Vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free? A guide to dining out

Dietary restrictions don’t have to limit your dining choices—finding a meal that fits your needs is easier than ever before.

Whether you’re a strict vegan, an occasional flexitarian or going gluten-free, you don’t have to miss out on culinary adventures with your friends and family. Restaurant menus are becoming more varied and flexible in order to satisfy a wide array of dietary needs.

Diets that were once considered fringe are becoming increasingly mainstream. 12% of Americans under the age of 50 identified as vegan or vegetarian in 2016, and sales of plant-based foods in the United States topped $3.1 billion in 2017. Customers with plant-based diets have become an economic force of nature—and restaurants know it.

More places are serving what more folks are eating

“Baton Rouge, Louisiana, isn’t the vegan capital of the world, but there is definitely a movement of people here looking for vegan options,” said Jay Ducote, chef and owner of Gov’t Taco. “There are more places that accommodate vegan diets, so now there are more vegans eating out.”

And even non-vegans are exploring vegan menu options.

“Vegan food has improved so much over the past few years, and I think this has improved people’s overall attitude toward vegan menu items,” said Kate Grimes, co-owner of Del Sur Mexican Cantina and The Haven Pizzeria in San Diego. “Before, the word ‘vegan’ scared a lot of meat eaters—but now we see so many more meat eaters willing to try vegan items.”

Being a vegan- or vegetarian-friendly restaurant no longer means just offering a garden salad or a simple side of vegetables. Case in point: Plant-based burgers are becoming mainstream menu staples. Two common options, the Impossible™ Burger and The Beyond Burger®, can be found at thousands of restaurants nationwide, as well as at some grocery stores and sports stadiums.

Planning ahead for dining out

Even though plant-based menu options are becoming more popular, it’s still a good idea to do your research ahead of time.

Before you head out, search online for gluten-free, vegan or veg-friendly restaurants and reviews. Once you have a restaurant in mind, check out their website to browse the menu and identify a few diet-friendly choices.

It can also be helpful to call ahead. This gives the restaurant staff more time to prepare. Some managers and kitchen staff may create special dishes for you if they’re aware of your dietary restrictions in advance.

“Everyone appreciates a heads up,” said AJ Voytko, head chef at Terrane Italian Kitchen + Bar in Portland, Oregon. “That way, we can plan out a few items for the customers and give them options.”

And just in case, it might be a good idea to eat a little something before you go out—especially if you’re uncertain of your options.

Navigating the menu

While plant-friendly and gluten-free menu options are growing in popularity, they’re not everywhere (yet). And some of your meat-eating, carb-loving friends might not be ready to try a restaurant that doesn’t serve their favorite comfort foods. Until then, here are some tips to help you navigate your dining destinations.

As a vegetarian 

Just about every menu is going to include a vegetarian option or two. At a minimum, order the salad and ask your server to make it a double.

Exploring international cuisines? Indian, Thai, Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Italian and Mexican menus are chock-full of satisfying non-meat options.

As a vegan 

Vegetarian-friendly restaurants can often meet vegan needs as well. Just watch out for the non-meat animal products you can’t always see (or taste). Here are a few common foods to watch for.

  • Pasta: Look for dry pasta over freshly made pasta, which may contain eggs.
  • Oils and anything fried: Ask if it’s cooked in animal fat or vegetable oil. Some foods are made with butter, ghee and other animal fats.
  • Sauces and condiments: Watch for fish sauce, which is often found in Asian fare, and anything that is cream-based like Alfredo sauce.
  • Soups: Make sure your miso or vegetable soup isn’t made with chicken broth.
  • Bread: Certain breads are made with eggs and dairy, including many types of naan, challah and brioche buns.
  • Wine: This one might be hard to swallow—but not all wine is vegan. Animal-derived products called “fining agents” may be involved in the production process. Some wineries are starting to label their bottles as “unfined” or vegan-friendly. If your server isn’t sure, try looking up the vintage in question.

As a gluten-free diner

If you have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten, it may be especially helpful to research the restaurant and menu in advance to learn about their ingredient options and food preparation methods. 

Some gluten-free decisions may be easy: Bread, pasta and cake are red flags. However, be sure to consider hidden sources of gluten, such as sauces (which may have flour added as a thickener) and soy sauce (which usually contains gluten). For dessert, look for flourless cakes, plain ice cream or sorbets—and ask the restaurant for details.

Ordering your meal

Clearly, asking questions and requesting adjustments often comes with the territory for special diets—and that’s OK! Nowadays, most restaurants are familiar with unique requests. Tanner Agar, owner and chief experience officer at Rye in McKinney, Texas, said he’s “gone as far as preparing a 6-course menu for a woman on a liquid-only diet after surgery.” 

For the best results, early and honest communication is key. Here are a few etiquette tips to consider when placing your order:

  1. Be up front. Tell the restaurant about any food allergies you have, especially if they’re severe.
  2. Feel free to improvise. Select and combine ingredients from all corners of the menu to make something entirely new. Ducote recommends that customers “know the menu a little bit so they can suggest what they want based on what they know the restaurant already has.”
  3. Be patient. Many servers are quite knowledgeable. But not every staff member will know every detail of every dietary need. Work together, and you’ll find a delicious solution in no time.
  4. Be realistic. Everyone has limits, even when they’re trying to be accommodating. For example, if the kitchen is super busy, staff might not have the resources to handle a complicated request right away.

Prepare to pay a little more. And, if possible, leave an extra tip for the staff’s efforts.

Limit your diet, not your life

The more knowledge you have about your options, the less self-conscious you’ll feel about taking advantage of them.

News flash: You’re not weird! Health and eating trends are on your side—and the dining world knows they have to adjust. You can make different food choices and still make memories with your nearest and dearest. No matter where you go, the joy of dining out with friends and family will always be on the menu.

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