When it comes to vegan dining, you may have far better options than you realize. No matter where you live, or where you may travel, this guide will help you find the best food in local restaurants.
How to Find Vegan Food Near You
Searching for local, vegan-friendly dining is quick and simple. The fastest way to discover your options is to search “vegan restaurants” in Google Assistant on your phone. This will bring up a list of nearby vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. The restaurant description and its reviews will enable you to get a good sense of how its vegan offerings stack up.
You can also turn to vegan-oriented websites like HappyCow.net and VegGuide.org for additional information, but these guides aren’t as complete Google’s massive crowd-sourced directory. Yelp.com is yet another solid way to discover local vegan offerings, and it can help you uncover still more vegan dining possibilities. Just visit Yelp and do a search for vegan in your city. You’ll encounter a collection of restaurant reviews of vegan-friendly restaurants near you.
Now let’s get into the various possibilities for vegan dining. We’ll start with the best places of all—vegan and vegetarian restaurants—and work our way down from there, exploring the best ways to find a vegan meal no matter how limited your local dining options may appear.
Vegetarian and Vegan Restaurants
Naturally, you’re home free if there’s a veggie or vegan restaurant near you. One word of caution, however: it’s easy to drop your guard at a vegetarian restaurant and unwittingly consume something with dairy products or eggs. Some vegetarian restaurants that have been in business for years are surprisingly behind the times. Their menus often emphasize dairy and egg-based foods, at the expense of solid vegan offerings.
But most new veggie restaurants opening today are vegan rather than just vegetarian. And this includes three fantastic and rapidly-expanding chains, each with dozens of restaurants: Veggie Grill, Loving Hut, and Native Foods. If there aren’t any vegan restaurants in your area, don’t despair. Vegan food trucks have lately been catching on, as has the presence of vegan food vendors at farmer’s markets. So keep your eyes open for these things and you could end up pleasantly surprised.
Vegan Foods at Ethnic Restaurants
If there aren’t any vegan restaurants nearby, it’s wise to learn about the relative vegan-friendliness of different cuisines.
Some cuisines are remarkably vegan-friendly while others (For instance Colombian, Korean, and French) are practically devoid of vegan recipes. Here are some of the most vegan-friendly restaurant cuisines, ranked roughly in descending order.
Hands down the most vegan-friendly cuisine is Middle Eastern. This may surprise you since nearly all these restaurants have a shank of lamb turning prominently in their kitchen rotisserie. But as long as you avoid meat-based dishes, most other items on the menu will be vegan. Just keep an eye out for tzatziki (a cucumber-based sauce containing yogurt). Also keep in mind that some falafel joints aren’t Middle Eastern, they’re Greek. The food is very similar but Greek places will usually mix yogurt into their tahini dressing.
After Middle Eastern, the most vegan-friendly cuisine may be Ethiopian. As with Middle Eastern food, cheese is absent from traditional Ethiopian dishes, so if you avoid meat you should be in good shape. Just make sure that the restaurant in question cooks their stews with vegetable oil rather than butter, and request that they don’t garnish your meal with sour cream.
Mexican food can and should be remarkably vegan-friendly, but it’s still something of a minefield particularly at authentic independently-owned Mexican restaurants. Chicken stock can show up in the rice, lard in the beans, and sour cream in the guacamole. Not so long ago lard also went into most white flour tortillas, but that has become unusual.
Italian food is likewise a great choice for vegans. Just know that most fresh pasta usually contains egg whites, whereas most dried pasta is vegan. In practice that means that spaghetti with marinara sauce is likely to be vegan. Same goes for pizza with the cheese left off. Independently-owned pizzerias usually make their pizza dough from scratch, with just flour, yeast, water, a pinch of sugar, and salt. But several chains (including Dominos and Pizza Hut) add milk products to some of their pizza doughs.
The annoying thing about Indian food is that it might be the world’s most vegetarian-friendly cuisine, but it’s among the more difficult cuisines for vegans since dairy products blend undetectably into many Indian rices and curries. One of the most popular Indian dishes of all, chana masala (curried chick peas), is vegan at most restaurants. And South Indian food tends to be dairy-free, since cows are rarely raised in the hottest, dryest places. Probably the most popular vegan South Indian dish is dosas, which are gigantic folded pancakes made from fermented lentil batter. They’re commonly stuffed with spiced potatoes and other vegetables.
Your Vegan Options at Fast Food Restaurants
Most fast food chains are disappointing when it comes to offering acceptable vegan options, but there are a few exceptions. You can get a vegan sandwich or salad at Subway (although their whole wheat bread contains honey), or a fresco-style bean burrito at Taco Bell. None of the second and third tier fast food chains like Wendy’s, Jack-in-the-Box, KFC, Arby’s, or Carl’s Jr. have any vegan options to speak of.
Most higher-end burger chains offer veggie burgers, but the vegan status of these burgers varies from chain to chain. White Castle currently leads the way— in 2018 they introduced the “Impossible Slider” at 140 locations in New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. Burger King’s BK Veggie inexplicably contains egg whites. Fast food restaurants often cook their veggieburgers on the same grill as hamburgers—a huge turn-off to many vegans.
The restaurant industry classifies burrito places like Chipotle, Qdoba, and Taco Del Mar as being a step up from conventional fast food, and from a vegan perspective these places are incomparably superior. You can reliably get a vegan burrito with rice, beans, guacamole, salsa, and lettuce at any of these chains. Taco Del Mar is especially deserving of praise since the chain publishes a PDF document that lists every single vegan option they offer.
Vegan Dining at Casual Chains
The industry calls restaurants like Applebee’s, TGIFriday’s, and Denny’s, “casual dining.” Vegans generally have less flattering terms for these establishments. Menu offerings are often heavy on meat, and the meatless options are generally swimming in cheese.
Things are slowly improving, but many casual dining chains have limited options for vegans. The dirty little secret about casual dining is that the kitchens often rely on pre-packaged frozen food that the “chefs” merely heat up. You’ll often get a puzzled response if you ask about an item’s ingredients, unless the kitchen staff hunts down the box it came in.
The silver lining to this is that, since all food preparation is centralized, each casual dining chain knows exactly what’s in each menu item, and the ingredients used won’t vary from one location to the next. So you can generally visit the websites of these chains and obtain detailed ingredient lists for every single menu item. In many cases, you’ll find it impossible to put together a decent meal.
Vegan Foods at the Olive Garden, Denny’s, and PF Chang’s
A few chains go out of their way to highlight their vegan choices. The Olive Garden publishes this PDF showing its vegan options. The veggieburger at Denny’s is vegan and is available with these vegan toppings: ketchup, mustard, jalapeños, fresh avocado, sautéed mushrooms, grilled onions, barbecue sauce, or bourbon sauce.
PF Chang’s is one shining exception to the paucity of vegan dining options offered at casual chains. Not only is their vegan food is terrific; you can get gut-busting amounts of food for a pittance. PF Chang’s menu has a section devoted to vegetables and everything in that section is vegan—they do add cane sugar (which may be processed with bone char) to some items, but that’s a nitpick since it’s impossible to make a reasonable case that refined sugar contributes in any way to the meat industry’s bottom line.
Steak and Seafood Restaurants
Steak and seafood are clearly the two categories of restaurants that are the worst of the worst for vegans. Even so, a steakhouse will generally offer a good salad, either made-to-order or from a salad bar. Add Italian dressing and skip the cheese, egg, and croutons and you should be in business. The best steakhouses take genuine pride in their salads, and you can get a dinner-sized salad that compares favorably to any salad a vegan restaurant would offer. But unless you know otherwise, assume that any salad you get from a steakhouse won’t rise much above mediocrity.
Seafood restaurants are best to avoid entirely. Expect to find virtually nothing on the menu that would be agreeable to vegans. However, if you do get dragged to a seafood restaurant, your best choice is to order pasta with olive oil and vegetables. Every seafood place will have these ingredients on hand. Granted, the whole experience will still smell like fish.
If, after reading this, you haven’t been able to uncover any amazing local vegan dining options, take heart. Over time, that’s likely to change. Thanks to the growth of the vegan movement, coupled with the rise of Meatless Mondays and Eric Schlosser-style “conscientious omnivores” it may not be long before you’ve got much better local vegan dining options.
A powerful way to increase the availability of vegan food in your area involves taking action to boost demand. You can use platforms like meetup.com to organize gatherings with other vegans. You’ll find that restaurants will often bend over backwards to please a large vegan group.
Know that restaurants are always seeking new business. So when they hear customers politely requesting better vegan options, many establishments are surprisingly receptive. But recognize that your wait-staff doesn’t have the power to push through change—you’ll want to communicate with the manager or owner.
So never forget that even if your town isn’t vegan-friendly, one day it will be. And you can be a driving force to speed that transition.