A Vegan Guide to Dining Out

Your local vegan dining options are probably much better than you think. Here's how to find the most vegan-friendly restaurant offerings in your area.

If you’re looking for local, vegan-friendly dining, the fastest way to discover the best options is to visit Yelp.com and do a search for vegan in your city. You’ll encounter a collection of restaurant reviews of vegan-friendly restaurants near you. You can also turn to vegan-oriented websites like HappyCow.net and VegGuide.org for additional information, but these guides aren’t as complete as what you’ll get from Yelp’s massive crowd-sourced directory, so there are generally a number of terrific local possibilities they’ll miss.

If there aren’t any vegan restaurants near you, it’s wise to learn about the relative vegan-friendliness of different restaurants and cuisines. That’s what this article is all about.

There are certainly countless restaurants that offer little to vegetarians, let alone vegans. But restaurants that serve great vegan food are everywhere, and their numbers grow by the year. In this guide we’ll start with most vegan-hostile restaurants of all, and work our way up to restaurants that are paradise for vegans.

Before we begin, as a general rule keep in mind the fancier the restaurant the more accommodating it will be to special requests. We’re not living in 1983 anymore, so any competent chef will know exactly what a vegan is, and all upscale restaurant kitchens have plenty of vegan ingredients on hand to make a terrific meal.

Steak and Seafood Restaurants

Steak and seafood are without question the two categories of restaurants are the worst of the worst for vegans. Even so, a steakhouse will generally offer a good salad, either made-to-order or from a salad bar. Add Italian dressing and skip the cheese, egg, and croutons and you should be in business. The best steakhouses take pride in their salads, and you can get a dinner-sized salad that compares favorably to anything a vegan restaurant would offer. But unless you know otherwise, assume that any salad you get from a steakhouse won’t rise much above mediocrity.

Seafood restaurants are best to avoid entirely. Expect to find virtually nothing on the menu that would be agreeable to vegans. However, if you are being dragged to a seafood restaurant, and there’s nothing at all on the menu that’s vegan, you can request that the chef make you pasta with olive oil and vegetables—all ingredients they will have on hand. Granted, the whole experience will still smell like fish.

Fast Food Restaurants

Most fast food chains are disappointing when it comes to offering acceptable vegan options, but there are a few exceptions. You can get a vegan sandwich or salad at Subway (although their whole wheat bread has honey), or a fresco-style bean burrito at Taco Bell. None of the second and third tier fast food chains like Wendy’s, Jack-in-the-Box, KFC, Arby’s, or Carl’s Jr. have any vegan options to speak of.

Most of the higher-end burger chains offer veggie burgers, but the vegan status of these burgers varies from one chain to the next. Burger King’s BK Veggie inexplicably contains egg whites. Fast food veggieburgers are usually cooked on the same grill as hamburgers—a huge turn-off to many vegans.

The restaurant industry considers burrito places like Chipotle, Qdoba, and Taco Del Mar to be a step up from conventional fast food, and from a vegan perspective these places are incomparably superior. You can reliably get a vegan burrito with rice, beans, guacamole, salsa, and lettuce at any of these chains. Taco Del Mar is especially deserving of praise since the chain publishes a PDF document that lists every single vegan option they offer.

Casual Dining Chain Restaurants

The industry calls restaurants like Applebee’s, TGIFriday’s, and Denny’s, “casual dining”. Vegans generally have less flattering terms for these establishments. Menu offerings tend to be heavy on meat, and the meatless options are generally swimming in cheese. The Olive Garden publishes this PDF showing its vegan options. The veggieburger at Denny’s is vegan and can be ordered with these vegan toppings: ketchup, mustard, jalapeños, fresh avocado, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, barbecue sauce, or bourbon sauce.

Not only are most casual dining chains generally unaccommodating to vegans, their waitstaff rarely has a clue about the vegan status of their menu items. The dirty little secret about casual dining is that most of what’s served is pre-packaged frozen food that the restaurant “chefs” merely heat up. Neither the waitstaff nor the kitchen staff will have the vaguest idea what’s in it, since none of the actual food preparation is done at the restaurant.

The silver lining to this is that, since all food preparation is centralized, each casual dining chain knows exactly what’s in each menu item, and the ingredients used won’t vary from one location to the next. So you can generally visit the websites of these chains and obtain detailed ingredient lists for every single menu item. In many cases, you’ll find it impossible to put together a decent meal.

PF Chang’s is one shining exception to the paucity of vegan dining options offered at casual chains. Not only is their vegan food is terrific; you can get gut-busting amounts of food for a pittance. PF Chang’s menu has a section devoted to vegetables and everything in that section is vegan—they do add cane sugar (which may be processed with bone char) to some items, but that’s a nitpick since it’s impossible to make a reasonable case that refined sugar contributes in any way to the meat industry’s bottom line.

Ethnic Restaurants

Some cuisines are remarkably vegan-friendly while others (particularly Korean and French) are practically devoid of vegan recipes.

Hands down the most vegan-friendly cuisine is Middle Eastern. This seems counterintuitive given the fact that nearly all these restaurants will have a shank of lamb turning prominently in their kitchen rotisserie. But just avoid meat-containing dishes, and virtually every item on the menu, apart from tzatziki (which is made with yogurt) will be vegan. Also keep in mind that some falafel joints aren’t Middle Eastern, they’re Greek. The food is very similar but Greek places will usually mix yogurt into their tahini dressing.

After Middle Eastern, the most vegan-friendly cuisine may be Ethiopian. As with Middle Eastern food, cheese is absent from traditional Ethiopian dishes, so if you avoid meat you should be in good shape. Just make sure that the restaurant in question cooks their stews with vegetable oil rather than butter, and make sure they don’t garnish your meal with sour cream.

Mexican food can and should be remarkably vegan-friendly, but it’s still something of a minefield particularly at authentic independently owned Mexican restaurants. Chicken stock can show up in the rice, lard in the beans, and sour cream in the guacamole. Not so long ago lard also went into most white flour tortillas, but that has become unusual.

Italian food is likewise a great choice for vegans. Just know that most fresh pasta is made with egg whites, whereas most dried pasta is vegan. In practice that means that spaghetti with marinara sauce is likely to be vegan, as is pizza with the cheese omitted. Independently-owned pizzerias usually make their pizza dough from scratch, with just flour, yeast, water, a pinch of sugar, and salt. But several chains (including Dominos and Pizza Hut) add milk products to some of their pizza doughs.

The annoying thing about Indian food is that it might be the world’s most vegetarian-friendly cuisine, but it’s among the more difficult cuisines for vegans since dairy products blend undetectably into many Indian rices and curries. One of the most popular Indian dishes of all, chana masala (curried chick peas), is vegan at most restaurants. And South Indian food tends to be dairy-free, since cows traditionally weren’t raised in that part of the world. Probably the most popular vegan South Indian dish is dosas, which are pancakes made from fermented lentil batter and stuffed with spiced potatoes and other vegetables.

Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurants

Naturally, you’re home free if there’s a veggie or vegan restaurant near you. One word of caution, however: it’s easy to drop your guard at a vegetarian restaurant and unwittingly consume something with dairy products or eggs. Many vegetarian restaurants have been around for decades, and haven’t really kept up with the increasing interest in veganism, so their menus are often dominated by non-vegan foods.

But most new veggie restaurants opening today are vegan rather than just vegetarian. And this includes three fantastic and rapidly-expanding chains, each with dozens of restaurants: Veggie Grill, Loving Hut, and Native Foods. If there aren’t any vegan restaurants in your area, don’t despair. Vegan food trucks have lately been catching on, as has the presence of vegan food vendors at farmer’s markets. So keep your eyes open for these things and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Final Thoughts

If, after reading this, it’s still clear that you don’t have any amazing local vegan dining options, take heart. Over time, that’s likely to change. Thanks to the growth of the vegan movement, coupled with the rise of Meatless Mondays and Eric Schlosser-style “conscientious omnivores” it may not be long before you’ve got much better local vegan dining options.

One of the best ways to increase the availability of vegan food in your area is to take simple steps to drive demand. By using platforms like meetup.com you can organize gatherings with other vegans. You’ll find that restaurants will often bend over backwards to please a large vegan group.

Know that restaurants are always seeking new business, so if you can clearly and politely request better vegan options, many establishments will be surprisingly receptive. But note that your wait-staff doesn’t have the power to push through change. You’ll want to communicate with the manager or owner.

So never forget that even if your town isn’t vegan-friendly, one day it will be. And you can be a driving force to speed that change.