Calling Ahead

by Gena on May 20, 2011

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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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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Christina May 20, 2011 at 3:26 pm

This is great Gena! This is exactly what I do for my food allergies. I explain it, get suggestions, double-check that it’s ok, and am friendly! The nicer restaurants are usually much more accommodating. Some have even prepared special menus for me in advance with items I can’t have crossed out. I do find I have trouble at ethnic restaurants – maybe it’s a language barrier or just a different understanding of food names (e.g. flour is just flour in Indian restaurants whether its chickpea, lentil, or wheat!). It’s taken some time, but I’m much more comfortable and confident calling ahead nowadays.

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Christina May 20, 2011 at 3:27 pm

By the way, great recipe in Veg News this month. When I saw “Spicy Chocolate Mousse” on the cover, I knew it would be by you! :)

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Mindy May 20, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Thanks for the advice, Gena. In my case, I have a double request I would have to make. I’m vegan by choice, and gluten-free by necessity (celiac). I find the 2 together makes me feel very intimidated. I think I could call ahead and deal with one or the other, but dealing with both and explaining both….well. Particularly living in a city that has absolutely no restaurants that are even vegetarian… forget vegan or raw – NONE. Just a very few years back, I had a co-worker who swore she had never even heard of tofu, and I can certainly believe her. I have exactly one place where I can comfortably eat. A little deli and bakery called Truly Free that avoids all allergens with the exception of nuts (one owner has celiac, and the other is dairy-intolerant), so although they do serve meat and fish – there is no gluten and no other animal products, and they acutally have a vegan section on the menu. Hooray! But they aren’t open past 6 pm, and not a “fine dining” establishment by any means. Oh well. Maybe one day I’ll get up the gumption and just dive in, but I do have to protect my health and ethcial choices.

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bitt May 20, 2011 at 4:36 pm

I have that same situation. I happen to live in a town right now that is pretty vegan and gluten-free friendly but I know how being celiac it’s easier to go to the place you trust. So sorry there’s only one place for you, I hope if you get a chance to travel you go to a place like Seattle or NYC where there are so many options your head will spin!

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Mindy May 20, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Thanks. I am grateful I have one – could be none. Yep, I definitely plan to consider available eating options to determine where I travel, and hopefully choose a new place to live someday with more options.

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Averie (LoveVeggiesandYoga) May 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm

“The main point here is that some restaurants really don’t know what to do with a vegan diner. And that’s fine.”

I think that’s an excellent point and I love how you said: “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…”

And yes, never discount simple manners, politely asking for something, and being pleasant about it all..so true!

I think most people with food allergies go through this line of questioning/discussion with restaurants as well. And I know some parents do it for their kids. Suzy won’t eat such and such, is there a kiddie menu (which is a whole other topic having kids eat their ‘own food’).

Awesome post, Gena! And so glad you left the restaurant satisfied. Both in terms of food and wonderful company :)

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VeggieGirl May 21, 2011 at 8:22 am

Definitely. Well said, Averie and Gena!

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melissa May 20, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Amazing post. It works well with any dietary restriction. I really need to this more with my salt issue (which has been acting up lately). Bookmarking now!

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bitt May 20, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Great suggestions! I find the nicer the place, the more willing they are to be accommodating and know how to make great veggies, they are just used to putting them on the side of meat. The places that are truly awful are middle America-ish cheaper steakhouses. But even there you can get a baked potato and some oil and salt (or ketchup if that floats your boat.) You won’t starve. But I’d still rather give my money to a place that is more innovative with vegan cuisine and can make something I couldn’t throw together at home. I guess you are getting prepared for DC where there are fewer all vegan restaurants.

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Ela May 20, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Yes–I found your Paris Review thoughts by myself, and I’m absolutely with you about MFK Fisher–I probably couldn’t eat 99% of what she talks about, but she has me rapt nonetheless!

Love your calling-ahead tips: the combination of being polite (‘I assume you know what this means’) but really double/triple checking is so key: have them on your side, they want to help you, but make sure once more that there isn’t cheese (or, if you’re allergic to gluten, wheat) hidden away in something!

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Jen @ Light Enough to Travel May 20, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Great post Gena. I hadn’t thought of calling ahead, but I’m quite comfortable ordering off the menu as a vegetarian. I’m not quite vegan although I love vegan food and am trying to get more alternative protein sources and lots more healthy veggies. I once had to go to a friend’s birthday dinner at a steakhouse (oh lovely, right?) but I talked to my server and she brought me these AMAZING build-your-own portobello mushroom fajitas with fresh guac, salsa, lettuce, sauteed peppers and cheese. People who ordered the steak were eyeing my dinner wishing they’d gotten that! I’ll try to call ahead sometimes in the future to see what healthy veggie options I can get. I’m sure the chefs even enjoy the challenge a little bit!

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Katie @ Nourishing Flourishing May 20, 2011 at 5:58 pm

I resonate very much with this as I can’t have gluten and don’t eat meat. Being understanding of the restaurant and server’s position makes things flow so much more smoothly. Very helpful tips, Gena!

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Jen May 20, 2011 at 6:02 pm

As I’ve mentioned numerous times in your comment section, I used to be vegan. Well, I have a story to share. It’s an unfortunate story involving calling ahead about being vegan. It was at my grandfather’s country club, regarding Easter lunch. I contacted the country club, and they actually gave my number to the chef himself, who called me back in short time. He told me to notify him when my party arrived.

When we got there, he came out from the kitchen to introduce himself, and assured me that he understood everything I said (no butter, no chicken stock, no cream, no dairy whatsoever). Later, I was presented with a beautiful plate of food that he made solely for me! It had mashed potatoes, lots of perfectly grilled and roasted vegetables, and a tasty tomato sauce. I enjoyed my food so much that before leaving, I asked if I could go back into the kitchen and thank him. My first question after thanking him was, “How did you make the mashed potatoes so creamy without using any butter or cream?” His response: “Easy! I just used milk.”

Dun, dun, dunnnn. I KNEW they tasted dairy-ishly creamy…

My dad tried to console me by saying that maybe the chef used soy or almond milk…but obviously I didn’t believe that. I highly doubt soy or almond milk had any place in that kitchen. I was devastated, because I had SO recently become a vegan, and felt like a failure for making such a rookie mistake by not double-checking.

Anyway, this comment got absurdly long without me realizing it, but I just wanted to reiterate your point that sometimes non-vegan ingredients don’t register in a chef’s mind. Like you said, one might simply “forget” that the cheese in risotto makes it un-vegan. What is common sense to a vegan, may not be common sense to a chef that is trained in classical French cuisine, or any other cuisine for that matter. Just because someone is a skilled and experienced chef, does not mean he or she is an expert on vegan cooking.

In conclusion, NOTE TO VEGANS: Always double-check! (But don’t hate yourself if you slip up due to someone else’s fault.)

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Hannah May 20, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Oh my god this happened to me with chicken stock in a soup! I cried for ages but at the end of the day it wasn’t my fault, I was new to the vegan game and didn’t list everything…

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Christine (The Raw Project) May 20, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Great information and points here, thanks. I’ve run into a few wait staff not knowing what veganism is and bringing me a “vegan” meal topped with cheese.

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Audrey May 20, 2011 at 6:50 pm

What a helpful post, Gena! I love how you actually give an idea of how some conversations go. I don’t eat out a lot, but when I do, this will be a really wonderful post to refer to.

Thanks again!

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Hannah May 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm

Even though I am not a vegan, I find this very helpful!!! There should be more “guides” like this out there for people. The flexibility part is definitely important, and even though I’m not vegan, I am health conscious, and I used to be really stingy about things that were not deemed “healthy”-essentially, I was really inflexible. So I think becoming more flexible is an important part. I’m sure this doesn’t happen too often because of the plethora of vegan restaurants in NYC, but I would feel bad if my only option was some sort of veggie, due to their limitations at the restaurant, while other omnivores can choose from a whole menu….then again, I guess that does not matter that much.

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FoodFeud May 20, 2011 at 9:06 pm

Thanks for this, Gena. I very, very rarely eat out in the ever-accomodating NYC restaurants just because I’m so awkward and embarrassed about asking for special things but you’re right – a meal doesn’t have to be something special made just for vegans, it can be a dish with just a few alterations. I have OCD and it makes eating out doubly hard but getting preliminaries out of the way beforehand makes things easier to know what to expect. “Be realistic” is something I’ve come back to time and time again in my worries and disorder.
Your dialogue excerpts were especially helpful! Thank you.

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Mountain Girl (Eat Hike Sleep Repeat) May 20, 2011 at 11:18 pm

I appreciate the script Gena. For some reason, I’ve just been hesitant to make this kind of request. Instead, I order of the menu and just ask them to leave out this, and that, and that too etc. etc. It usually ends up being a dissatisfying experience. Hey, who knows, perhaps the chef will actually enjoy the challenge!

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Micaela May 21, 2011 at 12:18 am

I don’t think I’ve ever called ahead to a restaurant, mainly because I don’t think it’s really occurred to me. I don’t eat out a lot and when I do, it’s mostly places that I know have something I can eat. This post has inspired me though, and maybe will save me from just eating a side salad somewhere in the future.

I think you made a good point about not assuming they will think of all the animal products in a dish. It’s also a good reminder to ask about everything. A few days ago I went to a restaurant and ordered the minestrone soup. I made sure to ask for no cheese. However, when it arrived, there was bacon in it. I never thought to ask about meat being in it, since I’ve never had minestrone with meat in it. But now I will always be sure to ask.

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Kristin (Cook, Bake and Nibble) May 21, 2011 at 6:44 am

Such great tips, Gena! Going out to eat has been something I’ve struggled with in the last few months eating gluten-free and a largely vegan diet. I need to learn to call ahead!

xo

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Erin May 21, 2011 at 8:28 am

Great post! I do this allthe time too, and have trained my hubby todo it when he makes the reservation on my behalf. In my experience, many chefs love the challenge and I’ve been served some amazing meals as a result!

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Lauren May 21, 2011 at 9:10 am

Great info! I call all the time. In fact, went to abckitchen last night and as soon as the waiter came up, he said, “so I hear you are vegan.” :)

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AnneMarie May 21, 2011 at 12:58 pm

I am glad I am not too uptight, I just go with the flow and order something no cheese, never really have any trouble :)

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Emilia @ Namaste Gurl May 21, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Great and wonderful tips! Really though, this is so useful for many of us bloggers who are vegan, vegetarian, gluten- free, soy- free, etc. You gave the perfect and most realistic examples of what to do come the circumstance. I usually do call ahead to see if there’s a vegan option, but it can be hard if you don’t know where you’re going to 5-10 minutes before!

:)

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Heather @ Get Healthy With Heather May 21, 2011 at 7:55 pm

These are great tips for anybody with restrictions! The important part is to be nice and usually that will work in your favor.

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emily immerse May 21, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Loved this post. Thanks again Gena! I am blessed to dine at my family-owned cafe most days in the week and they have a good range of vegan options listed on the menu. Its took a few years of asking to get beyond vegetarian.. but we got there! Anyhoo I have always been torn about ‘bothering’ people with my choices. I usually try to order around what I can see and hope for the best.
I realise that the more requests for these options the more likely they are to appear on menus the world over but I dont like to make people feel bad about their choices. I’ve not always been vegan (or vegetarian for that matter!) and I often sense that people (wait staff, managers etc) feel judged as soon as you order.

This could be my own s%$t (errr… issues) but reading your post made me feel tonnes better about asking (nay, planning ahead!) before I delve out into the dining world again. Thanks!

Oh, and tip well for considerate and helpful staff… tell them you appreciate their thoughtfulness in getting you a great meal!

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LauraJayne May 23, 2011 at 10:29 am

I love this post! It’s easier for me, since most restaurants have pretty clear vegetarian options, but I always do a little internet research to check out the menu and make sure that there are dishes available that aren’t just fettuccine alfredo or bread! If the menu isn’t clear, I usually call ahead to find out if they have un-listed healthy veg options!

For me, it’s harder to find places with whole wheat (or brown rice) – I really don’t ever like to eat simple carbs, and I’ll make a restaurant decision simply to avoid places that don’t offer whole wheat!

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Karla (Kinder Cuisine) May 23, 2011 at 10:50 pm

Great post, Gena. I have never actually phoned ahead – I have mostly just winged it at the restaurant. I have always found (so far) that if approached about it in the right way, the chef is more than happy to modify an existing dish on the menu to meat your needs. But I will ring in future, I’m sure the results will be even better with pre-warning.

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Karla (Kinder Cuisine) May 23, 2011 at 10:51 pm

I noticed I said “meat” your needs – ooops make that meet your needs…LOL

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Jayme July 10, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Omg this made my day LOL

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Catherine May 24, 2011 at 12:06 pm

This is an incredibly helpful post. I’ve had a very difficult time with restaurant dining lately, and recently took somewhat of a passive approach. I emailed a restaurant AFTER my visit there to say thank you for a great experience, though I’d love to see a vegan entree option on the menu. (Maybe somewhat naively thinking if they keep hearing this comment from patrons, they’ll start to change things a little.)

But they actually responded quickly and invited me to call next time before I visit the restaurant and they’d be happy to accommodate me. I had never really thought to do that! So thanks for the encouragement. I think I will be more proactive now.

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Stephanie, The Recipe Renovator June 29, 2011 at 10:38 pm

This is an excellent post, and so very helpful to all of us dealing with dietary restrictions. I did an interview with a fine dining chef about this topic that your readers might also find helpful. They’ll find it here: http://reciperenovator.com/healthyrecipes/glutenfree/food-allergy-restaurant-tips/

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Rachel Ngom February 7, 2012 at 5:24 pm

These are some great tips! I’ve never actually called ahead, I usually just try and check out the menu ahead of time. I’ll try this next time a family member suggests a restaurant i’m not familiar with. Thanks!!

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Emma June 16, 2013 at 12:23 am

Thanks so much for this, awesome info!! A lot of vegan websites suggest calling ahead, but noone Ive seen so far gives more detail than that… This play by play really helps me imagine how to do that next time :)

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Gena June 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm

I’m so glad, Emma!

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