I love, or at least I used to love, finding great local restaurants both at home and while traveling, but dining out has been the biggest challenge since I changed my diet. Dining out with friends and family, and even alone, has a social aspect that I truly enjoy. Since I have transitioned to a plant-based diet, I have lost some of the joy I once experience when dining out, because the options have become much more restricted. Most restaurants have very limited options, if any, for a truly-plant based entree, leaving me to patch together some side items and have them prepared as simply as possible. The chef’s talents rarely shine in these choices.
I have always been the restaurant guru for my friends and family because I do a lot of research to find the very best. When traveling to new destinations I try to find the best local restaurants that reflect the local culture and cuisine. In fact, I sometimes plan travel around trying particular restaurants.
The good news is that plant-based restaurants, or at least plant-based menu items, seem to be on the upswing at least in certain major metropolitan areas. The bad news is that outside of those areas, there has not been a lot of change. You can try to find vegan restaurants using restaurant guides such as Yelp ( http://yelp.com), Happy Cow (http://happycow.com), Eater (https://www.eater.com) or Chowhound (https://www.chowhound.com), and OpenTable is great for researching restaurants as well as making reservations (http://opentable.com).
I recently had several short family travel excursions, but mostly not to major metropolitan areas. You will see some of these trips written up in my Travel and Restaurant posts. I did not find any of those wonderful new plant-based restaurants, or even very many plant-based menu items at all. In fact, in most cases, every item on the menu had either meat or cheese, or was battered and fried. The end result after trying to stay on a plant-based, or at least vegan, diet, and trying to restrict oil, was that I ate at a lot of restaurants with no good options, and ended up eating a lot of “white” food, such as bread, pizza (cheese-free) and rice, and pasta, and even french fries, that I do not normally indulge in, and I came home with a few extra pounds, a souvenir I do not appreciate!
Here’s one excellent dish I was lucky to find on the trip–at a steakhouse! (See my post on Lake Tahoe.)
Dining out with others who do not follow your diet is also a challenge. I really love ordering a variety of dishes and sharing in order to sample more items. As much as I love sharing family style, it is a social sacrifice I have had to make to have my own separate “special” meal, because, even if I could find enough suitable plant-based options, others in my party may not be not as thrilled with my choices.
The other downside of dining out in traditional restaurants with others who do not follow your diet is that your ordering can seem like torture to them. I try to be as inconspicuous as possible and make as little of an ordeal out of ordering as I can, but invariably, it is easy to become a spectacle with all my questions, requests and substitutions. I really do not want to be “that person” who is such a pain at the table. I am not afraid to ask for what I want, but I am there to have a good time and share time with friends and family, and I just want ordering to be simple.
So, what have I learned about dining out at mainstream restaurants in the company of others who do not share you’re diet?
First, if at all possible, do some research first and find out what is on the menu that you can eat. You can even call ahead and ask about questions about ingredients and request accommodations to substitute ingredients that the restaurant is willing to make. I say, if possible, because, sometimes the restaurant choice is just spontaneous, or beyond your control. This has saved me a lot of time in asking questions and ordering at the table. For example, I recently called ahead to a Mexican restaurant we were planning to visit and found out that all their beans and rice were alway precooked in chicken stock! It was easy to order because I knew in advance that my only choice would be a chopped salad, minus the cheese and the dressing, with guacamole and salsa and steamed corn tortillas.
If you are not able to plan in advance, take a quick scan of the menu choices. In my most recent travel experience, there was rarely more than one, if that, vegan entree at all. Usually, that was a veggie burger, or pasta. Most of the appetizers were also meat or seafood-based.If you don’t see any good options in the appetizers or entrees, look to the salads, soups, and especially the sides, and get creative with composing your own menu out of those. Also, look at the meat and seafood entrees and see what they are being served with, as those side dishes are often more creative than the vegetables listed as “sides.” If you see a vegetable dish being served with a meat entree, you know they have it in the kitchen and can make it for you. When ordering, you can always ask for no added oil or salt, and always ask for salad dressing and sauces on the side. If I order a salad, I ask for lemons or balsamic vinegar, and if possible, avocado, and make a dressing out of that. Pickles, hot sauce and dijon mustard are good choices for condiments because they are oil-free and usually sugar free as well.
It’s a good idea it keep snacks with you when traveling, and to eat a little something healthy before you go to a restaurant so that you never sit down famished with hunger. When traveling, I try to have some raw organic nuts or a Lara Bar, because they travel well, don’t take a lot of space, and don’t need refrigeration. At home, you can just have a small healthy snack ahead of time. This will help you to not succumb to that basket of white bread, or the fried tortilla chips, before you can get something nutritious to eat. It also will help you not to starve in case your only available option at the restaurant is a green salad with no dressing or some steamed vegetables! If you are starving while everyone is devouring the bread or chips, ask for some olives, or crudites, sliced jicama (great for scooping guacamole instead of fried chips) to come out right away. I wish more restaurants would do that anyway!
My best advice is to keep it simple and just enjoy the company! It isn’t likely to be your last meal, and you can eat better when you get home. Just make the best food choices you can under the circumstances, while being the least obnoxious to your table as possible, and enjoy yourself as much as possible. That’s Table Karma! I’ve had some really memorable dining out experiences when all I had was a baked potato and some tabasco sauce. But, I do truly look forward to the day when I can go to a great restaurant and just point to one of many enticing gourmet plant-based entrees, just as listed on the menu, and say, “I’ll have that!”