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Guide to the Best Restaurants for Vegetarians in the US: Where To Go and What to Order

Updated on June 10, 2009

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.

MAKING SUBSTITUTIONS

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

VEGETARIAN BREAKFAST

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

Ask for Hash Browns instead of Bacon or Sausage!
Ask for Hash Browns instead of Bacon or Sausage!

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

Try the minestrone, salad, eggplant, capellini pomodoro, or marguerita pizza!
Try the minestrone, salad, eggplant, capellini pomodoro, or marguerita pizza!

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!

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."

Traveling Vegetarian: Atlanta, Georgia

Traveling Vegetarian: Asheville, North Carolina

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    • profile image

      Nd4spdr 15 months ago

      Taco Bell's sour cream is now vegetarian. No more gelatin. Has been for a while.

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      Aaron 2 years ago

      Uh, wrong! Go do your research before posting this nonsense. Jack in the Box tacos are NOT made of soy. The first ingredient (which is easily found in the PDF on their website) is BEEF! How much more misleading and non-academic can you get? Stop wasting everyone's time and actually do your homework.

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      Anna 2 years ago

      Hey there! Just wanted to say be careful with your research! Jack in the box tacos are actually mostly soy but DEFINITELY have some beef too and are not veggie. Just a heads up:)

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      who? 3 years ago

      Who wrote this crap? Many of the items suggested are not vegetarian. For example the egg rolls from Jack in the Box. They are loaded with pork.

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      Jesica 3 years ago

      There IS meat in the jack in the box tacos, not just soy and KFC has meat gravy...

    • profile image

      SL 3 years ago

      Who the F wrote this article? So many false statements here! Do your own research directly with the restaurants and don't rely on what people write on the internet. Good lord.

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      Swath of Misinformation 3 years ago

      Why on earth would a vegetarian order meat "on the side?" I've been an herbivore for over 20 years and the last item I want to see next to my plate is a smaller plate under a heap of dead flesh. The proper etiquette when ordering is "No bacon, please" - but, order your way and the bacon will show up alongside the veggies.

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      Gaby 3 years ago

      THIS IS NOT VEGETARIAN! The seven layer burrito sour cream has gelatin and kfc gravy has chicken fat!!! I can continue forever on how mostly everything on here IS NOT VEGETARIAN! DO NOT EAT THIS!!!

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      Girlyserendipity 4 years ago

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      Angie 4 years ago

      Bojangles cook with meat products and lard. I inquired about the bo rounds and the biscuits.

    • profile image

      Guest 5 years ago

      While the Jack In The Box tacos do contain soy, they also contain beef so they are not vegetarian. I believe beef is actually listed as the first ingredient.

    • profile image

      guest 5 years ago

      Yikes! This has to be one of the least accurate pages on vegetarian options at fast food joints ever. Cowgrrrlpunk, fix your darn page!

    • profile image

      Hungry Man 5 years ago

      Lol People Eating Tasty Animals.... you all dont know what your missing out on... good quality food that has been at least kosher and well prepared is delicious animals are made to be eaten

    • profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago

      Caeser Salad is made with anchovies. Therefore, it is not vegetarian and should not be on this website

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      Aubrey 5 years ago

      Sorry, but the yogurt parfait at mcdonalds has gelatin (pig bones) and the gravy in the mashed potatoes at KFC is made of beef. Also, the caesar side salad's dressing at Wendy's has fish in it. In addition, I think that is so wrong to recommend ordering a dish with meat even if you don't eat it. Part of being vegetarian is being against meat! Even just ordering it. It still increases the demand, which increases the butchering. Most of the article I really did appreciate though. Thank you!

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      Solagish 5 years ago

      U guys are blowing it. I just ate a jack in the box eggroll and instantly realized tree was pork. If ur gonna put something on a "vegitarian" website... Do ur research. Not cool

    • profile image

      kitina 5 years ago

      McDonald's does indeed still add beef flavours to hash browns and fries. Several sites will confirm. Nothing is "good" nor "healthy" about that place. Example. " The reason for this meat extract McDonald's claims is that in 1990, instead of frying their potato products in beef tallow, they started to cook it in pure vegetable oil but because of the lack of beef tallow, they included a meat extract in the actual potatoes. While the fries are not cooked in beef fat anymore, they do contain a small amount of beef flavoring. It is during the par-frying process that the beef flavor is added "

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      caitlin m 5 years ago

      Burger King has a morning star veggie burger!

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      Katie B 5 years ago

      @eatme - McDonalds hasn't used beef tallow since 1990.

    • profile image

      j. garner 5 years ago

      You are not a very conscientious vegetarian and you give very misleading and incorrect information.

    • profile image

      Stephanie 5 years ago

      Burger King always has a veggie burger, though it's often not shown on the menu. Just ask for it, though and they'll make it for you.

      Also, I like trying house made veggie burgers. I, too, often don't think they turn out great, but I definitely give props for trying-and sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised (Punks in Annapolis, MD). It's certainly better than being asked to pay $6.00 for a Boca Burger. And should you ever find yourself in the Columbus, OH area, PLEASE stop into a restaurant called Northstar and try their veggie burger. It's the best I've ever had.

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      Nikki 5 years ago

      Though Chilis, does have limited options, I find myself eating there often as it was one of my favorite restaurants to go to with my mother as a meat eater. A really good option that many people don't know about is to order their chicken fajitas (chicken because it is always on the 2 for $20 menu when the special is available) However, ask your waiter to replace the chicken with black beans and rice since that costs extra anyway. I do this everytime I go there now. It is phenomenal!

    • profile image

      Rebecca 5 years ago

      Mcdonalds does not cook there fries in beef tallow anymore

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      rod 5 years ago

      areta is right, the egg rolls at jack in the box have pork. The tacos also contain beef. If you have been eating these you are NOT a vegetarian!!!

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      Shaydie 5 years ago

      The yogurt parfaits at McDonald's have gelatin. Even their new frozen strawberry lemonades aren't vegetarian because they come out of the same nozzle as the yogurt, unfortunately. And it's not true that Taco Bell uses soy meat in their tacos. They recently raised a big issue with that in the media.

    • profile image

      areta 5 years ago

      Also, jack in the box egg rolls contain pork.

      I like homemade veggie burgers too. I think anyone who doesn't is weird.

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      Diana s 5 years ago

      I have to let you know that Chili's offers vegetarian fajita's and they now have vegetarian soft taco's. Maybe try checking it out again?

    • profile image

      Best Vegetarian Fast Food 5 years ago

      Dimple Restaurant is one of the few dinner places providing Best Vegetarian Fast Food to New Jersey people that display awesome in preference.

      http://www.dimpleusa.com

    • profile image

      Brittany 5 years ago

      Buying anything from McDonald's would be supporting their atrocious treatment of animals :( and whil Jack in the Box tacos do have soy in them, they also have meat products.

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      Lisa 5 years ago

      Unfortunately in Colorado only, Gunther Toodys offers any of their burgers made with a Boca patty. It is the favorite restaurant of my vegetarian child. For me, who does not eat red meat, they offer turkey burgers in place of beef in any of their selections.

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      Hannah 5 years ago

      KFC gravy is obviously not vegetarian. Caesar salad dressing has anchovies in it. McDonald's hashbrowns do not contain beef tallow but their fries do. Almost all fast food/chain restaurants deep fry their animal products with the non-animal products, cook their veggie burgers next to their beef burgers, etc. Most Mexican restaurants add lard to their beans. (You're better off getting whole beans, not refried.) Many Italian restaurants add chicken stock to their marinara sauces -- and most add chicken stock to their alfredo sauces by default. Cheese can either contain rennet or gelatin...etc. etc.

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      face 6 years ago

      dumb dumb if your vegetarian you cant eat gravy at KFC there is meat in the gravy hahah idiot psh you call your self a vegetarian

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      eatme 6 years ago

      fyi - all of McDonald's potato products contain beef tallow, making them non-veg. Additionally the sour cream at Taco Bell contains Gelatin, made from animal bones. KFC Gravy is certainly not veg, neither is their rice (cooked with chicken broth)

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      Kate 6 years ago

      Chili's, at least in Northern CA, actually has a whole vegetarian menu available if you ask for it. It lists everything that can be substituted or removed from their meals to make them veggie-friendly. I believe it's also available on their website.

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      Veggiegirl 7 years ago

      I agree with the limited offerings a Chili's. However, I feel I must point out that our area Chili's offer a black bean burger for any of their burgers on the menu-no charge, so that could be an option for some. Also, some of our local Mom-and-Pop hamburger/hot dog joints also offer Boca Burgers. So sometimes asking might surprise you. Not always ideal, but with 3 kids, it does give options.

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      best restaurant 7 years ago

      this is great blog and shows all vegetarian restaurant in USA.i love vegetarian food . you can choose good place for your dinner and lunch by this blog.i think it is good ..... so you can also add restaurant ...thanks...........

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      This is a great Hub. I'm a fan.

    • profile image

      Nanda 7 years ago

      Great info, very useful for me.

    • profile image

      Hi 7 years ago

      Thank you for this! It really has givin me some great information that will help me in the future =]