First of all, let me say I am well aware that many restaurants do not cater to vegetarians or vegans.
And I am also aware that sometimes, I have to eat at one of those places.
Because it’s a work function or because it’s someone’s birthday/baby shower/going away party and they (rightly) get to choose the place.
In times like those I just do the best I can. I check the menu online. I call the manager in advance (or, these days, Facebook them) and ask for them to recommend some vegan options for me. I try to keep my expectations low and just hope for something halfway decent and filling to eat, even if it’s just a couple of vegetable side dishes.
So, when I learned my company was having a going-away party at Hickory Tavern at the Metropolitan, I sprung into action. I glanced at the menu online – very meat-centric, lots of wings and burgers and that kind of thing. I noticed they did have a Veggie Burger and I sent a message to the restaurant via Facebook, asking if the burger was vegan.
To my surprise, in less than fifteen minutes I received the following extremely nice and helpful reply: “Catherine, we are very happy to here (sic) about your future visit. Our veggie burger does contain dairy product however we do have a create your own salad on our menu that would be a great option. This entree is featured in our menu. You can find a copy on our website at www.thehickorytavern.com . We’ll see you soon!”
I checked the menu again and actually became a little excited about this option. You choose a salad mix – iceburg, romaine, spinach, or an iceburg/romaine mix. Then you choose six (or more items) from the following categories: Vegetables, Fruits, Cheese, and Crunches. There were actually several choices of vegan protein, including black beans, chickpeas, almonds, and walnuts. Vegetarians could even choose to top off their salad with a veggie burger patty for $3 more.
I immediately envisioned two great options – either making a sort of Mexican salad with black beans and various veggies, or building a fruit and nut salad with pineapple chunks, mandarin oranges, grapes, strawberries, cantaloupe, walnuts, and almonds. I even made sure to pack my camera, smugly expecting to do a little post on “see, you can find good vegan food anywhere.”
Except – sometimes, you can’t.
Since I’d done my research before arriving at the restaurant, I never mentioned to our perky blonde waitress I was vegan. And I wound up “building” my own Mexican salad – iceburg/romaine mix, black beans, corn, cucumbers, kalamata olives, jalapenos, red onions, diced tomatoes, and avocado slices. I added some mandarin orange just to have a taste of fruit.
Sounds pretty tasty, no?
What I received …
First, the good. Hickory Tavern gave me at least 15 kalamata olives and they were delicious. I also had five slim slices of avocado, which is more than most restaurants will give you.
The bad? The jalapenos were pickled and there was at least a half a cup on my salad. Even I don’t like jalapenos that much. I had three sections of mandarin orange. The tomatoes were chopped in a very, very small dice but I did find one or two lurking in my lettuce leaves. I received a slightly larger portion of black beans – twenty-two black beans, to be exact – and probably a similar number of corn kernels.
I never did find any cucumbers or red onions, though.
So, for $10 ($8.50 for salad with six toppings and $.50 for each topping after that) it wasn’t much of a meal salad.
But, I could overlook that, too, and shrug it off with “well, that’s one of the things a vegan has to deal with now and then,” were it not for the dressing fiasco.
Hickory Tavern has fourteen kinds of salad dressing. I ordered a vinaigrette, since that’s usually a safe choice, and was brought a small container of something that looked suspiciously like ranch. At any rate, it was white and creamy.
I tried to get the waitress’ attention.
“Is this vinaigrette?”
I then called out several times, “Does this have dairy in it?” She basically ignored me. I understand she was busy, we were a group of nine people, but – still. One usually doesn’t keep shouting out questions about an ingredient unless one has a really good reason.
She disappeared back into the restaurant for a few minutes (we were seated on the patio), and everyone began eating but me. Finally she came back out. I managed to get her attention and she said she didn’t think the dressing had dairy. I told her I was allergic to dairy and asked her to check. She suddenly took my request a little more seriously, went back inside, and then quickly came back out with the news that yes indeed the dressing had dairy, and in fact ALL of their dressings had dairy.
All fourteen of ’em.
I would have to use the little cruets of oil and vinegar.
I have to admit I was floored. I’d never before been to a place where there wasn’t at least one dairy-free dressing. Veganism might be a little unusual and scarce; dairy allergies and lactose intolerance are fairly common. Her flip attitude was also a bit disconcerting (yes that’s vinaigrette, no it doesn’t have dairy … oh wait maybe it does … oh, yeah, ALL our dressings do … ) If I accidentally ate dairy, I’d probably “just” become very congested and get goopy, runny allergy eyes and have to wear my glasses instead of contact lenses for a day or two. But someone else, with a stronger allergy or intolerance, could become very seriously ill.
To make a long story slightly shorter, I wound up eating a bowl of lettuce with fifteen olives, five slices of avocado, three mandarin orange segments, and twenty-two black beans, all topped off with a little vinegar.
I was hungry, though, and I was none too pleased when our secondary waitress kept trying to remove my stainless steel salad bowl from the table, before I was finished. Each time she tried, my fork was actually in my hand, wavering mere inches above my bowl. So what if everyone else at the table finished ten minutes before me. I had to wait ten minutes to get an answer on my salad dressing.
The piece de resistance, though, was when our waitress tried to “sell” us on dessert. I know that’s what they’re supposed to do, waiters and waitresses are trained by the establishment to encourage diners to “add on” to the meal with drinks, appetizers, desserts. She was probably just making her standard “eye contact around the table” with everyone as she recited the dessert list. And I’m sure none of the desserts were dairy free.
Yet it was strangely surreal when she made eye contact with me right as she uttered the words:
“How about some ice cream? Just a small scoop?”