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On Wednesday, when I recapped my recent dinner at a French Bistro, I mentioned that I’d called ahead to inquire about vegan dining options. This process is so familiar to me that I rarely think about it, but a few readers asked what my protocol is, and I’m glad they did. Restaurant dining is a part of life, and it should be a pleasurable part: I hate to think how many new vegans fear restaurants, or assume that veganism and dining out are incompatible. They’re not, and you shouldn’t worry. Here’s how I ensure that things go smoothly:

1) Pick Up Your Phone

Sure, you could wait till you arrive at the restaurant to mention that you’re vegan. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Kitchens are busy, and getting a last minute request for special dining preferences isn’t every chef’s cup of tea. You can call when you make a reservation, or you can call 24 hours before, but do call. It’ll make your dinner better, the chef’s night easier, and it’ll ensure that the restaurant has no excuse to tell you that no vegan options exist.

2) Be Polite

Yes, the customer is always right, but you’re far more likely to secure a nice vegan dish with a sweet attitude than you are with a demanding one. Good manners, a nice tone of voice—these are your secret weapons.

3) Be Realistic

Of course your intention is to have the chef or maître d’ promise you a hearty vegan meal. But you should have realistic expectations: a restaurant with nary a vegan option in sight on the website probably isn’t going to know how to prepare a really impressive vegan meal (much less a raw vegan meal). Nevertheless, it may know how to make a great salad, and it may know how to grill some killer veggies. Be prepared to celebrate whatever options sound good.

4) Be Flexible

I’d love it if every restaurant knew about raw kale salad and nutritional yeast, or could whip up collard wraps for me. It would also be terrific if they all replaced olive oil with coconut oil for roasting, and used only whole grains, and a few other things that I do in the privacy of my own home.

But I’m a citizen of the world, and sometimes that means being flexible. I always insist on vegan food when I eat out, but beyond that, I try to bend and flex some of my more nitpicky food standards. When I eat out, I don’t expect to get a lot of raw, and I also don’t expect to get all whole grains and organic. I realize that, if a restaurant can meet me part of the way, that’s a big deal in and of itself.

So here’s how two of these conversations might go. I’ve lifted both directly from my own experiences:

Maître D’: Hello?

Me: Hi there! I’m dining with you on [reservation date], and I just wanted to call ahead to let you know that I’m vegan. I’m sure you’ve had other requests like this before, but just in case, it means that I can’t have any animal products—butter, eggs, milk, chicken or beef stock, and fish, too.

Maître D’: OK.

Me: So, I just wanted to find out what might be available for me. Can you think of any dishes on the menu that would easily work?

Maître D’: How about a vegetable risotto?

Me: Sure! That sounds great. Are you sure there’s no chicken stock or parmigiano?

Maître D’: Ohh, wait. Yes, there’s cheese. Sorry. How about a pasta with vegetables and olive oil.

Me: That sounds terrific. Thank you so much—I didn’t want to impose, but I did want you to know so that it would be easy for my server when I arrive.

Maître D’: No problem. Thanks for letting us know.

Note that I always explain what veganism is, but I also disclaim it by announcing that the maître d’ probably knows already. If I don’t define the term, there’s a chance the maître d’ (or server) won’t understand, and will suggest a dish with animal foods; if, on the other hand, I explain the term in an obnoxious, paint-by-numbers fashion, the maître d’ may feel talked down to. I once offered a server a dictionary definition of veganism, only to be told that his sister is vegan, and yes, he could accommodate me. Ooops.

Note, too, that even if a maître d’ thinks he or she is offering a fully vegan dish (like the veggie risotto), little things—like parmigiano cheese—might not register. You’re pretty good at this game: don’t be scared to double and triple check.

So that’s one way it might have gone. Here’s another example of how that convo may have panned out:

Maître D’: Hello?

Me: Hi there! I’m dining with you on [reservation date], and I just wanted to call ahead to let you know that I’m vegan. I’m sure you’ve had other requests like this before, but just in case, it means that I can’t have any animal products—butter, eggs, milk, chicken or beef stock, and fish, too.

Maître D’: OK.

Me: So, I just wanted to find out what might be available for me. Can you think of any dishes on the menu that would easily work?

Maître D’: Hmmm. That’s hard; you know, most of our dishes have at least cheese or fish or something.

Me: Sure, I totally understand. That’s actually why I called.

Maître D’: Yeah. I’m trying to think….

Me: Let me ask you this: do you think the kitchen could make a really big salad up for me? Maybe with some grilled veggies? And if they use beans or nuts or avocado in any other dish, could they add those as a side?

Maître D’: Yeah, you know, we could probably do a big salad with beans.

Me: Great! That’s so kind of you. And really, I’m happy so long as I get a lot of veggies, so even if you end up putting some veggies on a plate, that’ll be fine.

Maître D’ (laughs): OK. Yeah, this won’t be too hard.

Me: That’s wonderful. Thanks so much for being so accommodating! I’ll see you in a few days.

Maître D’: No problem. Thanks for letting us know.

The main point here is that some restaurants really don’t know what to do with a vegan diner. And that’s fine. Remind them that they don’t have to know how to broil tempeh, stuff acorn squash, make vegan stew, or prepare raw nut pate to make you happy: you’ll be happy with a big ‘ole salad or grilled veggie plate and nuts.

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(source)

Also, make your kind maître d’ aware of options that might not occur to him or her: some servers and maître d’s will forget that beans are at the ready in almost all kitchens, that there are walnuts from another dish lying around, or that there’s some extra avocado from the shrimp salad that could be added to your dish. Be dynamic, and make these little suggestions: if you do, you can turn a plate of mesclun into a nutrient dense salad.

Most importantly, don’t feel embarrassed to take these steps. Planning ahead in a respectful fashion will actually make things easier for your dining establishment, and it’ll lift a lot of potential anxiety and concern from your dining experience. Also remember that, even if you can’t expect all restaurants to cater specifically to you and your needs, you can (and should) expect to be treated with respect. Many restaurants now adjust dishes for diners with food allergies, or cater to diners who keep Kosher: as a vegan, you’re no less entitled to accommodations. Be assertive about your needs.

I once met a fellow who told me that the reason he wouldn’t be vegan—even though he felt morally and personally compelled to do it—was because he wouldn’t be able to order from restaurant menus. When I asked him if he ever just tried to order off the menu, he looked shocked, as if I’d revealed a dirty secret. “Wow,” he said. “I just never thought to ask if they could make something for me.”

Of course they can. They can, and most restaurants gladly will.

Are there some restaurants that turn their noses up at vegan diners, and refuse to make modifications? Sure. And those are the nights on which we do remember that life isn’t all about food, and that, if we need to, we can have a garden salad and come home to a hearty midnight snack in our own kitchens. No big deal. But most of the time, if you behave with graciousness and good manners, but also take care to honor your preferences as a diner, eating out will be an easy and fun part of the vegan lifestyle.

Bon appetit!

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xo

P.S. Literary readers: I recently answered a question for the Paris Review Blog (which is fabulous and essential) about my favorite classic food writing. These recommendations are not vegan oriented, nor are they even vegan friendly, but they are representative of some of my favorite works in the food writing oeuvre. My hope is that this particular genre will expand quickly to include more vegetarian and vegan voices, and in fact it’s already happening: I mentioned Anna Thomas and Deb Madison as examples. We, too, are a part of it. Check it out, if you have time—if only to hear about my love for MFK Fisher. She and I would have had a hard time cooking for one another, but I’d have listened to her talk about the joy of eating with rapt attention.

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