Dining out as a vegetarian can be a gratifying experience. There's a real thrill in finding a new restaurant with an array of creative vegetarian dishes. And, at those places we frequent, there is a certain satisfaction and sense of place to be experienced, knowing that we, along with the rest of the vegetarian community, constitute an important part of the clientele and keep the vegetarian items on the menu.
It goes without saying, however, that the negative side to restaurant eating for the vegetarian looms very large. When navigating the uncharted menu of a new or unfamiliar restaurant, hazards abound for the unwary vegetarian. For every new restaurant that holds some promise, there are at least five others with no redeeming social value. Dinner at one of these can mean an evening of anger, starvation, embarrassment, or all of the above.
As a fairly frequent traveler, I have the fortune, or misfortune, to try lots of new restaurants around the country. Since most of my travel is on business, the choice of these places is often not my own, and the choices are often not the greatest. Below, I've compiled a list of a few disasters that regularly befall the vegetarian restaurant diner. You can probably think of lots more.
1. There's nothing on the menu I can eat. I can't begin to count the number of times this has happened to me. Nor can I describe the sense of horror and panic in sitting down with a group of people and finding nothing (I mean nothing!) on the menu without meat in it. It usually means that one is relegated to the "old standbys" an iceberg lettuce salad and a baked potato. The "old standbys" have saved many a vegetarian from starvation. I once lived on them for a week in Texas.
2. I bet there's nothing on the menu I can eat. This may be the only thing worse than #1 above. It usually happens when you're with a group of people, you're starving, and everyone decides to go to a restaurant with a name like "The Branding Iron" or "Ed's Steak Pit." Not only are you likely to have a miserable meal, but you'll have to spend a couple of hours worrying about it beforehand.
3. My God! There's meat in this! Let's say you find something on the menu that looks all right, and you breathe a sigh of relief and order it. You're still not out of the woods. Restaurants seem to delight in subtly slipping meat into almost everything, especially when it isn't mentioned on the menu. This, of course, is most common in Chinese eateries where shreds of beef are hidden beneath the bamboo shoots and pork invades the egg rolls. But it happens in many other restaurants too. I've found chicken broth in pasta primavera, beef gravy on top of fettuccine Alfredo, and lots of Italian restaurants that put pepperoni in their salads.
4. The "Local Color" Syndrome. It can be said that restaurants in sophisticated big cities will be more likely to have good food for a vegetarian than restaurants in small towns or rural areas. While I've found this to generally be the case, it isn't always true. I've had wonderful vegetarian food in Wyoming and North Carolina and found absolutely terrible, uncreative (and very expensive) restaurants in Los Angeles and New York.
An almost foolproof way I've found to weed out a huge number of undesirable restaurants is to avoid any place that hints of having any measure of "local color." This category of restaurants obviously includes steak places in the Midwest and seafood restaurants along the coasts. But it also includes every restaurant that serves "American Cuisine," has the word "grill" in its name, or has been in the "same location for 20 years." And it includes almost every place with red carpeting and black vinyl chairs. In short, if the "locals love it," a vegetarian won't.
No matter what "local color" restaurant you go into, you'll get the same waitress. Her name is Marge, and she's worked there since she was 17 (she's about 50 now). Marge is pretty saucy and prides herself on being a "colorful character." She thinks vegetarians are communists (see #5 below).
Since you won't see anything vegetarian on the menu, you'll have to ask Marge what vegetables are available. She will curtly respond, "We don't have any vegetables," and will try to make your evening miserable from that point on. She won't even smile when she brings you the "old standbys."
5. Everybody hates me. As if the hazards set forth above aren't enough for the restaurant-going vegetarian, there is one more: by the end of the meal everyone will hate you. Even if you're lucky enough not to get Marge for a waitress, whomever you do get may be just as bad. You can't really blame the country's waiters and waitresses. After all, they've been trained to think their restaurant's prime rib is the absolute height of gastronomic perfection. And even if the vegetarian isn't directly insulting the food, he or she probably is creating some additional work.
If the people you are eating with aren't vegetarians, don't expect them to love you either. They'll be almost as embarrassed as you are when you ask if the soup of the day is made with a chicken stock or if the manicotti sauce has meat in it. While the vegetarian is desperately trying to find something to eat, everyone else at the table will be wondering to themselves why a simple thing like ordering dinner has to be made into such a production.
Sometimes it all gets to be so discouraging that I feel like eating at home the rest of my life, and packing a brown bag whenever I have to travel. But it's usually when I'm at my most demoralized that I get some encouragement—like the time in Wyoming that I found a whole list of fresh vegetables on a steak house menu, or the seafood restaurant in Florida that had wonderful black bean soup without the meat stock. Sometimes it's just a nice waiter who will take pity on me and go out of his way to see that I get fed. When something like that happens, I think maybe, on the whole, restaurants aren't so bad after all.