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Accomodating vegetarians

We’ve discussed vegetarianism (with admittedly broad strokes). Now we discuss how we at non-vegetarian restaurants accomodate those with vegetarian needs.

The first think that a waiter should do is have a strategy in his or her back pocket. Most restaurants can accomodate vegetarians even if they don’t explicitly provide for them on the menu. I’m sure that most vegetarians are tired of having to choose a salad as their only menu choice, so it’s a good idea for the waiter to find out from the Chef what options the waiter has to accomodate the vegetarian diner. Most restaurants don’t train for this specific point, so the clever waiter will know the ins and outs of the ingredients that the kitchen uses, and be able to advise the guest about options that might not be readily apparent. For instance, if the house marinara doesn’t include chicken stock, you can use it to build a nice vegan-approved pasta. Not every vegetarian might think of this since some restaurant marinaras have some chicken stock. And this brings up an important point – don’t just assume that something does or doesn’t have some sort of animal product just because it usually does or doesn’t. For instance, some vegetables might actually have been cooked in chicken stock or a soup might have started with a roux, which has butter as the main ingredient even if it’s advertised as a vegetable soup like a “vegetable gumbo”. Even “vegetable soups” are often chicken or beef stock-based. So, if you don’t know for sure, ask the Chef.

If you find out which things actually have absolutely no animal products, this means that it’s good for vegans as well as any other type of vegetarian. However, you will find other products that vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs can enjoy as well. For instance, the Chef might be able to quickly knock off a pasta primavera (a cream-based vegetable pasta) for many vegetarians, but not for vegans. Or the Chef might have an alternative pasta primavera that avoids dairy by using soy milk or by just making an olive oil based sauce.

Obviously, a go-to is creating a vegetable plate out of side dishes. These are often times boring plates that are tolerated by vegetarians as a “last resort” sort of thing. anything that you or your Chef can do to avoid just putting three globs of veggies on a plate will set you apart from the average restaurant. Find your Chef in a quiet moment and ask them what they would suggest as a go-to plate in the event that you have to serve a vegetarian. Tell them that you’d like to have something a notch above the average to offer. Perhaps you could play on greed by pointing out that you can get a premium price for a premium product.

One key is identifying the level of vegetarianism of the guest. Don’t assume anything. Be specific about what a guest will or will not tolerate. Sometimes you have to dig for the info. I’ve even had some “vegetarians” say that they didn’t mind that the soup had chicken stock. And I mentioned in my first post the guest who claimed to be a vegetarian and didn’t seem to even eat seafood based on her comments but,  as it turned out, was fine with seafood. You have to ask direct questions.

Yes, it’s a bit of a pain-in-the-ass to consider all of this. Yes, the Chef isn’t particularly happy to get out of the routine because anything that the kitchen has to do that doesn’t follow a set recipe has a risk of not being very good as well as throwing a little sand into the well-oiled gears that the kitchen runs on.

But think of the benefits to you and the restaurant. If you can accomodate a vegetarian in a group of diners, you send the signal that the restaurant is a quality establishment that is geared toward customer service and has a kitchen that is better than the usual cookie-cutter operation. Even if you work at Chili’s or a fancy steakhouse, you have options that you might not have considered. And by asking your Chef in advance what he or she can provide off-menu, you might be doing them a favor by getting them to have something in their back pocket as well, something that they can go-to without having to build it on the fly in the middle of the rush.  

Yes, there’s a downside to this. It might send the signal to non-vegetarians that if the Chef can do that for their friend, they can put together special dishes for them, or this gives them license to modify dishes however they want. That is certainly a risk. Plus, you don’t want to be an annoyance to the Chef.

But I think the upsides to accommodating vegetarians outweighs the inconveniences. I think it’s good policy for any restaurant to take as good care of their vegetarian clientele as they do their regular guests. If the waiter anticipates the vegetarian guest, it’s not nearly the hassle if it’s just dropped on them in the middle of the rush. The smart waiter will be prepared and won’t be thrown for a loop in the middle of the rush.


Vegetarians fall into different categories.

The strictest is the vegan movement. Partly political, partly dietary and partly a moral system, this food philosophy forbids the consumption of any animal products, animal by-products and food processed with animal products (the use of fish bladders or egg whites in the fining of wine, for instance). A true vegan extends this into other areas of life such as the wearing of leather or the avoidance of things like soap, perfumes and other products that might either utilize animal products or are a by-product of animal testing.

As strict as this sounds, there are still shades of veganism. While honey is an animal by-product, some vegans accept its use. Some vegans absolutely have to be sure that there are no animal by-products in anything that they consume or use – others don’t necessarily have to examine every point in the production of a food item because there are some food products that have incidental contact with an animal by-product and sometimes it’s just impossible to assure that no such by-products have been used. There is a sub-set of the vegan movement that promotes the exclusive consumption of only raw foods.

Some vegans are very militant – others are more into it simply as a healthy lifestyle choice.

All vegans are vegetarians, but not everyone who calls themselves “vegetarians” are vegetarians. However, many “true vegetarians” don’t consider themselves vegans, which is as much a political movement as it is a lifestyle choice. They simply avoid any animal product or by-product.

A “true vegetarian” doesn’t eat meat in any form. However, a “true vegetarian” might consume honey. It gets a little trickier when it comes to poultry “by-products” like dairy and eggs. There are lacto-ovo vegetarians who eat both dairy and eggs. there are lacto-vegetarians who eat dairy but eschew eggs (because, let’s face it, eggs are “meat”, right?) Obviously, an ovo-vegetarian will eat eggs but not dairy.

Then you have “pescetarians”. They aren’t true vegetarians for obvious reasons. Fish is meat. However, many of them consider themselves vegetarians who “happen to eat fish”.

There are “vegetarians” who don’t eat red meat but will eat chicken or pork. It is fairly rare for these folks to actually call themselves vegetarians, but I’ve actually seen it on the rare occasion. 

These various ideas about what makes one a vegetarian can make things tricky for the waiter.

In the next post, we’ll talk about what you should do as a waiter to try to accomodate vegetarians of all stripes in your restaurant.


Waiters are often confronted with the issue of vegetarianism.

I’m sure the term “issue” would be considered a pejorative term by vegetarians of all stripes. And I sympathize. But it’s the “all stripes” part that makes it an “issue”.

So, let’s stipulate that I’m not calling vegetarianism itself the issue, only the different ways that people categorize themselves as vegetarians and how restaurants that don’t primarily cater to vegetarians accomodate those that have different needs than what the menu was designed for.

This was brought home to me just last night.

I had a guest who said that she was vegetarian and wondered if we had something other than seafood or meat as an appetizer. We have a side dish that we can prepare that would work great in that context. The thing is, there’s cheese on it. So I asked her, “Is cheese a problem”? She said no. So I mentioned this special side dish that we can do and that I’ve incorporated into my normal spiel. I also asked if she’d simply like a small plate of freshly steamed or grilled vegetables. She said that she would get back to me.

What was her final choice?

Crab cake.

Yes, my head literally supn 360 degrees on my shoulders and driblets of pea soup starting dotting the walls.

In the next post, we’ll explore the different levels of vegetarianism.

After that, we’ll talk about ways that you as a waiter can help a vegetarian of any stripe receive at least an acceptable meal.

So stay tuned kids – excitement will ensue.

Thanks to for this nice image.