It’s been three weeks since I bit the nutri-bullet and agreed to take Peta’s 30-day vegan pledge.
While the first fortnight was all about finding my feet as a vegan, trying all the vegan meat and dairy alternatives on the market, turning my hand to some vegan home-cooking and loading up on supplements (as recommended by vegans and nutritionists alike); the third week has been all about eating out as a vegan.
It’s all well and good being able to source interesting products from specialist shops- but what happens when you nip out for an impromptu post-work meal, or get the hunger pangs nowhere near Wholefoods?
So I decided (along with my boyfriend, Ryan, who has also taken the pledge) to spend a week testing what was on offer – from vegetarian restaurants to classic high street chains.
Here’s what we found:
Nipping out for lunch….
It might be that I’m just overly cautious, but I’ve felt the need to pre-plan food a lot more since I've become vegan. I’ve mostly opted for packed lunches for ease, but it can be tricky to do that every day while you’re rushing out the house in the morning, half-dressed and armed with a mascara brush. Occasionally you have to accept defeat and just buy lunch.
Itsu has substantial vegan offerings, and a clear chart to let you know what is and what isn’t included in each dish. Their potsus and maki rolls have been great and I'm a big fan – but I exhausted that early on and, as Ryan pointed out “it’s too expensive for every day eating.”
Pret offers some good vegan options. They do a few soups and salads and a decent vegan sandwich. Word on the corrugated floor is that they’re expanding their range of vegan offerings, too. My only criticism would be that the vegan sign is identical to the vegetarian sign and you have to push all the other people out of the way to squint at the words to determine which is which: more reading of labels.
One morning rushing out the house (not to self: wake up earlier) I thought I’d nip into the local supermarket to grab something to eat. There was absolutely nothing – croissants and pastries are all made with butter, and even the granola bars were made with honey. The cashier offered me a banana and pointed me towards their ‘free from’ section, which offered only green pesto, gluten-free pasta and something else unsuitable I don’t recall that was unsuitable. I was not impressed.
After a few days grabbing lunch on the go, I did start to tire of the options. Even though I was pleased to find that there were options - and that it’s by no means impossible - I felt that they were still quite limited and, as someone who adores food, I felt that more could be done. Vegan on the go wasn’t always quite the walk in the park I’d hoped it would be.
Wining and dining…
So I decided to go upmarket and see what was happening in London's sit-down restaurants (sadly I was limited by geography).
I went out for a Friday night catch-up with a friend at Tibits. Tibits is a chic self-service vegetarian restaurant that offers a delicious range of foods, from curries to salads to British classics like bangers and mash.
If you make it to pudding without stuffing yourself to the brim (which I’m ashamed to say I never have), then there’s lots on offer there, too. What I love about Tibits is that nothing’s boring. People often assume that as a veggie you’re automatically a health freak (more on that later), and offer clean eating ad nausea. Tibits doesn’t do that: there’s something for everyone and there are meat alternatives galore, so you really feel like you’re getting your teeth into something.
When it came to vegan offerings, they were brilliant. Everything was clearly marked, so there was no need to consult anyone or approach options with caution. And the options were delicious- I didn’t feel at all like I was missing out. They even serve a range of vegan wines and beers which were all the more delicious when I knew they weren’t made from animals.
They also do Vegan Tuesdays where everything on offer is vegan. Nice one, Tibits.
Continuing to err on the side of caution, my second meal out was also to a vegetarian restaurant. Mildreds is famous among veggies and omnivores alike, for serving delicious food (no vegetarian prefix necessary). But how did they fare when it came to the vegans?
The nice thing about vegetarian restaurants is that they’re already one step ahead.
Mildred’s had some great dishes on offer: a mushroom and ale pie, and a beetroot burger. Both were great and we topped it all off with vegan ice cream – so creamy we had to check with the waitress twice that we hadn’t accidentally been served the non-vegan one: "I can't believe it's not ice cream" we said.
Known for its experimental approach to vegetarian cuisine, I was keen to see what Vanilla Black had on offer for vegans. I went along with Sascha from Peta - my vegan support guru. On arrival, we were automatically handed two vegan menus, no fussing required. Extremely refreshing.
Alongside starters and side dishes, Vanilla Black offered two main meals: fried and pickled mushrooms with a sweetcorn pureé, and a soft ‘cheese’ with chard. We ordered both and hoovered them up without them even touching our lips. Delicious.
One of my favourite quick-eat restaurants, I was a little nervous at the thought of not being able to visit Wagamama as a vegan- but how wrong I was.
On arrival, I told our waiter I was vegan and he whipped out a handy folder which explained everything from gluten-free to nut allergies and, bien sur, vegan options. Thrilled to discover my go-to Pad Thai could be easily altered to remove the egg to make it vegan, I ordered it without so much as looking at the other options (of which there were many).
Pizza? As a vegan? I hear you ask. Certain I was about to out-smart the high street with my vegan requirements, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Pizza Express were several steps ahead of me. They already have an 100% vegan pizza on the menu (all their bases are dairy-free).
Called the Pianta and introduced in 2014, the vegan pizza includes rocket, mushrooms, pine kernels and artichokes with Arrabbiata sauce.
The chain also encourage visitors to order any of the vegetarian pizza options without cheese, and if you bring in your own vegan cheese, the chefs will add it to a pizza of your choice.
There was some mild confusion over which starters were suitable for vegans, though. After double-checking with the waiter a few times about their risotto ingredients and discovering the inclusion of cream, I realised the only options were olives, bread and a simple salad. It might be because I live for the Pizza Express garlic butter and their legendary dressing, but I felt a little like I was missing out there.
Either way, everyone was hugely accommodating and welcomed us in without making us feel like fusspots.
Some thoughts after eating out as a vegan
I was pleased to discover that most places offer vegan options. It’s certainly involving a bit more planning than before, because it can be tricky to pop into a shop and find something fulfilling – as was the case with my local supermarket – but in general if you look or ask, you will usually find something.
I have found, however, that even if I do always find something to eat, it’s often not what I’d really like to eat. As I mentioned above, people often assume that by ‘vegan’ you mean ‘healthy’ ‘clean’ or ‘I’m on a diet’, which is not the case for everyone. Ryan says: “Everything’s cold and raw. Why is everything so healthy? Can’t they just make it nice?”
And I have to say I (partially) agree with him. I’m not suggesting fresh clean salads aren’t delicious – in fact, I love a good salad – but sometimes you just want some good old dirty junk food.
Of course there are a lot of vegan snacks and chocolate offerings out there (which I will investigate next week), but in terms of going out to eat there is occasionally a lack of naughtiness which can leave meals being a little, well… boring.
6 Things I've learned eating out as a vegan...
1) Always Google ingredients. A surprising amount of restaurants aren’t certain what is and what isn’t vegan. This applies to watering holes, too, and can result in a lot of too-ing and fro-ing. (Side note: why are there animal ingredients in beer?)
2) Most restaurants will be able to provide something for you – or adapt an existing recipe to make it vegan. If they don’t adapt, take your business elsewhere, I say. It’s 2016, guys.
3) Having said that, vegetarian restaurants would be my recommendation for vegans. It might sound obvious, but although you can find a selection of veggie options in regular restaurants, you’re less likely to be satisfied by the vegan choices in them. Starting at an already veggie place gives you a running start. Three I didn’t mention above that are brilliant: The Gate in Hammersmith, Acorn in Bath and Persepolis in Peckham.
4) If you’re on to go, it’s usually easier to have your own food at the ready. You will always find something out there to eat, but it’s more difficult to be completely satisfied with your choices unless you are passing by a specialist shop. Most supermarkets still have a long way to go...
5) Vegan doesn’t have to mean ‘clean’. Ryan discovered early on, to his delight, that MacDonalds fries are vegan. High vegan five.