Confidence Building 101: Order Off the Menu

by Gena on September 26, 2011

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Yesterday, I paid a visit to Poplar Springs Animal Sanctuary to help celebrate the farm’s annual fundraiser. My main motive for visiting Poplar is always to say hello to the pigs; as you know, I help to sponsor Hamlet, a pig with tremendous personality.

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I couldn’t find hamlet yesterday—I think he was off playing in the mud somewhere–but I did get to greet some of his friends.

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My other reason to visit poplar was to see Colleen Patrick Goudreau, the keynote speaker, in action. Colleen is one of my culinary heroes, and she’s a role model as an activist, too. I met her at Vida Vegan, and found that she is every bit as gracious and composed in person as she is in her work; we spent a moment comparing our literary pasts (Colleen was also an English lit major, a fact that is evident in her elegant prose). Most of all, I was impressed with Colleen’s “seeds of compassion” lecture, which was about sharing a compassionate message with others. I’ve written often in the last few months about how to reconcile activism with humility and a gentle touch. No one masters that balance better than Colleen does, and yesterday’s speech proved to be no exception. Even the hand gestures were earnest:

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One of the questions that emerged from the audience was, “What do I do if I’m an omnivore going veg*n, and most of my friends like to eat out at mainstream restaurants? Do I just have to starve?”

Obviously, this is something we’ve all discussed a lot here at CR. Colleen answered exactly as I would. If you anticipate having a lack of options, she said, a lack is what you’ll get. If you feel confident enough to order off the menu, and create your own set of options, you’ll be well fed.

What does this mean? This means that you don’t simply stare at a menu with threadbare salads and meat/cheese dishes feeling disappointed. It means you ask—politely and respectfully—if the chef has any rice or beans that could be added to the mesclun salad. Is there a way to do the pasta primavera without the chicken? Is there a sandwich that can be veganized? How about plain spaghetti and red sauce with a few pieces of steamed broccoli? Hopefully your options will be richer than that, but even if they’re not, you won’t starve.

Of course, gathering the nerve to talk to your waiter is most of the work. I once met a man who told me that he was essentially vegan, except for restaurants. He told me this as if it were a given, and there could be no other solution: “I’m vegan, except when I eat out, obviously.”

I looked at him quizzically, and said, “why restaurants?”

“Well, they never have options I can eat on the menu,” he said.

“So why don’t you just try to order off the menu?” I replied.

He stared, as if I’d just changed everything. “I guess it never occurred to me that I could ask for something that wasn’t on the menu,” he said.

It’s a tiny exchange, but I think it speaks to the fact that, if you choose to eat in a way that is selective and different, it’s important to think outside the box. Heck, isn’t all of veganism—at least at this moment in time—a form of thinking outside of the box? Part of exploring the lifestyle is learning how to search for solutions and accommodations when they haven’t been given to you. Restaurant dining is shifting in a more plant-based direction, but we’re far from the day when vegan options will abound on any restaurant menu in any part of the country. Till then, we can do our best to create options for ourselves, rather than waiting for others to hand them to us.

It’s easy to confuse confidence with aggression or egotism. The first time I wrote about my unabashed exchanges with waiters, a former waiter commented and reminded me that people who demand 103837 modifications impolitely are terribly hard for wait staffs to handle. This was a good reminder. That said, I think it’s all to do with attitude: as Colleen pointed out yesterday, you pay good money to dine out. And you have the right to ask for simple things, like a side of beans, just so long as you don’t demand something outrageous (for example, I’m not going to ask any old restaurant to create a raw vegan entrée for me). But you have to ask in a way that is as respectful as it is self-assured.

I love that women like Colleen are out there, sharing a confident message with both veteran and prospective vegans. And I think that her formula extends to any particular way of eating. Few things are more intimate and personal than how we choose to feed ourselves, and we all have the right to pick and choose our food identities—veg*n, allergy-specific, local, organic, whatever. If we can find ways to do that with both graciousness and pride, “ordering off the menu” becomes easy.

More advice on restaurant dining? Check out calling ahead and last week’s talking to people about your food choices posts.

Till tomorrow,

xo

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{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Alli September 26, 2011 at 11:20 am

As a former waitress who worked in Italian (cream sauce!), Mexican (meat and cheese!), and French (cream sauce, meat, and cheese!) restaurants, I was always more than happy to work with vegetarian/vegan patrons to find something off-menu to suit their needs — the only time I can remember not being able to do that was when I worked in a restaurant with an incredibly strict “no substitutions” policy, so this would be another reason to use the advice you gave in your “calling ahead” post. Obviously I can’t speak for restaurants and their employees everywhere but, on the whole, we were glad to answer any questions and work with dietary heads ups (and not just vegan — various allergies, kosher, etc.). When in doubt, ask!

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Alli September 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I guess I should also point out that — since I lived with a vegan roommate at the time — I knew to ask the kitchen whether there was, say, chicken or veggie stock in the risotto or whether butter was used on the pasta or not. Sometimes waiters or the kitchen staff don’t remember to double check so it’s definitely a good thing to remember as well.

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courtney September 26, 2011 at 11:57 am

Hi Gena,
Thanks for the encouraging post! What I do find most frustrating about dining out is when the wait staff does not know what goes into a dish (is the soup made with chicken stock?) and even worse when they bluff and tell you something is vegan without verifying the information. I assume it is a rarity, but I ate the pasta with red sauce at a restaurant once (after the waiter assured me it was vegan) only to have a different (vegetarian) waiter during my next trip to the same restaurant tell me the sauce had chicken stock in it. I know we have to forgive ourselves when we unknowingly waiver from the lifestyle we have chosen, but it does make eating out daunting at times.
On an unrelated note, may I ask why you are writing “vegan” with an asterisk at times? Just curious :) Thanks again for the lovely recipes and thought-provoking content.

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Ali Seiter September 26, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I was just wondering exactly the same thing about writing “veg*n” instead of “vegan”! I’ve seen it used on a couple other blogs, and I would love to have it cleared up, as well.

I, too, have had my share of dining mishaps, such as at a Thai restaurant where I ordered the veggie spring roll only to have it come with pork and shrimp stuffed inside. The waitress apologized profusely and brought me a veganized plate, but not after I had already taken a bite pre-realization! I felt gross and guilty for the rest of the night and had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t at all my fault.

I also dine out frequently at upscale local restaurants that are happy to create a vegan meal if you call ahead a couple days in advance. Many restaurants nowadays even ask if there are any dietary restrictions in the party while making reservations.

Thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful post, as always Gena!

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Gena September 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Just replied to Courtney, above!

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Gena September 26, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Hi Courtney! Veg*n denotes “vegetarian or vegan.” The fellow in the audience who asked Colleen about restaurants had actually said “vegetarian or vegan” — normally I don’t use the asterisk because I think that vegetarianism and veganism are two very different things. Sometimes, though, it’s apropos.

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Katelyn (new kid on the vegan block) September 26, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Love this post! I actually had to order off the menu last week at 901 Restaurant here in DC and I was so thrilled with how nice they were about working with me on putting together a vegan friendly meal. It really made my whole day. Sometimes I can get self-conscious when I have to have one of these conversations with a waiter, but I find if I just smile, go slow and stay up beat about how simple it can be to make me a meal I get the best results.

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Julie (A Case of the Runs) September 26, 2011 at 12:14 pm

That’s an issue that I always have… even if I am not really vegan, I do avoid meat/dairy as much as I can, and I often feel disappointed at mainstream restaurant menus and kind of disappointed when I have to pay the same for the dish “sans meat” as the dish that comes with it. I think this is why I try not to eat out too often…

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Kaitlyn@TheTieDyeFiles September 26, 2011 at 1:18 pm

Great advice. I’ve been a server, and we’re always told to do whatever’s possible to get the customer what they want. Some things are just not possible, of course, but I always remember that people are never hesitant to order dressing on the side, none of this, extra that, and I shouldn’t be afraid either as long as I’m kind and respectful. I think the most difficult part is my company and them thinking I’m nuts for some modifications. But I’m committed, and ordering off the menu is something I’ve become accustomed to already. I even called ahead, thanks to your inspiration, a few weeks ago!

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bitt September 26, 2011 at 1:21 pm

thanks for continuing to preach this message. i am trying to get through to my parents, who eat a diet high in plants and very light at home and then have a hard time telling their friends their needs at dinner parties. since they don’t have a strict label as being vegetarian or gluten-free, they feel it’s a burden to ask for a lighter meal. i try to tell them to advocate for themselves, especially if it’s a small dinner party, I would think the host would feel bad if no one ate much (or got sick after) and would much rather accommodate the guests needs than perfect his or her heavy french cooking skills. but it is something that a lot of people are told to eat what they are given, not make a fuss, etc.

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Emma September 26, 2011 at 1:55 pm

At first I found it awkward asking waitresses about vegan possibilities but have grown so much more confident in my vegan lifestyle that I feel proud speaking up and asking for what I want. I actually think Colleen was a big help in that. I highly recommend her podcast series ‘vegetarian food for thought’ to everyone out there, omni, veg or vegan. It is so so inspiring. I hope she comes to the UK to speak one day :)
Oh, and those pigs are adorable!

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Natalcho @ Tomatoes Rock September 26, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Gena, I was just discussing the issue of being vegan and eating at non vegan restaurants with a friend. He wants to go vegan but he eats out almost every day and already finds the vegetarian options restrictive (mushroom risotto anyone?) I sent him your post – I absolutely agree that you don’t have stop going to non vegan restaurants – you just need to be prepared, maybe call ahead and you will find that almost all places are very accommodating – this was a true revelation to me a couple of months ago as I made my first ever off the menu order:)

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Averie @ Love Veggies and Yoga September 26, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. In almost anything in life. As long as you do it confidently, kindly, with a smile, and with an upbeat attitude, almost nothing is impossible…even ordering things not on a menu. In fact, in the great scheme of life, that’s a pretty easy one to tackle I think :)

Love the pic of you and the pig. So cute!

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Johanna B September 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

I am so grateful for this post. I don’t eat out much because I have so many “requirements.” I’m celiac, post heart attack, diabetic and working into veganism. Sometimes I think that doesn’t leave much. I forget to look outside the box and ask. Reading this post will make it easier for me in the future.

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Heather @ Better With Veggies September 26, 2011 at 4:14 pm

One of the things I’ve discovered is that many servers have Vegan friends/siblings/girlfriends/etc and are very willing to help you create something that works (and usually tastes great!). Of course, this may vary based on where you live, but just something to think about!

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JL goes Vegan September 26, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Great post, Gena! I too admire Colleen’s quiet way of helping us be compassionate and fierce at the same time. I order “off menu” with many items “on the menu” meaning I take a look at what they DO offer that is vegan and ask them to make up a plate of vegan sides. Works like a charm!

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Rebecca September 26, 2011 at 6:36 pm

One of the main reasons I hesitated going vegetarian was because I didn’t know how it would work outside my own kitchen. Now, I am learning to be creative when eating out and often make a whole meal out of side dishes. I want to try more to order “off” the menu for veg. entrees. Thank you helping us vegheads live healthfully in real life!

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melissa September 26, 2011 at 6:40 pm

thanks gena! I needed a reminder that it was okay to do your own thing and stay true to your convictions!

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Jess @ Jess Go Bananas September 26, 2011 at 7:38 pm

I am glad that you pointed out to ask politely – sometimes I lack the courage because I think the waiter will make me feel selfish – but at times I have to be, especially when in a restaurant and their goal is to please me!

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dc September 26, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Bonjour from Montreal!
Appreciated the post and heartily endorse ringing and planning ahead – whether for a resto meal or one hosted at a reception hall (think wedding receptions, banquets). Admittedly, I become frustrated when those in charge present a vegan, Celiac option called (wait for it) – a plate of boiled vegetables! Yum! Yum!
By ringing ahead, I’m able to make simple, satisfying suggestions from my bag of tricks and have been thanked for doing so – and I’ve been the recipient of a “comp” meal for providing numerous ideas, including the recipes!
Those of us who elect to eat according to our hearts, minds and bodies can help others understand that, while a little planning is required, all is possible – particularly when done with a smile!

Be well,

dc

NB Just wondering…does Hamlet have a sister named Omelette?

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Ashley F. September 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Thanks for the post, Gena! Since becoming vegan I’ve tried to avoid eating out as much as possible (for health reasons as well as the limited food options), but it’s great to hear that as long as you are respectful, most restaurants will work with you to make a vegan-friendly meal. I will definitely try some of these techniques next time I go out with friends or family!

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Christine (The Raw Project) September 26, 2011 at 11:38 pm

Great post and adorable pig pictures! I’ve been doing a lot of off menu ordering lately boldly going into any restaurant and have been having good luck! Like an amazing rice and veggie dish, or loaded fiesta bowl with extra guac to make up for the lack of meat and cheese. :-)

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Ali September 27, 2011 at 12:28 am

Such a wonderful reminder post. I think the story of the “vegan except for at restaurants” guy is so funny, and so common. Restaurants are there to give you a good experience, that is their job! So long as you are kind and gracious with your requests, as Gena always points out, they should be more than happy to make you happy!

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Laura September 27, 2011 at 12:47 am

Me at Rubios: could I have the bean and cheese burrito, with avocado instead of cheese? Oh, and add salsa, cabbage, and fiesta corn ? At jamba: Could I have the berry (current menu name) minus sherbet, juice and whey, plus peanut butter and soy milk? I’m the queen of substitutions… just have to find the optimal menu item for the template. I’m doing the APRL vegan pledge this week, so instead of being 90% vegan, I’m checking every product and asking questions about everything I buy or order. I feel more confident asking questions and being picky when I have a “reason” like that, however silly it is to think that way.

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Emma (Emma+Jacob) September 27, 2011 at 4:06 am

Oooh I always call ahead! And it is great that the restaurants I have encountered so far, even the quick serve ones, are actually delighted that I still chose to eat there with my friends and are more often than not happy to (if not altogether excited about) customizing one or two simple veg dishes off menu.

Thing is, it is sometimes a challenge explaining that oyster sauce and cheese are not veg :D

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Heather September 27, 2011 at 6:23 am

Aww, sorry you couldn’t find Hamlet! I’m sure he was having too much fun rolling in the mud with his pals. ;-)

Dining out used to completely and totally freak me out because I was so fearful of speaking up. But then I realized that it is the restaurant’s job to please its customers, and as long as I am polite and clear about what I would like to order, it really shouldn’t be a problem. Plus, creating new dishes off the menu is fun!

Stay lovely,
Heather

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GetSkinnyGoVegan September 27, 2011 at 10:14 am

It’s a great idea. I hate to be a pain or to “ask” for anything different, but at the same time if we don’t ask, nothing will ever change! There are so many more vegan options now because people are asking! I do try to steer towards veggie friendly places and the food tends to be not as good, in my experience, if I am at a pretty traditional restaurant. And I feel like I never “know” what is vegan. Even places here that advertise vegan burgers may put the thing on non-vegan bread. Which a decade ago wouldn’t have freaked me out so bad-but now I just don’t want any whey, casein, blah, blah, blah. So sometimes to be “safe”, I tend to order minimally because I feel like half the time they just tell you an answer & don’t know, don’t care, don’t check, or just lie about it. But I don’t want to cause too much of a fuss when I am actually out somewhere, so find myself settling a lot. And I am old & married and we don’t go out that much!!!! One dinner going out can buy A LOT of organic apples!! And I get the added bonus of having dogs begging and cats fighting, by my side, if we eat at home :)
Nothing like being domestic :)

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Claire September 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

Ordering off the menu is such a simple concept, but it is amazing to me how many people hesitate to do it! My former non-vegan self included! Eating out, was one of the big sticking points of becoming totally vegan when I was originally switching over. I decided to do a month long vegan pledge with the Philadelphia chapter of Peace Advocacy Network (PAN) and it was there that I got a sponsor. He was the one that opened my eyes to ordering off the menu…and I haven’t looked back!

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Stephanie September 27, 2011 at 12:47 pm

In the same way we can bring vegan entrees to holiday events to share, it’s also great to convince friends to try a vegan restaurant! I had many hesitators, but after I was able to convince my friends to eat at Candle 79 they were hooked! My girlfriend, who eats meat, can’t get enough of the seitan piccata. Supporting vegan/vegetarian restaurants in your area is so important, and sometimes the confidence building really comes from reminding your friends/family that it’s your turn to pick the restaurant :)

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Shannon September 27, 2011 at 2:20 pm

I definitely have a reputation as one of those ‘picky’ orderers at a restaurant, but I find as long as you’re polite and explain your choices, most places can work with you.
Thanks for always having solid conversations about realistic obstacles! I hope schools going well.

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Nada (One Arab Vegan) September 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm

That’s such a great point about confidence, it’s so true! I used to dread dining out because I thought I’d never find anything to eat – it would almost be a source of stress sometimes. Calling ahead is great because it puts you at ease and I haven’t encountered a restaurant that can’t accomodate my needs.

I’ve also learned not to be apologetic anymore when asking for substitutions or ordering off the menu, I’ve noticed that when you order with conviction, the weird looks/annoyed sighs from servers subside.

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Ariela September 27, 2011 at 7:14 pm

Hey Gena!

Thanks so much for this post. Following a recent event in an unfamiliar area of town, some family and I went to a tiny, family-owned Mexican restaurant. I felt intimidated by the cheese and meat heavy options on the tiny menu and the fact that most of the menu was in Spanish. As a result, I decided not to order anything, dive into my purse stash of fruit and nuts, and wait to eat lunch til I got home. Well, lunch was followed by some unexpected errands, and to say the least, I was ready to chew my arm off when I got home. This post is incredibly helpful should I find myself in a similar situation down the road.

I was also speaking to a friend and fellow vegan recently about the Peace Corps and similar service programs, and she remarked that it would be extremely difficult or nearly impossibly to remain vegan while involved in a program in a poor, remote area on the other side of the world. What are your thoughts?

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Marlena Torres September 27, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Those pigs are so precious looking. Animals are so fantastic. :)

While I have never ordered off the menu (that I can remember), I have been known to carry avocados, lemons, goat’s cheese, chocolate, and salad greens in my purse when I go to restaurants. I just can’t bear the thought of a meager or disappointing meal, especially dinner!

I have fun with side dishes, too. Whatever steamed veggies are available, I will order one or two. If you really know what you want and ask kindly, I find that restaurant staff is happy to cater to your wishes! I used to be a server, and as long as people were kind and didn’t treat me like a slave, I was happy to get them exactly what they wanted. Most servers want happy tables who enjoy their meals. It makes their job much more enjoyable.

XO

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Lauren September 27, 2011 at 7:47 pm

This is a very helpful post. I am vegetarian but my parents both still eat meat so occasionally I have to go to a meat centric restaurant with them and I always have a little trouble finding things to eat. Another favorite of mine is to order a few veggie sides with some sort of protein/whatever else I need at the moment as my meal. Yum!

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