One of the hardest things you'll find when you become vegan is the lack of options you have when eating out. This can be extremely frustrating, especially when you get invited to a place like Magnus or a similar upscale steak joint. You'll often find yourself with a heaping plate of vegetables that aren't cooked well, or some sad looking lettuce that's being passed off as a salad. The great thing about this is that it's a great motivator to get you to learn to cook your own meals, but sometimes you just want to be lazy and let someone do the work. Believe me, I know! Well, no fear, because I'm here to give you some tips on how to eat out!
1. Ask questions! If you know you'll be going to a restaurant, then call ahead. Usually the staff is extremely friendly and will accommodate your dietary needs. If they don't normally offer something vegan, simply request something that's closest to it and ask them to eliminate the offending ingredients. (A dressing, extra egg, cheese, etc.)
2. Be nice! Nobody likes someone who's pretentious, but there's something even more irritable about a pretentious vegan. Remember, you weren't always so knowledgeable, and you'll just piss people off if you act all high and mighty. Kill people with kindness! You'll find they'll be more willing to listen to a smiley, cheerful person rather than someone who thinks they're better therefore you should listen! Also, as someone who has worked in the food service industry...you don't fuck with the people who make your food. Seriously. So be nice and they'll probably be more willing to make you a delicious vegan meal.
3. If you're not sure and you get conflicting answers from staff, just don't eat there. I know this is hard to do sometimes, but better safe than sorry. After being vegan for a while, your body will make it known when you made a mistake. Plus with all the restaurants out there that do have vegan options, there's really no point to throwing caution to the wind.
4. Check out this site for some great options in your area: http://www.happycow.net/
5. Look at your local meetup groups and see if they have a Vegetarian Meetup Group. Many cities have these groups and most of them have vegan options. It just so happens that Madison has a great Veg Meetup Group that always has vegan meals and usually some gluten free options. This group has a great coordinator, Dave, who comes up with some great venues with amazing menus. You meet great people and eat amazing vegan food. What's better than that? Check out meetup.com for a Veg Meetup in your area or check out ours: http://www.meetup.com/VegMadison/
If you get dragged to a restaurant and your friends aren't very understanding about your vegan diet, then just eat a little bit beforehand. I had to do this with two weddings I went to last summer, and it's really not that big of a deal. If someone offers you some meat and cheese laden dish, just kindly decline and don't spout off about your vegan diet unless they're being obnoxiously persistent. You don't want to alienate someone who's just trying to be nice.
Now for my recommendations! I normally don't eat out that often, but it just so happens I have quite a bit recently.
1. Green Owl. Located at 1970 Atwood Ave in Madison, this is our only all vegetarian restaurant! They boast a menu chock full of vegan options. My personal favorites are the Crabby Cake Po' Boy, TLT, and the Stuffed Red Pepper. They have great potatoes or kale chips as sides as well as decent soups. I haven't been the happiest with the soups recently, but sometimes they have a good one in there. I'm not a fan of the fake meats too much, so it's a little disappointing that they rely on those a bit too much. It's great for appealing to omnivores, though. They do have amazing vegan desserts, though! I recently had the mulled hot cider, TLT with "chicken" noodle soup, the crabby cakes for an appetizer, and the chocolate lava cake for dessert. Yum! (Didn't care for the soup, but the rest was great!) They also have a good selection of tea, which they bring out in individual french presses. I love the atmosphere and the good music that they play. Definitely a favorite of mine.
2. Bunky's. Located at 2425 Atwood Ave in Madison. Bunky's serves Italian and Mediterranean fare. I've only been here on three occasions, so I haven't had the chance to sample many things, but they have really good falafel with a yummy tahini sauce that I particularly enjoy. I went there last week for a Veg Meetup vegan pizza party! This sounds all great and exciting, but I was actually a little disappointed. When I think pizza party, I think all you can eat pizza with big slices loaded with cheese. Instead we had to wait around for a while for the pizza and we were only given two or three tiny slices at a time with hardly any cheese on the top. The cheesey garlic bread was awesome, but I wanted those thick slices of pizza. Very sad. The soup was good, but there wasn't even enough salad to go around. I didn't even get any! The dessert was also on the table first, which I thought was odd but it was good. It was some kind of chocolate cake that was really moist and had a nice chocolate frosting. This was a particularly large meetup, and they're usually not this big or this disappointing, so please don't be deterred! I actually met a great friend, Courtney, through the vegan desserts cooking class meetup and I've already signed up for two future meetups. Bunky's has also been good when I've been there in the past. I just don't think they were prepared for our group.
3. Lao Laan Xang. Located at 1146 Williamson St and 2098 Atwood in Madison. This place is great! You just simply request your dish to be made vegan. I love, love their food! I always get the Spicy Peanut Sauce with Broccoli and Mock Duck substituted in place of the tofu. I don't like their tofu, but their mock duck is delicious! They have tofu spring rolls that you can also request to be made vegan. I just ate there this evening because I had been craving it for two weeks. Seriously delicious. They don't make their dishes that spicy, so I always order native but be wary because sometimes they surprise you and make it so spicy your eyeballs sweat! But that's the best kind, right?
I will post more restaurant recommendations as I gorge myself with more food about town! Bon Appetit!