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!
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.
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!