Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dining Out

Recently I ate out with a large group of coworkers, most of whom I had just met. Unfortunately, the restaurant chosen was one of those big chain sports and burger type places. I scoured the menu and found one item that just might work if it weren't for the cheese splattered on top.

Undaunted by the social ramifications, I dared to question the server if they could possibly make it without the cheese, and whether there were any other animal products that might show up. I had barely started when she interrupted me with, "Are you vegan?" I bit was a bit surprised as this was in the South (US), and the last time I had been by that way, I had found that everywhere I had eaten out had managed to work at least animal fat into every dish, forcing me to subsist on little more than fresh fruit and veggies. Raw-foodists may have been delighted, but I don't roll that way. True, that had been over a decade previous, but that I didn't even have to explain veganism was a nice surprise.

Sweet, this restaurant does have something I can eat!

She went on to explain that her college roommate had been vegan and she knew all about it. It turns out there was a hidden ingredient--the rice had Worcester sauce made with anchovies. Wow, she was good. It was pre-made that way, so she offered a safe alternative. Another server brought out the dish, and even told me they had taken pains to cook it separately for me so I wouldn't get any icky splatter on it. Very grateful, I was about to dig in when I noticed a suspiciously creamy sauce on top. It wasn't cheese, but it was some type of dressing with dairy in it.

The server apologies quite sincerely, and I apologized also. I didn't of course need to apologize myself for the mistake, but I was sorry that the food would go to waste, and that this could have been avoided if I had perhaps just asked one more question. It also pays to be gracious when sending food back to the kitchen.

They got it right the next time and it was pretty good. I managed to scarf it down before some of the others finished eating their far less appetizing dishes. Both servers and the manager came by to make sure everything was up to spec, and they also checked back with me as we were leaving.

I relate this because people vegans "animal people" (?) saying we should suck it up and eat the occasional animal product to avoid any faux pas or whatever are starting to really torque me off. Oh, it's never the omnivores I eat out with, friend or new acquaintance. They couldn't seem to care less. It takes just a bit longer for me to order sometimes, but it's no different from someone with an allergy. It's not the waitperson either giving dramatic sighs or rolling eyes at my weirdness. Nope, it's people who seem to think the world will change with no effort, or maybe that the waitstaff will go out and kill bunny rabbits after work if a vegan had the gall to ask a few questions.

Funny thing, I tend to have very pleasant experiences eating out. Servers sometimes ask me questions out of curiosity and often react positively. But why should we expect differently, especially when there is a fat tip on the line? Even when eating in places where tipping is taboo, I've had great experiences with friendly and supportive servers and chefs. Heck, I've got one place I go to in Japan where the owner/head chef personally greets me and tries out new dishes on me. He couldn't be happier to make sure his menu accommodates vegans well.

Here are my tips for making dining out a pleasant experience:
  • Be nice
  • Don't be afraid to ask
  • Be gracious when you can't be accommodated
  • Let the server know how much his or her efforts are appreciated
  • Don't sweat mistakes post-consumption when everyone made their best effort at avoiding animal products
  • Tip well--leave the impression that vegans are generous!
  • Thank the owner/manager
  • Ask that the kitchen staff be thanked, especially for alterations
  • Feel good about letting the restaurant know that vegans will eat there
  • Feel even better when vegan items start showing up on the menu
  • If everything fails, go to another place next time!

If it is not apparent from this, I am of the opinion that meekly eating items of questionable origin does jack squat for anyone. Oh sure, you don't cause a fuss, but why are you eating out with people who are going to be upset by something as innocuous as trying to order food you'll be happy with?

This is perhaps the easiest type of advocacy you can do. If the risk is people thinking vegans are fussy, that seems a small price to pay. I have to think that anyone annoyed by vegans dining out isn't exactly about to dive into veganism themselves anyway. Let those people deal about their own failings. I'm going to keep eating out and to keep asking questions, and having a very nice time doing so.

Image: Suat Eman /


  1. I couldn't agree with you more! I wouldn't just accept animal ingredients in my food (yeuch!), but I don't see how being unpleasant to people who are trying to do their job, but maybe aren't as clued up as we'd like, is going to do any good for vegans. And it isn't nice for waiters, chefs etc, either!

  2. "why are you eating out with people who are going to be upset by something as innocuous as trying to order food you'll be happy with?"

    Because my job requires that I dine out with the people who are funding our agency. Because my boss holds breakfast meetings I'm required to attend. etc. etc. etc. Seriously, we don't always get to choose who we dine with.

    The issue of how picky to be at restaurants is not as simple as you imply. There are pros and cons to be weighed. Pros: Consistency, sending the right message, educating restaurants, educating everyone that there are vegans living among them, being clear cut about what veganism means. Cons: Food waste (deplorable in itself as well as being offensive to some people), giving the impression that veganism is extreme and difficult.

    I think if my aim is to be the best witness for veganism that I can be then I need to be sensitive about the impression I am creating. People are not all the same. What makes a good impression on one person will tick another person off. And as a significant minoru=ity in this society, we need to recognize that most of the time people will be forming opinions about veganism based on how we act – even if they remain polite on the outside. How we behave when we are with carnists will have an impact on how well veganism gets adopted by the meainstream.

  3. @Ed, So are you objecting to something I wrote, or are you simply trying to rationalize consuming animal products?

  4. I'm disagreeing with your POV. And I'm trying to be the most effective advocate for animals that I can. I don't think that being nit-pickingly strict is always the best approach to that goal.

    It's not about me and how perfect I am, it's about what works to move society away from animal exploitation.

  5. @Ed, how does quietly consuming animals to not be "nit-picky" do anything to move society way from animal exploitation? This is exactly what I'm addressing in this piece. Fear of negative impressions are overblown and unfounded, while actually interacting with people has demonstrably positive effects. And where are you getting this idea of self-perfection from? Certainly not in anything I wrote.

  6. It would be nice if simply following a strict vegan lifestyle and being pleasant and non-judgmental towards the people around me was sufficient to induce changes in their behavior. However, I don’t think it is.

    Please note that I am discussing my experiences in the situations that I find myself in. Your experiences must be very different. Maybe the people you meet do tend to follow your example, or at least try it out. If you have had success with your approach I applaud you. My own experience with the strict approach has been negative. People were generally polite and tolerant when I quizzed the wait staff about ingredients, or scraped off the parmesan, or whatever. But nobody was ever induced to try animal-free living by my example.

    90% of the people around me have been unable to change their diet in order to lose weight. They are equally unsuccessful at creating an exercise habit. I need to accept this reality about human nature if I am to be effective. Most people find change extremely difficult. If I want them to consider introducing animal-free choices into their lives I have to demonstrate that such a change would be easy, enjoyable, accessible, and flexible. Not another big challenge.

  7. Great experience you had while dining out. Some restaurants are not that friendly while some are very accommodating just like the one that you had dined out. Thanks for the tips btw.

    Peny@hospital scrubs

  8. I'm a fairly new vegan. My 'solution' is to avoid eating out for the time being (cowardly I admit, but it's a short-term solution that works for now). Everyone around me thinks I've gone crazy by adopting a plant-based diet and lifestyle, so going out to a restaurant and asking lots of questions would do nothing but fuel their preconceived notions about my choice to abstain from meat and animal products.

    As it stands, my boyfriend, friends and family all believe I'm "depriving" myself, and trying to explain the ethical implications to people who simply believe that "animals are meat, that's why they're here" is an agonizing experience. If this is how the people close to me react, how will wait staff, who are strangers, respond?

    I feel as though my diet is on trial by everyone around me - going to a restaurant at this point would be like putting a spot light on me, covering me with glitter and attaching bicycle horns all over my body...I am simply not ready to explain myself and deal with the social fallout. I feel I shouldn't have to, and I don't understand why it's such a big deal to everyone to begin with.

    On top of that - I'm a horrible debater. I know I am doing the right thing, and I can articulate my views well in writing, and yet...when someone puts me on the spot in person, I freeze up. My argument falls apart (why there has to be an argument in the first place, I have no idea - my vegan choices seem to be offending and inconveniencing everyone). I'm not exactly an assertive person. So yeah, I avoid restaurants altogether (unless I'm alone and in a restaurant that serves vegan food).

    I would love to be assertive like you. I am dreading and really stressed out about dining out. I will stick to my ethics, but I know that I will most likely be seen as a social deviant, and I'm not looking forward to it at all - let alone vacations, family dinners and social outings. Despite the fact that I've lost weight, I look and feel better and my depression is gone, people around me still believe I'm "depriving" myself and somehow living a sub-standard life because I abstain from animal flesh and animal byproducts.