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.
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.
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.
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.