8 Tips for Finding the Best Vegan Food When Eating Out

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In the not too distant past, vegan dining at most restaurants was limited mainly to a side salad. Today, options for vegan food can mean anything from a fried "chicken" sandwich with mashed potatoes, mayo, and gravy to spicy baked "scallops," which are torched tableside. With so many options, how are you supposed to know where to find the best vegan food?

Since Tim Moore—better known as Instagram foodie star “VeganFatKid”—samples more new vegan food than just about anyone, Mental Floss spoke with him to get his advice. We also spoke with restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, who owns some of New York City's most successful high-end vegan restaurants, including Avant Garden, Mother of Pearl, and Ladybird, to get his perspective on what makes a great vegan restaurant. Here are their tips.

1. DOWNLOAD THE HAPPY COW APP.

Happy Cow, which was founded in 1999, is like Yelp for vegan food, with both a website and mobile app. Users rate vegan restaurants, as well as restaurants with vegan and vegetarian options, and can select different filters depending on what you’re looking for. It’s never a bad idea to cross-check a restaurant on Happy Cow with Yelp, since a place that may have a high rating on one site might prove lackluster on another (though they usually match up pretty well). It's an especially useful tool for when you're traveling, too.

2. ASK LOCAL VEGANS.

It might seem like common sense, but some people overlook one great resource that's right in front of them: other vegans. DeRossi says it's always a smart idea to ask any local vegans to share their favorite spots. Even if you’re just visiting a city, you’re likely to find a passionate vegan community on Facebook or another online forum that will be eager to tell you where to eat.

“A good bet would be to ask a vegan who has lived the lifestyle for many years," DeRossi tells Mental Floss. "They have probably experienced it all and can provide you with some guidance." Follow some vegan foodies on Instagram in your area. Chances are, if you're seeing the same restaurant show up in your social media feed again and again, there’s a good reason people are posting about it.

3. THINK BEYOND AMERICAN CUISINE.


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That tofu vegetable Panang curry and chana masala you’re already ordering on Seamless? Chances are they’re already vegan. By far some of the best vegan food you’ll find might not be at a vegan restaurant at all—it will be so-called “ethnic cuisine.” In general, East and South Asian cuisines offer a wide range of vegan options, since those culinary cultures are historically mostly plant-based anyway. Ethiopian food is also easy to eat vegan, and if you live in a neighborhood with Caribbean food, Ital cuisine is usually entirely vegan.

At East Asian restaurants, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean eateries, you will need to ask whether a seemingly veg dish includes fish sauce or egg. At South Asian restaurants, including Indian spots, just make sure there’s no ghee or paneer in your dish. 

4. KNOW WHETHER YOU'D LIKE YOUR MEAL TO MIMIC CARNIVORE FOOD.

For some vegans, dishes that mimic classic comfort foods are a great sign. For others, not so much. “Many new vegans find comfort in meat alternatives, since they are similar in taste and texture to the meat products they've been used to,” DeRossi says. “For some vegans, naming certain dishes after the original meat dish may be a turn off. It's all up to personal preference at the end of the day.”

Moore loves veganized dishes like jackfruit "carnitas," macadamia nut cheese pizza, and buttery vegan croissants. “Eating is a very emotional activity for so many of us, so if a restaurant can tap into that connection and cruelty-free our comfort foods, then that really gets me excited,” he says.

These plant-based alternatives tend to be just as rich, salty, and sweet as their non-vegan counterparts, so if you’re looking for healthier foods, remember that “vegan” does not always mean “healthy.” If you want super-healthy vegan food, look for cuisines like Buddhist, raw, and macrobiotic.

5. GIVE EXTRA POINTS TO RESTAURANTS WITH HOUSEMADE SUBSTITUTES.

If you’re going out for vegan pizza, for example, prioritize a place that makes its own nut cheese, rather than a restaurant that uses a store-bought vegan cheese. Same goes for any processed substitutes: though they can still be tasty, they aren’t as fresh and don’t taste quite as good (restaurants should always be able to tell you what vegan substitutes consist of, and whether they are made in-house).

“If your restaurant is too reliant on store-bought products such as faux meats, sauces, and bought cheeses, then I'm going to be less inclined to eat there," Moore says. "Sure, you don't need to bake your own bread or anything (cooler if you did), but I want to get a sense of your individual passion and personality through your own handcrafted food."

6. CUTTING INGREDIENTS DOES NOT COUNT AS A GOOD "VEGAN" OPTION.


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If a restaurant’s solution to “having a vegan option” is simply a Cobb salad without the cheese, bacon, and egg, that's a bad sign. A good restaurant—even a non-vegan restaurant—should have vegan options that stand alone and look filling and creative, not like a sad consolation prize. 

“I want to see more than sides, bowls, and vegetable platters,” Moore says. “I'm looking for creative choices designed to showcase the many unrestricted ways in which we can enjoy a plant-based diet. It's not about what you ‘lose’ going vegan, it's all about what you gain.”

That means the marker of a great vegan restaurant—or a restaurant with great vegan options—is creativity. “So you wrap your vegan Big Mac inside a cheesy Quesadilla? OK, I'm in," Moore says. "If the restaurant is grabbing my imagination as well as my taste buds, then chances are they're getting my business (and probably an Instagram post or two).”

7. IF YOU SPLURGE, MAKE SURE IT'S ON A PLACE THAT KEEPS IT SEASONAL.

If a vegan restaurant is on the pricier side, that plant-based meal better be using some quality produce.

“For a nicer night out, I'm looking for a complete dining experience before I drop some serious coin. Atmosphere and service all play a part, but again, I look for housemade ingredients on the menu,” Moore says. “I don't want a $25 entree to have store-bought faux meats, and at that price point, I'm expecting organic and locally-sourced produce.”

DeRossi agrees—and he should know, since he specializes in high-end vegan cuisine. “If you plan on splurging on a night out, I would suggest checking the quality of ingredients they use. If you have the luxury of eating natural, organic, and sustainable food, that is well worth the price tag, in my opinion.” A high-end vegan restaurant should prioritize their vegetables, always; that means seasonal menus that rotate and local, organic produce.

8. LOOK FOR RISK-TAKERS. 


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A great vegan restaurant is going to take risks—and not apologize for it.

“Whether it's your Grandma's famous chipotle dressing or the way you add Sriracha to a donut or the fact that you lit the dish on fire at my table, making memorable dishes should be the goal,” Moore says. “There's nothing worse to me than a boring dish and hearing someone at the table utter the dreaded phrase ‘I could've made this at home.’ A good restaurant will fill your stomach, a great one will also fill your mind.”

When considering a menu, ask yourself if you could make most of the dishes yourself; if the answer is yes, you're probably better off trying somewhere more adventurous. Dining out is all about having fun—any good restaurant, vegan or otherwise, should have a sense of whimsy and joy about it.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
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If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
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Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
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Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
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In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

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An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.