Do you feel a bit tired of cooking homemade food? Seriously, I’m prepping food day and night, and it’s tiring. Ever since I got my independence and started cooking for myself, I began to value my mom even more.
Sometimes I get a kick out of cooking, but it’s also tough to keep up the rhythm every day. When that happens, I just go out and eat some delicious vegan food with my wife.
However, we don’t always have the best experience, and I sense that vegan gastronomy is still trying to catch up here in Portugal. There are more options, but nothing that would blow you away.
Honestly, you’re probably gonna miss more than you hit, but there are ways to drastically increase your chances of finding the right restaurant/bar/establishment, instead of constantly shooting yourself in the foot.
Anyway, here are my tips for eating out as a vegan:
#1 – Use Happy Cow To Find & Learn About Restaurants.
If you’re in a new city (or country) and don’t know where to eat, you must get Happy Cow on your phone. If you can’t install the app, you can always visit their website.
How does Happy Cow work?
Well, Happy Cow makes vegan, vegetarian and vegan-friendly establishments easy to find. You can use it to find restaurants, bars, cafes, as well as health shops and dessert parlors.
Whether you’re in Europe, Asia or America, this app gives the exact location of those establishments, along with specific information to help you choose (or not) the right establishment.
The app gives you an interactive map, as well as the ability to set filters based on preferences. You can get directions, reviews, and even price and website information about the food establishment. The community within Happy Cow is quite active, and so you will probably find pictures and detailed reviews to help you come to a decision.
Here’s what you can do within the app:
- Get directions, phone numbers, reviews and website information
- Detailed experiences as well as photos
- Sort filters by distance, type of food, rating or type of store
- Has an interactive map
- You can leave your own reviews.
The app itself is also very easy to use, but remember that it might not be as useful in certain locations. For instance, if you got countries like Thailand, Kenya, Mozambique (developing countries, you may not find it to work as well, or contain as much info.
#2 – Connect With Local Vegans.
Don’t know what restaurant to go to? Try connecting with local vegans through the Meetup app, or join facebook groups about veganism, and ask within the group if someone is willing to show you around in a specific city.
What you’ll find is that locals usually know the best spots, so you’re more likely to find a good vegan or vegan-friendly restaurant if you leave it to someone more familiar with the place.
Most vegans are sweethearts, and they’re willing to give you some pointers, or even go out with you to show you their favorite spots in the town they live in. Plus, the added bonus is that by bonding with other people, you create the best memories.
This might actually be a better idea than using Happy Cow, since you’ll be relying on a person with actual experience.
#3 – Plan Ahead by Checking The Menu.
After you round up a couple of interesting food establishments, you need to go one step further and research the actual restaurant. How are the reviews like? Is the restaurant vegan? Or is it a restaurant with some vegan-friendly options?
Don’t forget to check their menu and understand what they can offer.
For instance, I love vegan restaurants with fewer options. Having just a handful of options helps the restaurant preserve the quality of their dishes. I’ve had several experiences where restaurants have huge menus, but a lot of times the food is lacking.
This can happen in vegan restaurants and regular restaurants with vegan-friendly options.
Furthermore, you will find that the vegan-friendly options in most restaurants are not there to captivate and usually suck. And you’ll also find that in vegan restaurants with 101 options you can’t simply choose anything.
In my town, I usually visit ONE place every time. This particular place has one different vegan dish per day, and several amazing vegan desserts. In other words, they put their focus on one dish, and the result is incredible.
Furthermore, they don’t advertise themselves as a vegan joint, but the emphasis they put on that one dish makes it delicious.
#4 – Call The Restaurant Beforehand.
Every month, my wife must reunite with her boss and work colleagues in a restaurant to discuss job-related questions.
However, she’s the only vegan person in the group. As you imagine, it’s not comfortable for her, and I imagine it’s also not fun for her colleagues to eat at a vegan restaurant. Of course, my wife would never force her ideals upon others, and as a result, she just goes with whatever her colleagues choose.
In order to be able to eat with her colleagues, she often calls the restaurant and asks whether they can accommodate a vegan.
Sadly, she often finds that chefs will chop up a few leaves, raw vegetables, and give you this bland, cheap-looking dish for the same prices as a specialty. They’re not a vegan restaurant, so you can’t really blame their standards.
Still, there’s a way to avoid such unpleasant meals.
And that is by calling the restaurant beforehand and being specific with your request. You must not be afraid to ask, because most restaurants are willing to accept your request, as long as you pay for it.
Sure, not everyone is willing to go through that trouble, but if you want to guarantee a pleasant experience in a non-vegan restaurant, you must set the standards yourself. Try suggesting a specific recipe to the restaurant, and get the waiter or chef to cooperate with you, by being as polite and as appreciative as possible.
If they go the extra mile for you, leave them a tip. If you can’t leave them a tip, give them a thoughtful souvenir, which will help you bond and create relationships that might help you in similar situations.
#5 – Don’t Get Your Expectations High.
Alright, regardless of the food establishment you’re visiting, please don’t get your expectations high. If I can speak from experience, I’d say that my bad experiences outnumber the good ones. Especially in restaurants with vegan options.
I’ve eaten dozen of veggie burgers in vegan-friendly restaurants, and I can’t really name one that impressed me.
Sure, it’s not their job to cater to vegans, since they don’t specialize in vegan dishes, so I’m already thankful that regular restaurants are taking notice that veganism is a real thing.
When the food isn’t great, be sure to leave some feedback, and try to be more focused on the people you’re lunching/dining with, instead of being extremely picky about the food. If you don’t feel okay about leaving feedback in non-vegan restaurants, that’s actually acceptable.
But please try to leave constructive feedback in restaurants.
If vegan restaurants don’t improve, they’ll just die out and you might end without options in your town.
#6 – Seek Out Cuisines With More Vegan Options.
Certain cuisines have an enormous number of vegetarian dishes.
As you probably know, meat wasn’t always accessible as it is today.
This is especially true for cultures where poverty (and financial disparity) still remain a reality.
In the past, kings were allowed meat, but peasants could only eat bread or rice. That has always happened through the course of history, and so people with less money would find the need to adapt.
If you look at the Indian, Thai, Chinese and Israeli cuisine, you will find that those restaurants usually have veggie-friendly options, because, throughout the course of history, they adapted to lack of meat in tough times.
Naturally, I’m not saying it’s alright to eat meat, but it’s how non-vegans think. What they didn’t realize, is that vegan food is actually better for you, but I’m still glad vegan-friendly dishes were created in the process.
Here are examples of different (original) vegan dishes you can find in different cuisines:
- Sambar (tamarind-spiced lentil and vegetable stew) — South Indian.
- Chickpea wat — Ethiopian
- Falafels served with tahini sauce, often inside a pita — Greece
- Haroset — Jewish dish in Israel
- Tao Hoo Song Kreung which is basically mixed tofu — Thailand
There are literally thousands of original vegan dishes in most traditional cuisines. Don’t think that vegan dishes are a thing of the present since certain cultures/religions have always considered certain animals like cows to be sacred.
Judaism, for instance, demands both humane treatment of animals and the protection of human health. It comes at no surprise that Israel is the mecca of veganism.
#7 – Ask For Small Alterations
Whenever you got to a vegan-friendly restaurant, don’t think that what’s on the menu is set in stone.
With certain dishes, you can ask for small alterations. Instead of cheese, perhaps you can ask for caramelized onions, or maybe even some mushrooms. Perhaps you can ask the cook the leave cheese off the plate, or use a different kind of oil.
If you’re tired of having the same bland burgers, ask them if they can add rice, beans or more cheaps to the side. You don’t have to just stick to the menu, you can always be quite specific with your requests.
In fact, you can try creating a more evenly balanced dish with ingredients rich in nutrients most essential to a vegan diet.
The bottom line is… don’t falter and be communicative!
#8 – Ask For Different Or Exotic Drinks
If you ever feel like the food isn’t up to your standards, usually, there’s really nothing you can do about it.
However, you can always take your mind off food and consider tasting different drinks. What you’ll find is that there are a number of amazing beverages that are very interesting, and should keep your palate busy.
What kind of cocktail do you find the most interesting? Is there a beer you haven’t tasted before? Be creative with your choices, and really try to come up with different ways to make your experience enjoyable when you’re eating out.
Have you tasted a drink called horchata? Trust me, that drink is amazing, and while you can find a non-vegan version of the drink, the drink itself is originally vegan. It’s basically a mix of almonds, rice, cinnamon, water, agave (or maple syrup).
Horchata is very refreshing and tastes amazing.
You should be able to find it in Latino restaurants, or restaurants with a Spanish background since the drink is original from Spain. Or you can also try doing it at home since the recipe is quite simple!
#9 – Don’t Forget To Leave A Review.
You don’t feel right about leaving personal feedback in the restaurant? No worries, you can just leave them a review later through Google, Facebook, or Happy Cow.
But trust me, you don’t want to sugar coat anything.
You must be honest about your experience, and point out the pros and cons of your experience. What I find most times is people being nice, even when the restaurant is lacking in many aspects.
I’m usually not too critical about things like waiting time, or lack of sympathy, although it does influence my reviews. However, I try to be as specific as possible about the food and give them feedback on things I believe they can improve.
Believe it or not, reviews can make or break a business — and I’m sure the owner behind the establishment will be reading your review and taking it into consideration.
Also feel free to mention that if you do return to the establishment, and the service shows significant improvement… that you are willing to do something about your review, or leave a more positive review instead.
The last thing you want to do is spread bad vibes, and leave the establishment a bad rep by being too offensive. Try to be critical but polite at the same time, and most importantly, tell them how they can improve.
#10 – Are You In A Non-English Country? Learn The Language.
Memorizing the words of various different ingredients will help you get by in different countries. If you’re able to understand certain ingredients (the ones you should avoid), you’re most likely to have a better experience.
For example, in Poland, the ingredient labels are written in Polish. I’m not sure if was common in all supermarkets, but I didn’t find labels written in English. As such, I made it my mission to learn a few words that I consider to be important as a vegan.
- Animal Derivatives
- Animal Protein
Anyway, I tried to learn as many words as I could, to ensure I was avoiding products containing animal ingredients. Besides, it is also useful if you’re going to a restaurant with vegan-friendly options since you can communicate your dietary preferences.
Although in Poland, I found that most waiters in restaurants spoke English, so all was good.
This being said, there many countries (including in Europe), where people don’t speak English, so it’s always a good idea to be prepared for that. It’ll save you time and a whole lot of headaches!