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Guide to the Best Restaurants for Vegetarians in the US: Where To Go and What to Order
As a strict vegetarian for 15 years, I can suggest which restaurants to check out and what to order. Perhaps you're taking a vegetarian out on a date; maybe you're a new vegetarian yourself.
Please understand that my suggestions are for information-only, I am not RECOMMENDING you eat at these restaurants. Furthermore, please understand that any food processed or cooked by a fast food restaurant most likely is cooked, processed with, and even sometimes seasoned with animal by-products.
Before I jump in, let me remind you that many restaurants will be happy to accommodate a substitution you might request. For example, you've ordered the breakfast combo from McDonald's. It comes with pancakes, scrambled eggs, and either sausage or bacon. Ask for a hash brown instead of the meat side, and 99% of the time they will be more than happy to do it. If you've ordered a sandwich with lunch meat, ask for extra cheese or some avocado.
In my experience, restaurants are almost never willing to reduce the cost of your food because you've ordered something minus the meat it is usually served with. If the restaurant you're at won't make the substitution for you, ask for the meat on the side and give it to someone else at the table or bring it home for your dog. If you're paying for it, someone might as well eat it.
WHY NOT TO ASK FOR RECOMMENDATIONS
Remember the classic scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Tula introduces her fiancé to her aunt. The aunt offers to cook for him, and Tula says, "Umm...he's a vegetarian." The aunt thinks for a minute and says, "It's OK. I'll make lamb!" Once in France, I asked a pastry shop owner (in French, of course) if she had any vegetarian quiches. She said yes and handed me a quiche. After waiting for the oven to preheat, cooking the quiche, and salivating the entire time while I waited, I learned upon first bite that the quiche had chicken in it.
This is why I do not recommend asking your waiter or waitress, "What is the best vegetarian item on the menu?" To many people, "vegetarian" means someone who merely doesn't eat red meat. Be very clear when asking if an item contains meat. For example, tell him or her you do not eat any animal flesh--no chicken, fish, or beef--and then ask if s/he can recommend a meatless entrée. To be less off-putting, I sometimes explain to confused waiters or waitresses (with a smile, of course) that I don't eat anything "with a face."
Don't forget to be clear about items in the "gray area," such as chicken stock in soups or lard in beans. Because neither is technically animal flesh, your waiter or waitress may overlook these ingredients when trying to help you select a suitable meal.
OMNIVORES VS. HERBIVORES: EATING AT A VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT
Although breakfast is probably one of the easier meals for a vegetarian to eat, it's not if you're in a hurry. If you have time for a sit-down breakfast, choose IHOP, Denny's, or Coco's. Order pancakes, oatmeal, or eggs. If your order comes with a side of meat, ask for a potato substitution or get the meat on the side.
If you're in need of a fast food breakfast, I recommend McDonald's. They have many healthy, edible vegetarian options: Fruit and Yogurt Parfait (delicious!), a pancake and scrambled egg meal (as mentioned above), hash browns, Cinnamelts, Apple Dippers, and you can ask for an "egg and cheese biscuit" (like an Egg McMuffin with no meat).
McDONALD'S PANCAKES AND EGGS BREAKFAST
VEGETARIAN LUNCH AND DINNER
As a general rule, there are really just two types of restaurants you want to avoid for lunch and dinner as a vegetarian: steakhouses and "American" food. In my personal opinion, the worst US chain restaurants for vegetarians are: Outback Steakhouse, Chili's, and Applebee's. You can eat better at a Black Angus Steakhouse or a Red Lobster. Why? Outback, Chili's, and Applebee's each only have about one token vegetarian dish on the menu. All of these restaurants don't even offer a meatless salad on their menus.
So now that you know where to avoid, that pretty much leaves all other restaurants as decent possibilities. For vegetarians, I highly recommend Italian, Asian, and Mexican restaurants. Italian restaurants typically offer meatless minestrone, pasta, Caesar salad, and eggplant parmigiana.
My two favorite vegetarian restaurant chains in the US are the Olive Garden and Red Robin. Although Red Robin is "American food," they will allow you to substitute a beef hamburger patty for either a Boca Burger or a GardenBurger (the only chain restaurant I know of offering a choice!).
MY FAVORITE VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY CHAIN RESTAURANT IN THE US
VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY MENUS AT US CHAIN RESTAURANTS
- Olive Garden Menu
Check out both the lunch and dinner menus at the Olive Garden. Try the "Garden Fare" section for low-fat options.
- Red Robin Menu
Check out the extensive burger menu (all of which can be ordered with a Garden or Boca Burger). My personal favorite is a "Bleu Ribbon Burger" with a Boca patty.
BURGER SUBSTITUTES TO AVOID
Some restaurants make their own non-meat burger patties in house. I have never tasted a home-made fake burger that I liked. Most of them are made with weird ingredients (water cress) and don't contain much protein. Before you chose the meatless pasta or salad dish over a fake hamburger, be sure to ask the waiter or waitress if they serve name-brand fake meat.
VEGETARIAN FAST FOOD
Like I suggested above, Italian, Mexican, and Asian is usually your best bet (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut). Sandwich places are always good (Subway, Blimpie's, Togo's), except that they don't have drive-thrus. Don't overlook some of the really great possibilities at Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Arby's, and Jack in the Box. Wendy's and Arby's have baked potatoes with broccoli. Jack in the Box has ciabatta sandwiches (all include meat, so get it on the side or ask for extra cheese and veggies). Also, the tacos at Jack in the Box are actually made of soy meat, which they keep a secret! My favorite vegetarian fast food is a Market Fresh Sandwich at Arby's (again, all include meat, so get extra cheese and veggies). As far as vegetarian variety goes, nobody beats Kentucky Fried Chicken (ironically).
If you live in California, the Baker's fast food chain is a must! They actually have a vegetarian section on the menu. They serve name-brand Boca Burgers and Mexican food!
VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY FAST FOOD MENUS
- Wendy's Menu
Check out the broccoli and cheese baked potato or the Caesar side salad.
- Arby's Menu
Try a Market Fresh sandwich (substituting meat for extra cheese and veggies) or a baked potato.
- Jack in the Box Menu
Jack in the Box won't be the healthiest vegetarian meal you'll get, but at least you won't starve. Try the egg rolls, cheese sticks, side salad, or stuffed jalapenos.
- Taco Bell Menu
Taco Bell doesn't have a direct link to their menu. Click on the link, go to "Our Food," then click on "Menu." My favorite is the Seven Layer Burrito.
- Subway Menu
Like most sandwich shops, you'll end up ordering the token vegetarian sandwich. Subway's is called a "Veggie Delight."
- Baker's Drive-Thru Menu
The first fast food chain offering a vegetarian menu! Right now Baker's has 36 chains in southern California (inland empire area).
- Kentucky Fried Chicken's Menu
Nobody beats this menu of veggie-friendly side dishes: biscuits, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni and cheese, cole slaw, corn on the cob, green beans, BBQ baked beans, potato wedges, and seasoned rice.
WHAT TO WATCH OUT FOR AT BUFFETS
In general, buffets are a great place for the vegetarian diner, with one exception. Many buffets (like the ones at hotels, resorts, and casinos) have theme nights. For example, Friday might be "Seafood Night." Not only will the buffet probably have a slightly higher price tag for their seafood or steak themed night, but you won't get your money's worth. Simply call ahead to make sure any buffet you're planning to eat at is not having a meaty theme that night.
GETTING CREATIVE WITH A MEATY MENU
So you've found yourself in a restaurant with nothing overtly vegetarian on the menu. I recommend you ask the waiter or waitress if a simple meatless dish could be made for you. For example, "I notice you have salads and sandwiches on the menu. I don't eat meat. Would it be possible to have all the vegetables you have made into a meatless sandwich?" Some simple vegetarian dishes to ask for are: pasta with grilled vegetables, sandwiches, baked poatoes, or salads.
Another tip for surviving a meaty lunch or dinner menu is to ask if you can order off the breakfast menu. Explain to the waiter or waitress that you're a very hungry vegetarian and politely ask if they could accommodate you with something from the breakfast menu. For example, "I know it's 3:00, and you're not serving breakfast any more. But I'm vegetarian, and I haven't eaten anything since breakfast. A salad just isn't going to fill me up right now. Is there any way I could get an omelet? I would really appreciate it."