Having spent 35 years eating out as a vegan, gone are the days when people would look at me as though I had just landed from outer space.
At that time, just being a vegetarian was thought to be strange enough and restaurants were getting their heads around courgettes and tomatoes in cheese sauce which, for a long-time, was the height of sophistication on vegetarian menus.
We’ve come on leaps and bounds with food in this country, not just for vegetarians and vegans but our cuisine has improved tenfold, in general, and, through the popularity of annual events like Veganuary, the vegan movement is steadily growing and savvy restaurants have woken up to the fact that they need to offer vegan options.
That said, the same common problems still occur over and over again.
So, here are six ways that restaurants can improve:
I worry about having vegan food prepared in non-vegan kitchens. Food hygiene rules should prevent cross-contamination, but we must accept it happens. Hands go from meat and dairy to handling vegetables.
The staff doing it often don’t even give it a second thought as they’re mainly focused on the end result, i.e. a meal served without meat or dairy. But restaurants need to have a clear policy that vegan meals are prepared at a separate station so there’s no opportunity for cross-contamination.
A big, big no, is frying vegan food in fryers that also fry meat and fish products. If restaurants are doing this the customer needs to know so they can make an informed decision. This needs to be clearly identified on the menu.
While genuine mistakes do happen, what’s completely unacceptable is that some people in hospitality still think it’s funny to sneak non-vegan ingredients into meals served to vegans. Butter in vegetables where they think you won’t notice is common.
I have lost count of the number of times I have enquired if vegetables are cooked or dressed in butter, only to be told they weren’t but when they arrived they were so obviously cooked in butter.
I always ask for butter to be replaced with oil. That’s why eating out in Italian restaurants is a winner for vegans because for every dish where the British cook will reach for the butter, an Italian will always gravitate towards olive oil.
Offering vegan menu items that are similar to non-vegan items can result in confusion amongst staff. I ordered a vegan margarita pizza recently which came with cheese. The problem was there was a vegan and non-vegan margherita on the menu and they looked the same.
The vegan dish needs to look and sound completely different and serving it on different plates goes a long way to cutting down on genuine mistakes by the staff.
Coffees can be a minefield. I have lost count of the number of times I have taken a sip of my soya latte only to discover it was made with milk. Yes, people can make mistakes and the server can easily just take the wrong drink.
But, again, having different cups for soya milk drinks and milk would hugely minimise the chances of the wrong drinks arriving. It’s so obvious and easy to sort this.
Vegans make a lot of effort trying to make meals tasty. There are so many ways common items on a menu in a non-vegan restaurant could easily be
Just removing meat, fish, and cheese from a dish and not substituting something else but still charging the same is, to say the least, annoying. A plate of vegetables is often smothered in butter to give it more flavour. It’s not fair to just remove the butter and give a vegan a boring plate of boiled veg.
There are lots of ways to add flavour, all it takes is a bit of thought. If I order a salad with the feta removed, I really appreciate when a restaurant
then adds more alternatives such as olives, sun-dried tomatoes, seeds, asparagus, broccoli - anything really that complements the dish.
It’s very likely that market trends will force restaurants to up their game in meeting the needs of people who abstain from eating animal products in the coming years. There are currently around 22 million flexitarians in the UK, those who enjoy meat but want to reduce their meat consumption.
Currently, I have a very small list of vegan-friendly restaurants that I like to visit and my wish is to see that grow into a very long list.
• Louise Palmer-Masterton is founder of multiple award-winning restaurant Stem + Glory; a popular and accessible plant-based restaurant, serving delicious gourmet vegan food from locally sourced ingredients. The restaurants also have an extensive vegan bar, offering the best craft beers and fine wines, alongside cocktails, mocktails and smart drinks.