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Salad Days: Waitress: 'You want me to hold the chicken, huh?'--'Five Easy Pieces.'

Veggie Etiquette for the 21st Century

Vegetarians love food. Vegetarians are hungry. With that in mind, here are five gentle suggestions for making restaurants more veggie-appealing.

By Elisa Camahort

I rarely do straight restaurant reviews in this column. Every now and then I write about restaurants, but usually there's some theme, and I've sought out some place to eat that matches the theme. Usually the restaurants are nonvegetarian. If you're like me, then you're a vegetarian surrounded by carnivorous family, friends and co-workers. So, if you're like me, you spend most of your eating-out time (and dollars) at nonvegetarian restaurants. I consider it my solemn duty to let veggies know how they're going to be treated at the regular restaurants they may frequent.

Truth be told, lots of the feedback ends up being about what could have been done better--how they forget to mention bacon in the salad or how they made vegetable pasta with a chicken broth­based sauce. I thought it would be nice to outline instead the Top 5 things restaurants can do to be veggie-friendly. In no particular order, here they are:

1. Thorough ingredient details in the menu. I'd really rather not have to ask if this was made with chicken broth or if that had bacon bits on it. List ingredients in appropriate detail. No one really enjoys being a high-maintenance Sally, a la When Harry Met Sally--listing your key ingredients means no one has to be. And it means no dishes sent back either.

2. Prompt, respectful, think-ahead service--which is always a plus, especially when it's a question for the kitchen. It's kind of sad that it's a pleasant surprise, but when a waiter goes back to the kitchen with some question the menu didn't cover and returns almost immediately with the answer, it's almost shocking. I'll let you in on a secret. If a waiter takes too long, so much so that you have to ask twice, when he or she then quickly returns with the answer, I don't always believe they really checked! Not good. I also think it's great when a waiter immediately takes in the fact that you're a vegetarian and starts proactively checking with you about certain requirements, or making intelligent substitutions. Vegetarians should be treated like anyone else with a dietary need, not like a hassle. (Well, of course no patron should be treated like a hassle.)

3. No vegetarian tokenism! All I'm asking is why doesn't every restaurant have more than one option for a vegetarian diner? It's so exciting when I actually have more than one dish to choose from--even better when it's more than one appetizer choice and more than one entree choice. Sometimes it seems like restaurants don't think they can charge good money if they don't throw meat products into every dish--even salads! It is entirely possible to build half your menu to be vegetarian without sacrificing flavor or creativity. I wish more restaurants would try it.

4. Reasonable prices, because vegetarians care about value, too. I don't mind paying for a good meal, but when you throw limp steamed vegetables in front of me and want to charge as much as you do for the average meat-laden entree, I get cranky. Or would it hurt you to offer meat-free versions of dishes at a slight discount? I end up paying full price even when I'm ordering a chicken quesadilla without the chicken. It really doesn't encourage me to return!

5. Flavor without heaviness. Sometimes it seems like vegetarian entrees only come in two styles: bland and healthy or heavy and cheesy. And neither of those styles are really big on flavor. Of course many Asian-based ethnic restaurants have this one nailed: they serve vegetable and/or tofu dishes with the same seasonings as their meat dishes. I just wish your average American or European restaurant would approach it the same way. There's more to life than tomato sauce and melted cheese.

The restaurants I most want to return to are the ones that offer me all of the same benefits they offer their nonvegetarian customers: variety, value, flavor, service. The concepts are definitely not rocket science, but the idea that you should apply those concepts to your vegetarian patrons seems to be hard for some to grasp. I can tell you that when I find restaurants, even nonvegetarian restaurants, that can deliver those benefits to both my Carnivorous Significant Other and Vegetarian Me, that's a place to which I return over and over. It can and should be done.

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From the April 13-20, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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