What makes a restaurant veggie friendly?

I've been to steakhouses which were veggie friendly and Italian restaurants which weren't. As a cook, foodie, and 15 year vegetarian, I'm a firm believer that accommodating vegetarians can be easily done by just about any restaurant. (I'd love to see every restaurant accommodate vegans too, but that's going to take more time.)

1. Knowledgeable staff
If I ask whether an item is vegetarian and the wait staff says "Um, yeah, sure it is" I start focusing on the green salads for dinner and never come back. If I ask and they answer "No, it has worscheshire sauce" I've found a new home. Vegetarians don't expect wait staff to have the ingredients memorized, but we do need the first reaction to be "I'll check with the chef" instead of a guess.

2. Minimal land mines
If the only non-vegetarian ingredient is a meat stock, why not substitute a vegetable stock? If butter is the only non-vegan ingredient, why not use margarine or an oil? I'm always astonished by the number of menus which would become veggie friendly with that simple change. Vegetarians have a wide range of experience in asking ingredient questions, so don't assume that a failure to fully interrogate the waiter means a lack of caring. When you can, make it easy on us—if a dish's description looks vegetarian, try to make sure it is. And if you've got a section labeled as "Vegetarian" on the menu, do make sure the dishes don't contain fish sauce before you make someone sick.

3. Always offering a veggie item
Try to have at least one vegetarian appetizer, salad, and entree on your menu all the time. This gives us a choice, because if the entree doesn't appeal we can always make a meal of the appetizer and salad. For casual places, note that veggie burgers are not always comfortable as we know most grills don't maintain a meat-free zone.

4. The words "vegetarian" or "vegetable stock" somewhere on the menu
When I scope out a menu, I scan for items which look vegetarian, read their descriptions, and look for footnotes. I love places that identify the type of stock in a vegetable based item (those land mines), or explicitly put "vegetarian" in the description of the entree I can eat. Some places just go with footnotes that a vegetarian menu is available or that they accommodate special diets such as vegetarian and diabetic.

5. Get a Web site
The Internet has become a life-saver for business trips because I can spend 30 minutes online and ferret out a few local restaurants which have interesting food and vegetarian options—instead of ending up at Olive Garden. Web sites don't have to be complex, all we need is a menu, hours, and location. The site also has to be visible, so make sure it's in your profile in directories such as Citysearch, Trip Advisor, local chamber of commerce sites, and reviews. If your menu changes frequently, either put a "sample menu" up or make sure your Web designer sets you up with a design that's easy to update (which they should do anyway these days). Likewise, post the menu in the window for when I'm wandering by.

For any restaurant wondering why they should bother with all this, here's the business side.

While vegetarians are few in number compared to omnivores—especially in some parts of the country—we have veto rights on restaurant selections. Yup, it's not just whether you're getting my meal, it's whether I'm bringing my friends, family, and business colleagues. True, that vegetarian entree you tried out a while back may not have been as popular as something else you could offer, but if you consistently have a vegetarian offering you become an option to a segment which would otherwise ignore your establishment. And if you can develop vegetarian entrees which are more than mixed veggies dumped on fettuccini, you'll discover the omnivores will order them too.

Also, if you're thinking all vegetarians are broke hippies, come forward a few decades. Last time I checked, broke hippies do not eat at Rover's, Cafe Flora, Wild Ginger, Carmelita, Chiso, CinCin, Vij's, Hangawi, Greens, Monsoon... Finding demographics is difficult, but here's a summary from several food industry studies.

So, did I miss anything? What makes a restaurant veggie friendly to you?

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