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Mar 16, 2012 07:36 AM

Vegan expectations?

As a newly minted vegan, I was delighted on a recent trip to Atlanta by the attitude of the servers and chefs I encountered. All were happy to put together a tasty meal for me, some of them getting extremely creative in the process. Upon returning home to Bloomington, IN, DH and I decided we were too tired to cook, so headed out to Upland Brewing Co., a favorite brew pub, for dinner. Not wanting the deep-fried fake meat sandwich on offer, I asked to be served several sides that were offered with various mains (farro, asparagus, onions, and mushrooms). The server bluntly informed me that the kitchen would only serve meals as described on the menu. I was (and remain) furious. Am I off base here?

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  1. This is actually a well-worn topic on Chowhound, and has less to do with vegans' expectations, but expectations of diners in general vis-a-vis a restaurant's kitchen staff and policy.

    Some restaurants are very accommodating, some are not.

    Neither is better or worse than the other and there are valid arguments to be made for either policy.

    Many kitchens will not do alterations or substitutions because (1) their chefs are egomaniacs who believe their dishes must be consumed as conceived; and/or (2) it's too cost prohibitive or time prohibitive to make changes.

    Restaurants that will accommodate simply factor in the cost of making the substitution by charging you more, or just generally raising the prices across the board on the menu.

    Again, no right or wrong answer on this one.

    26 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      re ipsedixit; Couldn't have said it better.

      1. re: ipsedixit

        Less the ego, more the lack of possible flexibility. Unless the restaurant has a go-to vegetarian/vegan dish they can serve upon request you're communicating to a waiter who has to communicate to someone who then has to communicate with a line cook or some other person to ascertain what's available for the customer's needs.

        I was once out with a group of friends to a restaurant where none of us had previously visited. There was not a single non-meat dish on the menu and the vegetarian among us explained their needs to the waiter. He said they'd figure something out. When the entrees came, the "vegetarian" dish was mixed vegetables from a can. That was it.

        Frankly, if you have special needs then find the restaurant to accommodate those needs because it's unlikely that you can rely on the restaurant to revise its menu for you.

        As far as the "ego" thing, in my personal experience, any restaurant with a chef who has an outsize ego is a restaurant that will accept a challenge rather than dismissing it.

        I was invited to a special event by a restaurant where they had a much younger Emeril preparing a meal for the invitees. It was a fixed menu and one of the people in our group asked for special accommodations which the chef gladly met and he came out several times just to see if his improvised items were successful.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          Well, I am not 100% convinced that you hit all of the possibilities, on why changes cannot/will not be made, but then there are many restaurants, where changes are just not made - vegan, or otherwise.


          1. re: Bill Hunt

            And these restaurants...if unreasonable...are not going to see my business. I recently had dinner at a very upscale restaurant where they had a vegetarian (we inquired) butternut squash soup which was garnished with bacon crumbles. When the chef refused to serve the soup without the bacon garnish to a vegetarian friend of mine, this was sufficient to convince me not to return. BTW, the restaurant had a few vegetarian salads, and entrees on the menu so they clearly were open to having vegetarian guests. Someone else at our table had the soup, and the few bacon crumbles on top, although perhaps enjoyed by some, were imho not an integral part of the soup. This was clearly a chef who was too proud to have his creation altered in any way. We won't be back.

            1. re: josephnl

              In that case, I would definitely suggest that you should vote with your AMEX card. I know that I do, though Vegan is not one of my personal considerations.

              In general, I have always found most chefs/restaurants to be very accommodating, but when I encounter one, that is not, I never return.


              1. re: Bill Hunt

                Totally agree. Any chef who will not accept a reasonable request will not see return business from me.

                1. re: josephnl

                  The only thing that I might add would be "with a bit of notice."

                  Now, I have had wonderful fortune, with my requests (most often for my lovely wife), but have had a few instances, where simple requests were flatly denied. We just took our business elsewhere. Two of those, no longer exist, though I doubt that my patronage had anything to do with it. Still, my reviews were not flattering, so who knows?

                  I try to always notify the staff, that we will have a little deviation to the menu, and 99% welcome that. That is one of the things that I love about Open Table - I get to add requests, and, again, most restaurants seem to read those.


                  1. re: Bill Hunt

                    I don't think I can convey my feelings on the subject better than to quote local chef Daniel Orr (formerly executive chef at La Grenouille). We were discussing my just-published column on gluten-free baking this morning. He told me that he stocks G-F pasta, breads, and other ingredients for his celiac customers. In his own words, "It's all about customer service."

                    1. re: pikawicca

                      That sounds like a chef, that you should follow.

                      Good luck,


                      1. re: pikawicca

                        Of course, it's all about making customers leave happy. That's probably the most important rule for success in any business (obviously, you must also make a profit doing so).

                        Perhaps the most successful restaurant group in what is likely the toughest market in the US (New York City) is Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, The Modern, etc.). What makes these restaurants so special is not only the food but every patron of Mr. Meyer's restaurants is treated as a "guest"...welcomed as such, treated with utmost respect and kindness, and thanked for coming. Every restauranteur should be required to read Danny Meyer's brilliant book "Setting the Table". It is the Bible for taking care of guests (and employees)!

                        1. re: pikawicca

                          okay... but again, i bet the chef-driven restaurant or bistro you refer to is a very different animal than the pub you went to, right? did daniel orr discuss the price point on an a-la-minute preparation of a gluten-free pasta special order in his award winning restaurants? how fair is this comparison?

                          is it price, or fast-food-type access, which you are most after? presumably you'd like your dining companions to be unrestricted with regards to omni menu choices... otherwise you'd go to an all-vegan restaurant where you would have access to the whole menu. to compromise w your companions on a veg-friendly, but basically omni restaurant and then turn around and complain you can't eat the whole menu, or otherwise demand special access to menu substitutions which are not offered to any other customers is kind of a weird move. imo.

                          the pub you went to offers 8+ menu items which are vegan (according to Caviar and Chitlin's post, below), all of which you apparently rejected, and they may have prepared other things off-menu as well. how is that being veg*n "unfriendly" or offering poor customer service? is expecting a vegan version of every single menu item a reasonable expectation? are there recipes that would be "lost in translation?"

                          for example if a place made a great red beans and rice, containing the traditional pork products, and they sold 50 portions a day to loyal customers-- well wait, there is *one* person a week who wishes s/he could also try this dish, but can't due to dietary concerns. so the restaurant decides to change the rb&rice recipe to make it vegan. despite the fact that more people can now order the dish, does the restaurant sell more red beans and rice? highly doubtful-- in fact they may have succeeded in ticking off a great many of their best repeat customers.

                          if i were still vegetarian, or pork-free, as i was for 7/15 years, respectively, i appreciated it when waitstaff would inform me that a dessert contained gelatin or a pastry crust contained lard, and was an unsuitable choice for my diet. it was more like "oh wow, good to know that i can't eat that, but i can eat this other option-- okay, great!"

                          in prep yesterday i made approx #65 of food that was vegan and #70 of food that was not. today though it's probably #11 vegan and #50 non, so far. if a person came in and said they were veg and wanted to order a soup that contains chicken stock, there is no way to magically make the soup veg, and it would be unethical to tell the customer that it doesn't contain animal products... but there is other stuff the person could choose. the cooks are not "wrong" or anti-customer assholes if they roast chickens or make beef burgers for their omni customers, or if they prepare the sides for these meaty dishes using traditional methods and recipes-- especially if there are several veg options on the menu. if the pub doesn't allow *any* customers to mix and match bits and pieces of garnish from various menu items, i don't understand why someone who claims to be a vegan would be a special case/rules don't apply.

                          here is a link to the veg*n friendly restaurant guide from the university of indiana bloomington. it includes lots of chain restaurants, but if you glance over the entries you can see that many of these restaurants don't offer extensive vegan offerings. maybe it will give you some more ideas for dining out in your area. note that this guide is written/researched by actual vegetarians and vegans, not flexitarian-types

                          and here is the entry for uplands from the same guide:
                          Upland Brewing Company - Has a few vegetarian options including seitan Philly cheese, black bean burger, seitan schnitzel, Meatlessloaf sandwich, Wit Macaroni & Cheese, Mushroom Pasta, Stuffed Shells, Veggie Gyros.
                          Vegan Options- portobello mushroom pizza or seitan tenderloin, Coconut Tofu salad, Spicy Tofu Tacos, Southwest Tofu Salad, Portobello Sandwich & Vegetarian Chili. They have a segregated vegetarian fryer to prevent contamination with meat products for items like thier brewery fries.
                          Also, depending on who's working sometimes there will be a vegan soup or dessert.

                          imo, these folks ^ appear to be trying to accommodate folks with a variety of dietary restrictions, while also catering to their (majority omni) customer group. your op asks if you are off base or not. i think you probably are, sorry. you've embarked on a dietary path that puts you in the minority, but it might be easier for you to find great vegan food if you were more open to the folks who are trying to accommodate your needs, rather than thinking that they are picking on you personally, when they are not.

                          1. re: soupkitten

                            Orr does not charge extra for G-F dishes. The dishes you mention from Upland (some of them very good) are mostly no longer on the menu. I've eaten many great vegan dishes at the extraordinary variety of independent restaurants we have here in Bloomington. Unfortunately, my dining companions frequently want to go more "mainstream." I've not encountered many vegan desserts. (Unless you count the infamous Wah Pudding at D.C.'s Golden Temple of Conscious Cookery. Even though it's been many years, my husband I still laugh at the utter awfulness of the dish. No idea what was in it.)

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              again, its unreasonable to expect he can cater to every single person's restriction. He may be able to cater to most, he may be able to cater to more then many other people, but you can't can't can't can't can't can't can't can't can't can't can't must not must not must not must not expect he will cater to EVERY restricions WITHOUT advanced notice. Whether you think its good customer service or not, or whether you think all restaurants should magically be able to predict and cater to EVERY customer EVERY time, you are wrong.

                              Back in the day a hot dog stand had one hotdog. Then people liked sausage so he had hot dog and sausage. Then vegetariens wanted something so he had a sausage, a hot dog and a veggie dog, but it wasn't kosher, so then he added a kosher dog, then he needed a celiac friendly gluten free bun, then he needed a organic hotdog as well, where the hell does it end?


                              DON'T EXPECT!!!!!

                              and DON'T call it poor customer service when every restaurant won't cater to you. Don't cry and complain and write columns about restaurants that don't have the same service as some high class place that charges a lot of money that does cater to you. Customer service is when they suggest items on the menu that you can have, when they already provide an option, just because you didnt like the option does NOT NOT NOT make it poor customer service that they did not accommodate your wish. Maybe they could have handled it better, but the fact they didn't fulfill your request is NOT a lack of customer service, its simply a different type of restaurant, a different type of menu, and a different restaurant period. You have found some restaurants happy to go off menu or feed you what you want, but not all can or will, and they don't have to.

                              1. re: TeRReT

                                I so agree with your post and I'm a fussy -ish eater because I don't eat shellfish pork and ham/bacon, so there are some restaurants where the choices are limited for me. I remember going to a Maryland crab place with friends when the menu was crab in it's various forms and nothing else for me except a grilled cheese. Let me tell you it was Wonderbread with square processed American cheese. But I was with 20 friends and they were all hammering their crabs and having fun so I wouldn't dare be the party pooper.

                                The doctor I work for is a specialist. We don't write meds for cholesterol, birth control, urology problems, blood pressure,diabetes, nor do we change dressings or remove stitches. Yet we get patients yelling and screaming that they are in a doctor's office and they should be able to get any prescription they want. I guess a restaurant that can't acommodate every need is a bit like that, yes they may well have the food and tools to be able to make a gluten free or vegan dish but not want to. I have a script pad but that doesn't mean you'll get your anti biotic from my office.

                                1. re: TeRReT

                                  You are absolutely right. It's totally unreasonable to expect a chef/restaurant to accommodate all requests...regardless of how service-oriented the establishment may be. But when a chef refuses to leave a bacon garnish off a soup, or comply with some similarly reasonable request, that's not the kind of place I want to patronize.

                                  1. re: TeRReT

                                    Well, perhaps all "good chefs" could do a special menu, every night, for every possible issue, allergy, choice, just in case that one client, who requires everything, shows up that night.

                                    Well-stated, and I feel that it is highly incumbent on the patron, to call ahead, and just ask.

                                    In my family's case, we are not talking about "life-threatening" dietary issues (just allergies), or recent "conversions," so it is likely different. Still, we just notify the restaurant/chef/FOH, and all is magically taken care of. I have never had anything, but accommodation, regardless of the number of Michelin "stars," or whether the restaurant was a "mom-n-pop." All have been happy to accommodate, with but a notice, and a bit of time. [This is one thing that I like about Open Table - I can make specific requests.]


                              2. re: pikawicca

                                But does he also keep a set of GF-only pots/pans and utensils? If he doesn't it's probably because it's cost prohibitive, and that's not going to be good enough for some celiac customers. What about kosher diners? Does he accomodate them, too?

                                I think most restaurants want people to be happy, but there are limits to what they can and probably should do in order to please a particular diner while not negatively impacting their ability to please the majority of other diners. If the entire kitchen has to stop to accomodate one diner with special requests and can't get the rest of their food out in an efficient and cost effective way, that's not good customer service. Good customer service doesn't necessarily mean there can't be limits to what the resto will do for its customers...

                                1. re: akq

                                  Yeah. Ideallly, from the customer's point of view, a restaurant will say "Customer service is most important. We'll be happy to provide spur of the moment meals to satisfy your dietary requirements, whatever they are!"

                                  From the restaurants point of view, though, doing so costs money and time. They may need to add significantly to their menu to provide multiple versions of popular items, because switching over to vegan, or gluten free, can scare off other customers, or change the taste enough to turn people away.

                                  For medical or religious restrictions, it may require preparing a completely separate kitchen area that can be guaranteed free of X, or doing a serious scrub down and sterilization in the middle of a busy dinner hour before preparing the special dish.

                                  And there's a huge difference, medically, between stocking gluten free pasta, and being able to guarantee that a dish has no cross contamination from utensils or cooking surfaces, or a chef that didn't wash their hands before shifting to the gluten free prep.

                                  I would expect places like brew pubs or chain restaurants to be on the less flexible end, because they're likely to receive a lot of their product partly prepared - they're not making that sauce from scratch every night.

                                  And restaurants tend to cater to what is trendy and popular. Seven or so years ago, you could find Atkins and low carb versions of everything under the sun, even in mainstream chain restaurants. Now it's gluten-free (but probably not good enough for someone who has full out celiac disease). Vegetarian dishes are much more available and better than a couple of decades ago, because there is more demand, but vegan food is harder to find because veganism is a lot less common.

                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    Good points.

                                    From a realistic point-of-view, few restaurants can afford to do a full prep, on the off-chance, that a certain patron, with dietary restrictions might show up that night. If not, then all was likely wasted.

                                    OTOH, if that client calls ahead, then the prep can begin - just for them.

                                    Very few restaurants can afford to do everything for everyone, every night, regardless of the bookings. If they tried, could you, or I, afford to dine there? I hardly think so.

                                    In my long life, I have never encountered anything, that includes everything, for everyone. That includes restaurants, automobiles, or even a religion. None can do everything for everyone.

                                    OTOH, most good restaurants CAN help patrons, given a heads-up, and time to make it happen.


                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                      Hunt...although what you say is true for most restaurants, but not all chefs are always reasonable about this. Recently at one of southern CA's finest restaurants, we hosted a vegetarian guest for a celebratory birthday dinner. We selected this restaurant because on their website they had a full vegetarian menu. I called ahead to confirm this.

                                      When we were seated, we were presented with both regular and vegetarian menus to peruse while we were having cocktails. A server then brought over two amuse bouches for each of us...neither of which was vegetarian. I immediately pointed out to the server that our guest was vegetarian, and asked if something else could be brought to our guest. His response was that the chef will not substitute amuse bouches. I asked to speak with our waiter, and asked him if he could ask the chef...his reply was "this is a gift from the chef, and no substitution is possible". This, to me was especially shocking...because this is a restaurant with a full vegetarian menu.

                                      1. re: josephnl

                                        I've never known a restaurant to offer more than one amuse bouche, or to inquire beforehand if anyone was a vegetarian before serving it.

                                        1. re: LeoLioness

                                          I have, although I don't think it's common. I was given an amuse bouche of rabbit on a cracker, and while I didn't refuse it, I also didn't eat it. The server stopped by a few minutes later, said "Perhaps you don't care for rabbit," and gave me a new amuse bouche of hummus on a cracker. So that was very nice.

                                          1. re: small h

                                            That was a very good move, by the server.

                                            I would have upped the tip (see many other, recent threads) for that.


                                          2. re: LeoLioness

                                            We annually exchange birthday dinners with a vegetarian friend, and I carefully select a restaurant that has a nice selection of vegetarian dishes on the menu. I also call ahead to insure there will be no problem and to say that we're celebrating a birthday. As host, I will usually point out immediately to the server that my guest is vegetarian, and with only one exception (posted above) has the restaurant failed to bring out a vegetarian amuse. Really, how big a deal is it to put together a vegetarian bite? A good restaurant will handle this with grace and aplomb.

                                            1. re: LeoLioness

                                              As my wife has an aversion to bi-valves, and I make that known, we have often had totally different amuse bouches. The staff will often make note of their accommodation, and I greatly appreciate that.


                                            2. re: josephnl

                                              That is too bad. It seems that you have done all that could be expected of you, as patrons.

                                              We have had a few issues, but only at events, where we had previously requested special menus for our vegetarian guests. Those have always been honored, though there have been some "pregnant pauses," where none of the gentlemen would touch their dishes, until all of the ladies had been served.

                                              IMHO,you did everything correctly, and should have been accommodated. However, it seems that the restaurant dropped the ball.


                        2. Yes because you were/are furious that they wouldn't go against policy to please you. With out having a Sides category on the menu how would they determine what to charge you? How much time (many people) would it take to come up with the price (and once they did would you accept it or try to negotiate)? And what about portion size?

                          But if this is a place that you like to go to and would enjoy being able to go to as a vegan, I think it might be worth your while to see if they could accomodate this request at a later visit. Explain why and what you wanted and and suggest a menu change? It could be interesting.

                          1. I'm an ex vegan and my daughter is currently veg and she often orders just sides when we go out to eat and has never encountered a problem. But then the places we eat at usually list side dishes that can be ordered individually. So she just orders a few selections from the list and they bring them on one plate for her.

                            1. It doesn't seem like it should be that hard, and maybe your server just didn't feel like or have the knowledge to negotiate it with the kitchen, but you'd probably have better luck calling ahead and asking what is possible rather than just showing up and expecting to be taken care of. Do you have good reason to believe none of those sides are cooked with chicken stock or butter? I'd be rather surprised if none of them had either animal ingredient.

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: babette feasts

                                No kidding re: the chicken stock or butter. If you're going to make those kinds of requests, you've got to hit the basics first. Otherwise it just undermines your credibility as a special-needs diner (of which I am one).

                                1. re: babette feasts


                                  Great suggestion - call ahead.

                                  Though not vegan, my wife has issues with bi-valves. We always notify the restaurants of that issue, and to date, none has hesitated to accommodate her, even in multi-course tasting menus - I am talking up to 15-course tasting menus, and where many dishes have scallops, mussels, clams or oysters. They even do special "sommelier's pairings," just for her modified dishes.

                                  To show up and declare that "I am now a vegan, so accommodate me," is not how I would do it, and especially at a brew pub.

                                  Maybe I am just missing something very important here?


                                2. Pikawicca that sucks. Did the server check with the manager or just respond right away to your request? I remember years ago wanting a sub but they all had cutsie names and there were no substitutions. I just wanted a different kind of cheese. I think the girl on duty was a fresh hire and the manager wasn't around but when I tried to convince her she became agitated so I left. Some people don't do well when you throw them a curve ball. Did you end up ordering the deep fried fake meat or leaving?
                                  I don't know anything about Indiana but I've lived in the South and in the NE and in the South they tend to be more accomodating to customers.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: givemecarbs

                                    Server didn't check with anyone, just flat out said "the kitchen won't do that." Didn't order anything. Stopped at a soup place and got some great black bean chili to take home.

                                    1. re: pikawicca

                                      maybe the server didn't need to check, the vegan request had come up before and she/he already knew the answer. Maybe they cannot promise that dairy has not come into contact with their veggies.

                                      To my own experiences, I was a vegetarian in the UK from about 1975-83 including traveling in E Africa, the US, Europe etc. It was a PITA then, much harder than today and I had numerous meals in restaurants of omelets and plates of vegetables, ditto for airline food and friends houses (oh just let her pick the bacon out of the quiche or beans). I got fed up with it and eventually went back to eating meat. Now I still don't eat a lot of meat and generally still order vegetarian food at restaurants. It's easier now but sometimes there is still nothing veggie on a menu.

                                      2 of my kids went vegan last year and I have to say by the 3rd week of trying to come up with exciting vegan food I had had enough. Thankfully they returned to vegetarianism as opposed to veganism but it's without doubt more work to come up with a vegetable entree than meat.
                                      I'm not being judgemental but it's very difficult for the vegan and the cooks - good luck Pica