While plant-based diets might have originated as something of a trend, they have cemented themselves as part of the mainstream and are certainly nothing new.
A casual stroll through your local supermarket will confirm this, with entire aisles and product ranges dedicated to vegan or strictly vegetarian diets. From a larger industry viewpoint, these alternative lifestyles have also been taken into account by many restaurants. Some are entirely vegan and plant-based, while others make an effort to ensure these diners are catered for.
Yet, as this way of eating continues to grow in popularity, particularly as awareness groups, news outlets and movements such as Earth Day on the 22nd of April bring more attention to the effect our diets have on the environment, there is always room for improvement and more opportunities for restaurants to accommodate them.
But restaurants are not alone in this, we’re looking into ways diners and restaurants can improve the state of plant-based menus. – Jess Spiro
Give the restaurant notice
As with any dietary requirements, it is advisable to give a restaurant notice if any plant-based diners will be joining your party. If you had a very serious shellfish allergy, it’s unlikely you’d show up on the day of your reservation and hope for the best. Instead, you’d take great care to ensure the restaurant is fully aware so that they can prepare accordingly.
Rather than just assuming the restaurant will be able to cater for you, give them a heads up, either at the time of making the booking or at least a day in advance. This means the chef has enough time to make suitable alternate arrangements.
Be fair and reasonable with what you expect them to “vegan-ise”
While most recipes can be altered to accommodate plant-based diets, this doesn’t mean everything on the menu can have a vegan option. If a restaurant is known for its rich, creamy risotto, topped with mascarpone and generous shavings of Parmesan, it’s understandable that the chef might not be keen to “simply remove” the dairy for the vegan option because they can’t guarantee that will live up to the standards set by the original, cheesy one.
Of course, there are ways to make vegan risotto, but as long as you’ve made the restaurant aware of your dietaries, then have faith that which ever substitution you receive will be just as good as the risotto. Understand that chefs have a vision for their dishes, and not all of these can be translated into a vegan menu.
Manage your expectations
If you’re splashing out to eat at a high-end fine dining establishment, then you absolutely can expect a restaurant of that calibre to produce an impressive, fully-vegan or vegetarian menu without any issue.
If you’re eating at a small neighbourhood spot, maybe don’t expect them to have a cashew nut cheese for your pizza. Have some patience for the smaller places, they’re not always as jacked-up as the bigger and more high-end spots.
For the restaurants
Don’t combine vegetarian and vegan menus
We all know there’s a big difference between a diner who doesn’t eat meat and one who doesn’t eat any animal products. For fine dining restaurants especially, where the expectation is higher than at your local mom-and-pop cafe, conflating the vegetarian and vegan options into one feels a little lazy.
If your restaurant is serving numerous courses, you’re probably pretty well-staffed and equipped to go the extra mile with vegan and vegetarian options. Don’t deprive the veggies of some cheese just because it’s easier.
Work more vegetarian dishes into your standard menu
Particularly in South Africa, meat is king and there’s often this sentiment that a dish must have meat for it to be appreciated. Anyone who’s a fan of Ottolenghi will know this is not true and that vegetables are not only delicious but can be interesting and satisfying in their own right.
Instead of feeling caught off-guard every time a vegetarian or vegan walks in, why not experiment and put more plant-based dishes on your menu so you’re not scrambling to substitute nearly all of your menu?
Make sure you’ve tasted the entire vegan menu from start to finish
What is the biggest giveaway that the vegan option is an afterthought? When a particular ingredient or vegetable features more than once in the course of a meal. Mushrooms are a great stand-in for meaty dishes, but no one wants to eat 5 consecutive mushroom courses. Think of vegetables the same way as you would with meat. You wouldn’t serve lamb numerous times on a menu, so apply the same consideration to veggies.
Embrace it with creativity, like you would a new ingredient or cooking method
Remember when miso was the thing to use in restaurants and suddenly every chef had figured out how to use it? Instead of resenting plant-based dishes, embrace them with an open mind, as you would with a trending new ingredient or cooking method.
Look to cultures that incorporate a lot of plant-based cooking for inspiration, particularly if it works well with flavour-bomb ingredients, like miso, and you’ll have a killer veggie menu in no time.
Lastly, keep it simple
At the end of the day, don’t overthink the plant-based options. Vegan and vegetarian diners simply want to feel welcome and like someone has taken the time to consider them. Sometimes the best iteration of a vegan option is the simplest.
Don’t kill yourself to try and replicate the entire meaty menu into a veg alternative. Do what you do best with a bit of consideration and that will surely keep everyone happy. – Jess Spiro