Posted by: barbaraneill | February 17, 2012

Vegetarian ‘Choices’


When is a choice not a choice? More often than not, when you are a vegetarian eating out.

I’ve been a vegetarian for well over thirty years and, admittedly, there has been considerable improvement in ‘vegetarian awareness’ since I took the plunge in the seventies. However, in these enlightened times, I am still amazed to see how little choice there is available, in some restaurants, to vegetarian customers; yes, customers; (remember the days when the customer was “always right”?)

In the seventies, vegetarians were treated as something of an oddity. It seemed incredulous to most meat-eaters that anyone could survive on a diet without it, let alone actually enjoy their food. I remember being dragged into countless discussions on the speculation that cabbages scream as they are pulled out of the ground, and the fact that I didn’t look quite skinny or pale enough to be a vegetarian, as well as being told once, “I couldn’t be a vegetarian; I like my food too much”!

I also remember, vividly, having to phone restaurants in advance to ask if they could cater for a vegetarian and being ‘reassured’ that chef could rustle up an omelette! In fairness, I also found that some of the better restaurants, when faced with the dilemma of catering for a vegetarian, amongst a party of workers looking forward to their annual Christmas Dinner, were only too pleased to break the mould and provide a very artistic and tasty-looking vegetable platter. “What do you have to do to get one of those?” I was asked, on more than one occasion, by my carnivorous colleagues.

With regard to the exceptional restaurants of the seventies, I’ll never forget the time I was with a party of friends, out for lunch in an American-style diner in Rochester High Street, in Kent. I decided to let everyone else order first as I knew my order would be ‘difficult’. I asked for what amounted to a cheeseburger, with chips, side salad and relishes, but no burger. I was amazed when the waiter asked me if I was a vegetarian because it was unusual to find anyone, even in restaurants, who could easily cope with the concept. When I affirmed that I was, indeed, a vegetarian, he asked me whether or not I ate eggs and, if so, would I like one with my meal. I declined, as it happens, but was delighted to have been given the option. One of my friends, now also a vegetarian, asked me how it felt to be treated like a customer rather than a problem.

Why, then, all these years later, is it still considered acceptable to offer an extremely limited vegetarian ‘choice’ that amounts to just a tiny percentage of some menus. In some cases, the vegetarian ‘choice’ is the only vegetarian option available so, while our meat-eating companions can quite happily browse a varied selection of dishes, we are stuck with whatever the restaurant decides a vegetarian should eat, regardless of the fact that we, too, are paying customers.

Even the excellent value ‘meal deals’ in local supermarkets, in which a main course, side dish, dessert and a bottle of wine can be purchased for £10.00, will usually offer about eight choices of meat-based main courses and only one vegetarian dish. So it’s hard luck if the one available dish happens to be something we don’t like!

Do these menu planners not realise that vegetarian dishes can also be eaten by meat-eaters? 

There’s no doubt that, in the thirty-odd years that I’ve been a vegetarian, awareness has developed considerably, but there is also no doubt that there’s still a very long way to go.


  1. As a once-vegan, now fish-but-no-meat eater, I sympathise and feel frustrated in equal measure. Coming down to Devon (with ‘trendy’ Totnes and high-brow Dartington only a stone’s throw away), I imagined I’d be spoilt for choice, vege-food wise. Totally wrong. I would counter that there is less choice and understanding nowadays than there was in the eminently more aware 80s and 90s.

    Perhaps living in chips-with-everything Dawlish doesn’t help: on the rare occasion a new foodie joint opens, complete with some vaguely exciting departure from the usual burgers/gammon/roast everything suspects, its menu has reverted to bog standard fare within weeks. Those down here – in these parts at least – wouldn’t recognise an artichoke if it whopped them on the head (or smiled and held out a welcoming handshake, even).

    But even in more enlightened parts, the vegetarian option (note the singular) invariably consists of pasta, cheese and tomato in some dressed-up guise. The more adventurous chef might include the addition of wholly unsuitable veg in a ‘Vegetarian Lasagne’ (carrots, anyone?). Imagine a world instead where the menu offered perhaps Mushroom, Leek and Wild Rice Parcels, Courgettes Farcies aux Mousserons, and Toasted Cashew Nut and Red Wine Moussaka among others – oh, and Meat Pie or Meat Pasta for the carnivores. The afterthought. If they’re lucky, there might even be a Meat Omelette up for grabs.

    My major gripe is that it rarely occurs to restaurateurs that their meat-eating clientele are at least able to eat vegetarian options. And heaven forbid they might actually enjoy them! (My Chestnut Mushroom and Puy Lentil Lasagne recipe is on regular request from meat-eating friends as unsuspecting carnivores love it and don’t even realise it’s meat free). The downside is at an event or conference when I ask catering staff to point out what is vegetarian – and find inevitably (assuming they even know) that it gets wolfed down by those with omnivorous tastes, leaving the ‘no-meat-please’ among us consigned to the wilting lettuce leaves. I’ve had to take a catering manager to task for providing a magnificent display of food for everybody else – but little for the veggies among us*. “But there’s salad… and there’s pasta’ she stuttered, ‘… and bread rolls and a rice, er, salad” she added, warming to the theme. “But no protein,” I pointed out. “No eggs, no cheese, no lentils or beans…” She’s a catering manager! She should know! (*As a fish-eater I only usually refer to myself as a vegetarian when in unintelligent company, and don’t make mention of the F word.)

    We would do well to take a leaf out of the Italians’ traditional eating habits. While they may well eat anything that once moved, they are equally adept at creating fabulous dishes celebrating the fabulous flavours of the aforementioned artichoke (think antipasti), figs with gorgonzola, Tuscan bean stew, risotto with asparagus, spinach cannelloni, polenta with fontina cheese, marinated aubergine slices … all standard fare for its nations so-called ‘meat-eaters’.

    Until our caterers – not just in restaurants, but in schools, the work-place canteen, our hospitals and prisons – wake up to what fabulous foodstuffs are out there to be feasted upon, we all miss out. And some more than others.

    • Some very good points raised in your comment and, of course, it would make perfect sense for caterers to provide a much larger selection of vegetarian food that can, after all, be enjoyed by meat-eaters too.

      Incidentally, I’m a great fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall, who became enlightened to the pleasures of vegetarian cuisine when he gave up eating meat for five months, thus liberating him from his previous meat-eaters’ “prejudices”, which he found to be “groundless”. As a result, he produced an excellent book, “River Cottage Veg Every Day” and accompanying TV series.

      River Cottage website

  2. I am also surprised by the lack of Vegetarian options in restaurants/cafes. I now dread going out to them, as I never know if they serve decent vegetarian food. I haven’ actually eaten out since becoming a vegetarian in January this year.

    • It’s great to find a really good restaurant that caters for veggies, and I don’t just mean a couple of options added to the menu, almost as an afterthought. Maybe we should post details of restaurants that actually do remember to treat vegetarians as customers!

      • Thanks, Helena, for the suggesting ways to avoid pasta and cheese (regardless of my diet, I’m a ‘strict vegetarian’ from now on!). The South West Green Party cookbook (in which I’ve got an entry) has three pages worth of vegetarian, vegan and veggie/vegan friendly eateries across the Southwest. Am happy to supply details if of use.

        Meanwhile, I can heartily recommend Cafe Maitreya in Bristol (mostly vegan when I was there) – it’s in the least auspicious of Bristol back streets but folk travel from miles around to eat there. Closer to home (I’m writing this in deepest Devonshire), we’ve got Willow in Totnes, Cranks at nearby Dartington Cider Press Centre and Herbies in Exeter – all are vegetarian/vegan, with not a hint of dead animal on the menu. Wonderful when you’re spoilt for choice.

        Herbies, incidentally, provided a respite and a sense of sanity from the impending horror of the maternity wards when I was expecting. I gave my body an internal ‘cleanse’ after each weekly antenatal visit, this proving doubly necessary when it looked like my desperately wanted home birth was slipping away: this breech baby wasn’t going to turn. And when mild pre-eclampsia was diagnosed, and I was ordered to collect a night bag from home, then check in for an overnight stay, all I could muster was ‘Can we go and eat in Herbies, first?’ (Subsequently, and after being berated for staying out for so long, my blood pressure went down and I managed to persuade them to let me go home for good. The healing powers of ‘proper’ vege food, eh!)

      • I know a restaurant/cafe that caters for vegetarians and vegans. The Rainbow Cafe. It is in Cambridge, a city near me. I have never been there, but I will definitely go sometime.

  3. The “cheese-with-everything” attitude to veggies annoys me, because not all cheese IS vegetarian! And some of it gives me a headache for days. I have found that when I go on a course and am asked in advance about what to eat, that I get the best food by requesting “wheat free and dairy free”. The best food to ask for on a flight is “Indian vegetarian” or “strict vegetarian”. you don’t get pasta and cheese that way! I don’t eat out in restaurants often because of the recession, but if I did, I’d probably get the best options at Stroud’s own Star Anise Cafe. This is a place that is perfectly at home with the concept of veggie (it’s all vegetarian) and wheat/dairy free.
    For cooking at home. I love Two Greedy Italians (the book of the TV series, available for about £5 at The Book People), and I have found that BBC Good food website has increased my confidence at home cooking. Also loved Hugh F-W’s River Cottage veggie experiment.

  4. I cheered as I read this, and im sorry its taken me so long to comment, but you are utterly correct in your observances! I recently went to a restaurant where only 2 dishes were veggie One had heaps of tomatoes in it (to which I am allergic!) the other was VERY spicy (and it didn’t tell me, so I couldn’t eat that either!)

    I went for a posh meal, at a very posh place last year, and i got served risotto. That’s as in Tomato with risotto rice. That was IT. Nothing else. Yes I was disgusted and no I wont be going back!!! whyyyyy do chef’s not think out of the box? why are Veggies considered “awkward”? it really annoys me, I feel penalised for not eating meat, and actually I don’t eat it because it doesn’t like me.

    I could go on, but I wont, though I will add that not every veggie adores tomatoes, and it seems to be the mainstay of most veggie meals.

    Ok rant over, but YAY and well done for such a brilliant post!!!!

  5. Reblogged this on Her Spirit Within and commented:
    a brilliant post, well worth a read!!!!

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