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Mar 21, 2010 04:52 AM

acceptable "spur of the moment" vegetarian offering?

The setting: a 50th birthday party for my sister-in-law, hosted by my father-in-law, held in a private room of a busy suburban restauarant (billed as a "bistro") on a Saturday night. About 40 guests, printed set menu sitting at each place setting, 2 appetizers, 5 or 6 entrees. During the cocktail hour as we are mingling about the crudite table and talking with my sister-in-law's guests, my daugher (vegetarian, not vegan, but *not* pescatarian) notes to me that none of the entrees are vegetarain. Both my father-in-law and sister-in-law know she's vegetarian, but I don't expect that to always be at the forefront of their thoughts, so I thought, no big deal, at ordering time we'll just ask for something simple to be put together for an entree. At ordering time (and this gets awkward as we are at long tables *very* close together, and our little nuclear family is as far away from open space and the waitress, who stands at the far end, as we can be, so no quiet conferences) my daughter asks "do you have anything vegetarian I could have?" The waitress looks down at the set menu (as my daughter is almost 17, I think she can be assumed to be able to read the menu herself) and says "you don't eat fish?" My daughter politely shakes her head no. "I'm sure we can put something nice together for you". Just what I would have expected, so all is good.

An hour or so later, after our appetizers (which were salad or soup), the entrees start arriving. Everyone but my daughter gets their salmon, or steak, or veal..... The waitress notes her empty spot and says brightly "yours will be right out". Ok, sure, something special, a little extra time, whatever. We made a little joke at our table that maybe they had to order in a pizza from the shop across the street.

Finally with great flourish a bowl is presented to my daughter. Of buttered spaghetti. Seriously, buttered spaghetti. No sauce, no garnish of slivered vegetables, nothing. My FIL and SIL were a different tables, but I'm sure they would have been apalled, but we just stared along with the "new friends" we'd made in our immediate vicinity. But as guests at the party (who were also as I mentioned, wedged in such that going up to do anything would have been a production disturbing at least 10 people) we said nothing. My daughter finished half her bowl and got tired of plain noodles. She even remarked that just some tomato or pesto sauce from a jar would have been ok.

Is this in any way acceptable? Vegetarians aren't that unususal; I almost felt like my daughter was getting the "picky child" treatment of plain noodles (even though she's 16 and vegetarianism can be distinguished from "pickiness"). No we didn't bother my FIL and SIL with this beforehand (we knew they knew, and besides, my daughter's not picky), I did check the menu online but we knew it was going to be a set menu, so who know's what will be on it--they had some appetizers that looked like they could be built into a veggie entree). It just seems in a group of 40 people (or for that matter for a busy suburban restaurant) not having the wherewithal to deal with something as relatively common as vegetarianism with *something* better than a bowl of noodles is somewhat astonishing. Hey they could have taken the crudites from the appetizer table and stirfried them for the top of the pasta...

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  1. It is a little awkward and it does seem that nobody in the kitchen made any effort to make something vegetarian for your daughter. Considering this was a restaurant not a catering company or supplied to a room or tent not set up for extra cooking there must have been something on their regular menu. Maybe the waitress said 'it's just a kid' and things got confused in the kitchen.

    I was a vegetarian from aged 17 to 25 back in the 70s when it was almost impossible to find any vegetarian entrees in most restaurants that were not Italian. I got steamed vegetables or omelettes more times than I can remember, or quiche with bacon (you can pick out the bacon they said!). Even on Alitalia recently from Miami to Rome when I ordered vegetarian (which I usually do on planes) all I got was steamed veggies

    She will have to chalk it up to one bad night for food. Maybe next time check there will be something vegetarian.

    10 Replies
    1. re: smartie

      All agreed (though an omelet or steamed veggies would have been more than acceptable under the circumstances). However, even though "just a kid" I'm more than certain that my father in law was paying full fare for the set menu for her bowl of buttered noodles.

      1. re: smartie

        what the age of the diner has to do with it escapes me

        1. re: thew

          I wasn't suggesting that. What I was thinking was that the waitress went back to the kitchen and possibly said 'it's just a kid or a teenager' and the cooks thought that plain pasta was enough.

          1. re: smartie

            and again - pointed at the cooks - im not sure what the age has to do with it.

            1. re: thew

              The point that smartie seemed to be making was that it is possible that some waitstaff/cooks may have misconceptions about what is acceptable/likable by diners of certain ages.

              1. re: limster

                the point i seemed to be making is that is utter crap

                1. re: thew

                  I disagree. Smartie's point is plausible. Also see invinotheresverde's post below for example.

                  1. re: limster

                    smarties point is plausible - i don't think i said otherwise.

                    i said serving anyone who didn't order it just plain buttered pasta is ridiculous whether the diner is 2 20 or 200

                  2. re: thew

                    then again maybe the cooks didn't speak much English and there was some kind of mix up. We weren't there but it was just an idea.

            2. re: thew

              if the diner is 6 years old or so, a bowl of buttered spaghetti might be ok, because it is widely assumed (correctly or not) that a six year old would not appreciate anything more complex.
              if the diner is an adult, imho, it is not ok.

          2. I would have confirmed with the family member who was in charge of setting up the menu that there would be something appropriate for your daughter. She sounds like an easygoing person, so it's not as if she would have demanded something outlandish.

            While it would have been ideal if the host/coordinator remembered everyone's dietary requirements/needs, as you yourself pointed out, "both my father-in-law and sister-in-law know she's vegetarian, but I don't expect that to always be at the forefront of their thoughts," esp. when putting together a party comprising about 40 guests.

            In fairness to the restaurant, this was a last-minute request, and while it may seem like they could have easily put together something more substantial, it's often not as easy as that, having seen the other side of the coin (esp. if it's a busy night).

            Seems like both you and your daughter handled the situation admirably and made the best of it.

            1. I'm a lacto/ovo veggie and have been my whole life, basically. I've always found it best not to bother the hosts, who, yes, I'm sure, want everyone happy, but have a million things on their minds already. I just always call the restaurant in advance to make sure I'll have something appropriate to eat.

              That said, the restaurant definitely gave your daughter "kid treatment". I say she should've sent it back. There's no way they didn't have some veggies the could've made into, at the very least, a primavera.

              I'd send an email, because, you're 99.9% right that your hosts paid full price for buttered spaghetti.

              1. I was vegetarian for many years and faced this situation many times. To be honest, I'd have just as soon had buttered pasta as the oily and/or tasteless "pasta primavera" they slapped together in 90% of these situations. (In fact, one of the worst I ever had was at a rehearsal dinner catered by a world-famous Bay Area restaurant. I'd been looking forward to the dinner almost as much as the wedding -- and boy, was I disappointed.)

                Anyhow, while I have full sympathy, I wouldn't make any fuss over it in your situation simply because it was sprung on the restaurant at pretty much the latest possible moment. Most places wouldn't just have prepared tomato sauce or pesto in a jar, and if they were getting 40 other dinners together a la minute -- well, I'm sorry to say I think that is throwing quite a monkey wrench into their operation.

                Nah, they didn't bend over backwards. But I'd chalk it up to an important lesson your daughter will need if she remains vegetarian. Try to give at least six hours' notice, and a day's if possible. Another suggestion: If they say they don't have anything ready, ask if they can instead do her a big salad as her entree. Then stop by Taco Bell on the way home if necessary.

                The bigger the dinner and more seasoned the restaurant or caterer at doing big parties, the better her chances. In my experience, big dinners at hotels are almost always assured to be ready for a percentage of vegetarians out of the gate. Many times, my dining partners would be jealous of my special dish while they ate their rubber chicken in mystery sauce.

                20 Replies
                1. re: dmd_kc

                  yeah you're right, next time we'll call the restaurant. I just figured that since they did have some appetizer things on the regular menu (which I looked at before) that could have been put next to a bit of rice, a mound of mashed potatoes (both things on the set menus as sides) that this really shouldn't have been brain surgery.

                  1. re: DGresh

                    Calling ahead is always prudent.

                    With the circumstances you describe, I think it would have been perfectly acceptable to have mentioned to the waitress any ideas you had - "I looked at your full menu earlier - perhaps the seasonal composed salad could be tweaked into an entree with pasta? Something like that would be perfect!" This lets her know where you are coming from and also gives the kitchen a quick idea so they don't have to try to figure it out on the fly.

                    Although it is rather surprising that they don't have a dish or two in mind for exactly this situation. Vegetarian requests are not unusual...

                    That said, after working in restaurants for many years, I feel she did get the "picky kid" treatment......If I were hosting, I'd want to know about that.

                    1. re: DGresh

                      There's certainly nothing wrong with making a suggestion. "Would it be possible for me to have a plate of the mashed potatoes, braised carrots and the bok choy from the other meals?" would make it a no-brainer for them.

                      However, also don't forget that restaurant dishes such as rice and vegetable sides are extremely likely to have animal products in them, and ethical places won't offer them as a vegetarian option. It could very well be those potatoes were flavored with bacon and the rice was cooked in chicken broth.

                      1. re: dmd_kc

                        yes, I thought about that possibility, which made me reticent to suggest items. Who knows maybe they really had "nothing". But that's kind of odd in itself. Anyway, we won't be complaining, as we don't want it getting back to my SIL who is an acquaintance of the owner of the restaurant. No harm done, just a bit of an oddity. And I feel bad for my FIL who I'm sure paid $40 or so for a plate of pasta (and a bowl of soup).

                        1. re: DGresh

                          Being there are varying degrees of vegetarianism....I'm saying this because I know several friends/family members who have their own personal decisions they've made on how they practice it. Some eat fish, others don't, some eat veggies with chicken broth, others don't, etc. Regardless of how they practice it they all consider themselves vegetarians. I would have asked your daughter to ask the waitress for the type of food she desired. There is no way they couldn't have come up with something more pleasing than a 'bowl of buttered noodle". I don't know if it's worth it (only you would know) to cause a bit of drama with the restaurant by calling them, based on your SIL knowing the owner of the restaurant.
                          In this case it's just a nice lesson learned for your daughter.

                          1. re: latindancer

                            Varying degrees of "vegetarianism" aside (which none of those you listed above are), there's no reason that a respectable chef can't grill up some veggies (no matter how abstract they are, which sometimes they really are). There's always mirepoix, at the bare minimum, which is better than pasta with butter.

                            1. re: latindancer

                              Does anyone else think the fact that there are obviously people out there that believe there are "varying degrees of vegetarianism" (including versions that eat fish and chicken!) might have contributed to this problem? Maybe the FIL thought fish was a perfectly acceptable dish for a vegetarian, looks like latindancer knows some "vegetarians" who would have found that acceptable.

                              Latindancer- just curious, but the vegetarians you know that eat their veggies cooked in chicken broth- do they also eat, you know, chicken?

                              1. re: mjhals

                                'do they also eat, you know, chicken?'

                                Not in front of me. I think, from their perspective, they're not actually eating chicken and so therefore 'no big deal' There are all kinds of ways for people to rationalize their eating habits/way of thinking when it comes to food. We all know people who do comes in all forms when it comes to cultural dietary laws, vegetarians, raw food eating, etc. People call themselves 'kosher' yet still eat meals in restaurants that serve unkosher meat, vegetarians who still eat fish still consider themselves 'vegetarians'....etc.
                                It's all a matter of perception. I know a 'vegetarian' who, when we dine together in her town, insists on eating at some of her favorite little restaurants where they don't serve any fish/meat dishes.
                                Yet, in her own home she eats fish. I think it's a common perception that many vegetarians eat fish because many of those people I know, who are vegetarians, do eat fish.
                                The waitress, in this particular situation, was right in assuming when she asked the daughter, 'you don't eat fish?", that many so-called vegetarians do.

                                1. re: latindancer

                                  I guess that's my point- the people you mention are absolutely "so-called vegetarians", because they are not ACTUAL vegetarians (which we seem to agree on, correct?). I'm suggesting that it's these so-called vegetarians who have made it hard on DGresh's daughter by telling people (like DGresh's FIL) that they are vegetarians and then accepting a fish dish as an appropriate "vegetarian" option. You're exactly right that the waitress, FIL may have encountered these type of "vegetarians" and so thought some of the offerings were acceptable. And I think that's a shame.

                                  1. re: mjhals

                                    FIL may have encountered these types of 'vegetarians" and so thought some of the offerings were acceptable. And I think that's a shame."

                                    I do too.

                                    1. re: mjhals

                                      despite the fact that i have a certain amount of distain for the "so-called" vegetarians: people who are not vegetarians but call themselves so, i can't see how their existence makes it impossible for anyone working in a normal restaurant's commercial kitchen to throw together something better than buttered spaghetti.

                                    2. re: latindancer

                                      As I mentioned, asking whether she eats fish is a little silly given that the menu is in front of us and one would assume that a 16 year old knows how to read a menu, and knows what salmon or butterfish is.

                                      1. re: DGresh

                                        I got from your original post that the waitress was simply asking the question, (when your daughter asked her for something vegetarian) 'Don't you eat fish?'
                                        I guess I'm not seeing the offense when alot of people, like I said, who are so-called vegetarians confuse the whole concept, and everyone around them, by accepting fish into their diet. I don't think it was a matter of the waitress not thinking your daughter could read but just matter of double checking with your daughter on a misconception of what 'vegetarian' means to her, based on some prior experiences she may have had.

                                      2. re: latindancer

                                        "I think it's a common perception that many vegetarians eat fish because many of those people I know, who are vegetarians, do eat fish."

                                        Fish is not a vegetable. These people are not vegetarians. They are pescetarians. Perhaps at some time it can come up in your conversation with them. I've only known one person who claimed to be vegetarian and ate fish all the time. Finally I just told her. She thanked me because she said she didn't know what else to call herself.

                                        1. re: decolady

                                          why label yourself at all? Why can't people say nothing unless invited to a meal and then just politely say by the way I don't eat red meat, any meat, any animal derived protein, shellfish, cauliflower, beets, dairy, nuts, bananas, or whatever it is you don't eat for health, allergy, religious reasons or any other reason.

                                          Sitting with people who talk about their 'foodisms' can be very dull for the listeners, especially when it is brought up at every outing with them.

                                          1. re: smartie

                                            "Sitting with people who talk about their 'foodisms' can be very dull for the listeners, especially when it is brought up at every outing with them."

                                            I don't disagree with you. When it matters I mention that I don't eat red meat. But I do think if you are going to label yourself, you should be accurate. It just sounds flat-out stupid when someone says they are vegetarian, but they eat fish. (rolling eye smilie inserted here)

                                            1. re: decolady

                                              yeppers, I was out with friends saturday and one of them bores us to death with his vegetarianism (sic) which he isn't because he will then tell us he doesn't eat animals with 4 legs (so birds are ok so are fish) and that he doesn't eat dairy (well ok just tonight). I turn a deaf ear and yawn politely if that's possible.

                                              I don't eat shellfish and pork. Yes I was brought up that way but will merrily munch a cheeseburger! But I don't make a fuss when out with people just decline the things I don't eat. Only if I am invited to someone's home do I say so if it's necessary to say so.

                                              1. re: smartie

                                                You should ask him if he eats kangaroos. :)

                                            2. re: smartie

                                              because most folks, especially those folks who work in restaurants, understand what the word "vegetarian' means and could logically take offense at being spoken to like they are 5 years old and don't know the meaning of a word that is common in their business.

                                              it would be like explaining to an accountant what the meaning of "adjusted gross income' was.

                            2. For what its worth, I think that is totally ridiculous, in NO WAY acceptable, and I'd call the restaurant and speak to the manager now to let them know. I also think you showed a lot of class by not making a big fuss the day of, such that your FIL and SIL didn't have to share in the (unpleasant and absurd) experience.