have world-class chefs there and they used all fresh (menu changes daily) ingredients to make me a special dish: “vegan unplugged” which consisted of 4 mini plates and ended up cheaper than anything else on the menu! The chef even came over to say hi and tell me what everything was!

Jason April 22, 2010 at 6:46 am

It’s pretty cool when the chef comes to the table to talk about what he or she has done – a great reminder that the kitchen is often a friend, not your nemesis!

Lenni April 22, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I’ve pulled the allergy card a few times and always feel guilty, like I should represent, but usually only do when staff isn’t being helpful. I’ve also used the more cryptic “I *can’t* have xyz.”

Milwaukee (who’d think it, in Wisconsin USA) is actually great for vegan stuff though. At Mayura, an Indian place the other day I asked the host (owner?) what didn’t have eggs or dairy and he actually asked “so are you vegan?” and walked to the buffet (it was lunchtime) and showed me everything that was vegan.

My vegan coworker and I (work with kids with disabilities, sort of aides) had to go to a wedding with the family we’re with to keep track of the kids. Our boss called the venue ahead of time (keeping in mind we’re there as employees, not even “real” guests) and they prepared amazing and beautiful meals for us-pyramids of couscous with veggies and even morels…and the omnis at our table were all jealous! So it happens…

But there’s nothing I hate more than being the freakshow topic of conversation at a table of (likely non-intimate and therefore less understanding) omnivores. So I think it’s a good suggestion to decline to discuss it in detail at a meal.

Patricia Williams April 22, 2010 at 5:33 pm

I’m a new vegan. Ate fish before, but also eggs and diary. Now I’ve found the way my body and soul want me to eat. Grew up on a farm and never liked eating animals…even as a child. Eating vegan just feels right. Makes me feel kinder and more satisfied. I’ve always cooked fresh and organic. Now I am using my considerable experience to create amazing vegan dishes. Thank you for the dining out tips. The restaurants we frequent offer vegan dishes, I’ve discovered. Your tips make me more comfortable venturing out.

Jason April 22, 2010 at 7:20 pm

Thanks Patricia, glad we could help! If there’s anything you’re having trouble figuring out, be sure to send a note via the contact form – others are probably in the same boat!

jb April 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I live in Nashville Tn, and I love it but it is not very vegan friendly. We have one restaurant that’s officially vegan. I was recently invited out of my vegan isolation chamber and we went to a run of the mill Mexican restaurant…..well when I explained to the gentleman taking my order he saw it as a challenge, sauteeing all sorts of veggies not on the menu for me…..I think sometimes we just gotta ask?

Steve Wood April 23, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Just a word of caution. If you make sure that the order is understood to be vegan i.e. no dairy, and it is served with dairy then be very cautious about sending it back. I made the mistake of sending my food back too many times and wound up spending thousands of dollars in medical bills because the cook either whiped his ass on the veggie burger (or had some culture ready just for vegans) which caused me to have an anal itch which I have not been able to get proper diagnosis or treatment because the labs say the worms I send in for analysis is “fiber”. Just keep that in mind…some carnivors are resorting to bio-terrorism and police turn a blind eye and may even try to quiet the incident. From now on if I’m served something with dairy on it after explicitly saying I’m vegan then I just leave…not gonna care who I’m with or where I am…if they want to stay then that’s their business, but I’m out.

jb April 28, 2010 at 11:16 am

Agreed. I get a liitle nervous when I declare my veganism to the wait-staff….if they look annoyed, I will usually return the stink-eye then eat my lettuce. But the look in this man’s eyes was one of excitement, like he finally didn’t have to make more cheese enchiladas or what have you.
I also do the old “I’m violently allergic to dairy and/or egg” not as a cop out but I feel it gives me a leg up.

April April 29, 2010 at 11:56 am

For me, this is more difficult because I am allegic to diary and tomatoes. I find it difficult to order things from resturant, but at this point I am currently eating fish and salmon.

I am planning on going vegan wants I cook the fish and salmon I have at home. I know its going to be extremely hard being a vegan and being allegic to diary and tomatoes.

With the right attitude I know it will work out.

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