When you choose to exclude any products that contain even traces of animal, the thought of eating out can be quite daunting. Even foods that seem innocently animal-free aren’t. For example, chips (have they been cooked in animal fat?), jelly (bound to contain gelatine), homemade pasta (there will be egg in that for sure), mushroom salad (is there cream in the dressing?) and, well, you get the picture.
Along with eating out you run the risk of being ‘awkward’. Especially if a friend has chosen the restaurant or if you have been invited out by a client, or it’s a work Christmas party. Vegan is a whole different level from vegetarian. Vegetarians often have ample choices on almost every menu, but vegans? Sometimes I think that restaurants close their eyes to these ‘sorts of people’ and just hope they never step foot on their premises. At least that was the experience that I felt in some places.
For all those people out there wondering if being vegan will end your social life, take a look at my personal experiences of eating out. Here’s a list of the best vegan-friendly restaurants in London that I tried whilst on my 30ish.me vegan challenge.
I love Ping Pong for their delicate hau gau, scallop dumplings and chicken rice bowls. I couldn’t, however, name any vegetarian, let alone vegan item on their menu. I confess, I did wonder if my night was going tò be a miserable one on the food front…
So that I was prepared (ie. would I need to have a hefty lunch), I tweeted them.
There’s a lot I could mention about the overall noise, crowd and service, but that’s for another blog, this focuses simply on their vegan-friendliness. I was handed a print out of items from the menu that I could eat. In terms of choice, it’s obviously limited, but there’s enough for a decent feast. I had the vegetable rice pot (filling), asparagus and veggie dumplings, neatly finished off with mango sorbet. Was I full? Absolutely. Was it tasty? Oh yes.
I’d heard about Coal Vaults a few weeks before I ventured there. It was a word bandied about at the office as a potential venue for one of the clients’ Christmas parties. So I was therefore pleasantly surprised when a friend announced she’d booked us in for dinner. ‘Is that ok for your vegan thing?’ She asked. ‘It’ll be fine, don’t you worry,’ I said, bravely. To be honest, ever since I’d decided to embark on a vegan challenge, my biggest worry had been ‘what would I eat on a night out?’ The reality was, I wasn’t going to starve and even more strange was that knowing I couldn’t have certain dishes, it didn’t make me want to curl up in a ball and cry. I was less attached to food than I’d previously thought!
To be on the safe side and so that I didn’t look like a dick by asking my vegan questions once I was there and so the staff weren’t put on the spot, I contacted them in the most effective way I know: Twitter. I had a prompt and reassuring reply.
On arrival, I was lucky enough to get there at the exact time they were making sugar shards. These, along with the devilled popcorn served as the perfect pre-cursor. I also, as instructed, asked for Simo. Simo is the owner. He is young (in my head, young for someone who would own a restaurant) has previous experience in the construction industry, looks a little like a seasoned boarder but who I liked instantly. He’s there almost every night and has a strong and close team around him. It’s clear everyone’s working for the same goal. Anyway, he presented me with the menu but one that had been marked in pencil with all the dishes I could eat. The vegan choices make up about a third of the menu and as everything’s cooked fresh, ingredients can easily be left out.
The chips are delicious, the squash and courgette salad delicate but my favourite was the berry crumble. Divine.
Even though I said I wasn’t going to discuss things like service etc, I highly recommend Coal Vaults. The staff are passionate about what they do, friendly and take care in all aspects from presentation to food to customer service. You also have to try their cocktail selection. They’re carefully crafted, unique and unusual. And did I mention strong? They’re also the only place I know that serve mulled white wine. And yes, it’s good.
This was a restaurant that I chose. To be honest, I initially looked at it for its TopTable deal, rather than for any vegan requirements. It wasn’t until I was at the point of booking that I realised the ‘deal’ was for the Game Tasting Menu. A quick check on their website reassured me – I was pretty sure they could whip up some simple pasta dish with garlic, olive oil and chilli.
On arrival, I mentioned that I had emailed earlier that day only to be greeted with an enthusiastic, ‘What you want, we can make. Just think of anything! Our chef is very good.’ Whilst the rest went for the tasting menu (a three course meal made up of five dishes), I requested spaghetti al aglio e oglio and agreed to our waiter’s suggestion of bruschetta for starters. Unfortunately, after speaking with the chef, it turned out the pasta was all made fresh and so contained eggs. I settled for a risotto instead. Admittedly, I did get a little food jealous when the rest of my party received their first course. However, it’s my choice to be vegan which does come with compromises. My bruschetta was tasty and I loved the surprise amuse-bouche as my second course and the risotto was perfect.
Vegan-friendly rating: 9/10
Best way to contact: Email
Where? Heddon Street, London
Whilst this is a great restaurant, it already caters for vegans but it still very much deserves a place on this list. It’s a buffet filled with around fifty dishes that are labelled vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free. There are salads, tempura, chips, tofu dishes and a good selection of puddings such as passion fruit cream (amazing) and sticky toffee pudding.
This scores highly on my list because a) it’s a buffet b) it caters for vegans c) it looks like a proper restaurant, unlike some other hippy vegan cafés I’ve been to d) there are all sorts of tricks that make you psychologically eat less and waste less food. The amount you pay depends on the weight of your plate. And because it’s self-service, going for seconds and the ‘work’ you have to put in (ie moving), means that for lazy people like me, I think twice about going up again.
The food is fresh and the selection changes every day.
Vegan-friendly rating: 10/10
Best way to contact: Phone or email
Where? Heddon Street, London
I admit, GBK is a bit of a weird one to have on this list. But I was so impressed with their accommodation that it deserves a place on this list. I was doubtful I could eat anything on their menu but on speaking to their staff and after their initial surprise and a few questions around ‘what can you eat?’, they bought out their GBK ‘bible’ and we quickly located items that I could eat. I ordered the veggie burger and sweet corn sans butter. Sadly, the chips are cooked in animal fat. Part of me wonders whether I would have been better off living in ignorance on that front.
Vegan-friendly rating: 7/10
Best way to contact: Phone or in person
Where? Branches all over the country
And the worst?
The worst place surprised me. Athenaeum is an old established private members club in Pall Mall and I would have thought that their ability to cater for vegans would have been that little bit better. I had reminded the organiser that I was vegan several days in advance and again once we arrived. My starter was a mushroom salad drizzled with a suspicious looking creamy mustard sauce. However, I thought that they must have used some kind of cream / milk substitute. However, when my main arrived (vegetables and pasta), I was most disappointed. It was obviously cream. And the pasta looked freshly made. I am even more disappointed in myself that I didn’t press the matter further; I gave up my questioning when I realised the waitress had no idea what I was talking about. I was also disappointed with myself for secretly getting off on the fact that I was having a creamy pasta! It didn’t serve me any favours and left me feeling slightly ashamed. But it has taught me that I can’t lie to myself. Not without a certain amount of guilt.
I have realised that the best thing to do is just wing it. Why disrupt plans for your, the minority, food requirements? I very much doubt that there’s a restaurant in London which cannot, in some way or another, cater for your vegan needs. This does mean, however, being prepared to settle for a bowl of vegetables in some rare cases but still, at least you have the choice. If you have previously been a full on ‘eat anything’ kind of a person, then watch out for the temptation, anger and jealousy that you’ll feel when your friends’ dishes are presented before them, rich in scent and presentation.
It is also a good idea to contact restaurants prior to your visit. Some, such as Coal Vaults and Ping Pong, were especially receptive and helpful via Twitter. Some, such as Citrus Restaurant, acknowledged my email and whilst I never had a reply as such, were prepared for my visit. This saves embarrassment and disappointment on both sides.