Monday, November 15, 2010

Vegetarian friendly restaurants, how to know where to go.

I know that I've talked about vegetarian traveling and dining out before but that was before I got my smart phone. (Oh smart phone how I love you) Before the SP I had to do my research online, ask the hotel staff, ask wait staff and chefs of restaurants I happened into. All very labor intensive and frustrating, for me and the people around me. 

A free app made all the difference in the world for me on this last trip. Food Finder was very helpful. Combined with the GPS feature this app searches for restaurants nearby or by type. One of the types is vegetarian. Booyah! A few others are farmers markets, health food stores, Indian restaurants, organic food, tofu restaurants, and wine bars (you knew I had to add the last one)  If I'm going out with friends or vendors I can search for something that is vegetarian friendly. Oh yeah! I'm one happy traveler now.

We don't normally let my culinary idiosyncrasies get in the way of eating out but how do I know what type of restaurant is typically veggie friendly? That is just a matter of experience. Years of searching for restaurants that offer choices for vegetarians and omnivores at the same time has made me somewhat of an expert. Let me pass along a bit of that experience.

I have 3 main criteria - usually safe; must ask; and run away

Here are some beyond the obvious vegetarian choices:

Italian: This is usually a safe bet. Even if you are vegan you may be able to find some things to eat at an Italian place. Ask about the use of meat broths in soups and sauces right away. Saves you the hassle of ordering something then sending it back. Chefs hate that. Not to mention the waiters.

It is always a good idea to stay away from the caesar salad dressing because a lot of places put anchovies in it. I usually stick with marinara or pomodoro sauce. If you are ever in Charleston, South Carolina you really must go to Mercato on Market street. The wild mushroom risotto is epic. I would say more about this dish if I wasn't completely speechless.  If you want to see what it looks like when it hits your table you'll have to look back at last years post about Charleston. This year, well, I couldn't wait to take a picture before I gorged myself on it's yummy creamy goodness.
Indian: (usually safe) Vegetarianism is very common in India so eating at an Indian restaurant is a safe bet for us.  We have a favorite here in Houston that conveniently is about 3 miles from our house. If you are not a big fan of spicy food then you'll want to stay away from the curry dishes. We happen to love our food nose runny spicy so this is not a problem for us. 

Vietnamese: (usually safe) I adore the sandwiches at Vietnamese restaurants. I do take the pepper off because while I like spicy I don't like to burn off my taste buds before I get to the chunk of grilled tofu on the bottom because that is the money piece.

Mexican:  (must ask) You would think that Mexican food would be safe. Well, guess again. These restaurants qualify as a "must ask" variety because of the sneaky way that the rice, beans, and tortillas are made. All are seemingly innocent foods but are not always safe, especially here in the south. Take rice for is usually made with chicken stock. Beans? = lard. You get the idea.

American: (must ask) Sometimes they'll have one of two vegetarian items on the menu, such as veggie burgers or wraps. Watch out for the salads. Seems that a lot of places feel that bacon bits are a necessity on a simple salad. My favorite conversation goes something like this:
Me: I'm a vegetarian could you please take off the bacon?
Wait staff: Sure. Would you like chicken on it?

Greek/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern: (usually safe) There is a lot of choices for a vegetarian at these places. Sure they have meat items on the menu but you can always get falafel, hummus, tabouli and a host of other yummy things. I tried to make all my meetings that are over lunch or dinner at one of these places. It ensures that there is something for everyone.

Japanese/Korean/Indonesian: (must ask) There are veggie choices at these restaurant but they can't be considered usually safe like you would think. If you don't specifically know what the menu item that you want has in it ask. 

Places to "run away" from:
Any place offering South American food such as Argentinian, Brazilian, Cuban, and Peruvian.
Most English, Irish, Scottish place though they might soon get bumped up to the "must ask" places.
Virtually ALL fast food but since you shouldn't be eating it there anyway this is an easy one to avoid
BBQ and buffets - goes without saying
Seafood, soul food, steakhouses, and cajun places

Do not forget to ask about broths, lard and other things that the wait staff may not know is in the food or may not know that these are actually non-veggie items. I was once asked it I would like to try some chicken broth from one of the demo tables at Costco. After I said, "no thank you I don't eat meat" the demo lady said, "oh, this isn't meat. It's broth".

If you are the least bit squeamish about what is in your cheese or wine or where things are made and/or fried in the same place as meat (I sort of am and sort of not. I do have to eat!) then you'll want to stay away from anyplace that is not strictly vegetarian or vegan. Good luck with that when traveling or do your homework.

This is not a comprehensive list by any means. It is just my personal guidelines. I hope you find it helpful.


PS: this might make Meatless Monday a little easier to swallow. Don't want to try your hand at making something. Now you can just go out.


  1. Any tips when dining at a Labradoran restaurant? Labradoran food is the bomb. Cheers Michele!!

  2. My favorite conversation with wait-staff:

    "I don't eat grains, can you check with the kitchen what's in the soup?"

    "They say there's no flour in it - they thickened it with corn starch."

    "Uh...corn is a grain."

  3. I think my 4 year old is going vegetarian. I may need this list. :-)

  4. I will have Tessa read your list. She was headache free for 2 months now has them again. :(

  5. You're "run away from" list is the list of places I'm MOST likely to go to. haha ;-)

  6. Do you have a good wwwsite that will have some guidelines. Some you've tried yourself.
    I have a very good selection of spice and herbs.
    But I've found that anytime I make non-meat dishes I never make it tasty and there are dementions missing. And I know it can be done for I eaten at many an Indian where I've not missed meat at all.

  7. Good to know, I need to work on some more filling meatless options. I just always find it's like eating Chinese--I'm hungry about an hour later.

  8. Matt: What are you doing eating Labradors? They are the sweetest puppies around.

    Jan: I have conversations like that all the time.

    SK: How about you send her to my house for a week so I can complete her conversion?

    Kath: She started eating meat again didn't she?

    Jay: We are on opposite sides of the food axis.

    Vince: I'll put together a list of some of the best vegetarian recipe sites for later in the week.

    Vandy: Let's work on this for you. There are plenty of filling options.

  9. Vegetarianism is not very common in India, it's the norm! Best fast food: option: everything I have read states that Taco del Mar is vegan. What pray-tell is Labradoran food? And finally, this is a great site to find restaurants & stores:

  10. Val: Unfortunately, the Indian restaurants in the United States don't take the vegetarian thing quite as seriously as they do in India. They tend to serve more meat items then veggie. That is the best of the websites for veggie stuff.

  11. Your advice is really great here. I've learned much of this because my daughter was vegan for 2 years. I became accustomed to asking and I also discovered that so many things, as you mentioned, are prepared in ways that make them off limits!

  12. I giggled at the picture of your empty plate... :)

    All your suggestions sound realllllly good! And now I'm hungry...for non-meat! ;)

    MMMM: PN Birthday, In My Daughter's Eyes

  13. Great fodder for vegetarian foodies. Thanks.