As grateful as I am to live near a vegan chinese restaurant and a pancake house that has vegan options aplenty on the menu, I have to accept that I’m going to eat at less veg-friendly places now and then. It’s something we all have to do.
On Easter I found myself at the local Olive Garden with my mother. I thought, “Pasta. It should be easy to find something on the menu.” Clicking over to the website, I saw that three options that looked safe were in fact, not. The vegetarian minestrone, the Pomodoro and Primavera sauces – all have dairy in them. I thought I’d confirm with the waiter when I got to the restaurant. The dairy in question is butter.
Fun fact: I asked my mother why they would ruin tomato sauce with butter. She tells me it’s a Sicilian thing. One more reason Italians and Sicilians don’t get along. (I am kidding, please don’t send hate mail.)
Fear not: all is not lost. You can order the garden salad with oil & vinegar on the side (the dressing isn’t vegan). Hopefully yours will not be as anemic as ours. Half a large bowl of iceberg lettuce, some tomatoes and onions, and one – ONE! – black olive at the bottom.
The breadsticks can be made vegan! Just ask for no butter on them. (I didn’t do this, because I’m sorry, but I’m not paying for my damned breadsticks.)
As for your main dish: order off menu. Once the waiter confirmed with the kitchen that they were unable to modify the sauces I mentioned above for me, I asked for whole wheat linguine with garlic and olive oil. I withheld a smirk when he asked if I wanted those on the side, and my fears that I would be getting raw garlic cloves with my meal were not needed… the dish came out as requested. Try it for yourself – maybe you can get steamed veggies with your pasta. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
While I was relieved to find I could make Olive Garden work in my vegan dining experience, I didn’t stop there. You’ve probably noticed that, on many retail receipts, there’s a link and code at the bottom asking you to take a survey. I never fill these out, but something compelled me this time (something besides my mother telling me to, I mean). That something was the opportunity to request vegan options on the Olive Garden menu.
But I also tweeted them. And they tweeted back:
Hours after I completed my survey, I received an email from the general manager of the Olive Garden I visited. As for my vegan request:
…it is something we are looking into to be able to provide more flexibility for our guests.
My point in telling you this story is that it’s worth it for vegans to speak up about vegan options at non-vegan establishments. If you’re lucky enough never to have to patron such a place, well, good on you, but that’s not my experience. You vote with your ass in their seats and your money in their tills. So take that survey. Speak to the manager. Or write them; it doesn’t have to be something long and detailed. A simple, “I’d love it if you offered vegan dishes on your menu. If you make it, we will come” let’s a restaurant know that we’re here, we’re hungry, and we’re waiting.
Editor’s Note: As is the case with many restaurants, Olive Garden’s menu occasionally changes. At the time of this update (May 2015), Olive Garden has a “Vegan & Vegetarian Menu Suggestions” list on their website, which clearly spells out what’s vegan. With any restaurant, always check for the latest information by visiting an official website or speaking with your local establishment’s staff.
How do you navigate non-vegan establishments? Share your tips; we’d love to hear!
Photo credit: JeepersMedia via Flickr