I’m sick of restaurants only offering vegan menu options instead of vegetarian meals

Just because you’ve elected to give up meat, that doesn’t mean you’ve decided against all other delicious animal products. Helen Coffey rages against the new trend for eateries taking the one-size-fits-all (diets) approach

Wednesday 06 March 2024 11:52 GMT
Vegetarians don’t necessarily want to order a vegan option
Vegetarians don’t necessarily want to order a vegan option (Getty)

Let me start by saying this: I have nothing against vegans. Some of my best friends are vegan. (Well, maybe not best friends. Second-tier, certainly.)

I wish them well in all their endeavours. Above all, I wish them to be well-catered for when they go out for dinner. But here’s the thing: I am not vegan. And I also want to be well-catered for when I go out for dinner. Is that really too much to ask?

The growing trend of restaurants offering just one meat-free option that caters to all – vegetarians and vegans alike – has not only provoked a profound resentment within me, but sparked a lively and heated debate on social media. Restaurant critic and sometime MasterChef: The Professionals judge Jay Rayner recently tweeted about the phenomenon, saying: “Just had an email from a reader who is a vegetarian. Complaining about too much vegan food on menus. And asking for my sympathy and support. I intend to think very seriously about this issue.”

His post swiftly garnered more than 400 responses. While some couldn’t see the issue – “OK but vegetarians can eat vegan food? Seems that vegan is a suitable safety net for a restaurant to have” – others echoed my sentiments.

“I’m with them. I don’t love meat; bring back the f***ing cheese,” replied author and journalist Sophie Heawood.

I couldn’t agree more (including the swears).

I first stopped eating meat around eight years ago. Various factors played a part: a pescatarian live-in boyfriend at the time; a good friend who had started an ethical lifestyle blog who would tell me, eloquently and often, about the environmental impact of meat-eating and industrial farming. Largely vegetarian these days, I sometimes eat fish, too. I am well aware that veganism is the superior choice when it comes to carbon reduction – and I hope, someday in the not-too-distant future, I’ll be ready to take that next step. I’m not there yet though.

Is it too much to ask for mac and cheese to include cheese? (iStock)

The reason I’ve managed to go this long without eating meat (other than the occasional drunken slip-up in McDonald’s at 2am) is that, for me, cutting it out has felt simple and achievable. By contrast, when I’ve previously tried going vegan, I’ve lasted all of 10 days before I get too frustrated by just how much forward-planning and imagination are needed to make it feasible, and too fed up by the sub-par alternatives to my favourite foods of cheese and eggs to make it enjoyable. It always induces me to throw in the towel completely and spectacularly, inspiring a powerful urge to order a chicken burger simply out of spite.

My current dietary choice is rooted in the classic climate change mantra: don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Not eating meat is better than eating meat. For now, I’m sticking with the thing that’s less likely to prompt me to order that chicken burger.

This robbing of choice is exactly the kind of thing that nudges people back to their carnivore ways

It’s why, long before Rayner’s tweet, I was already guilty of chewing my friends’ ears off on multiple occasions when out for a meal where the only vegetarian options were also vegan. The example that most aggressively stoked my ire in recent months was a restaurant that served two mac and cheese dishes: one with meat, one with vegan cheese. With the best will in the world, even vegans will admit that, at present, there is no plant-based cheese alternative – or “cheeze”, should I say – that can compare to the real deal. I adore mac and cheese; it is one of life’s greatest joys. I want it to be rich, and creamy, and cheesy – and very much non-vegan. As someone who doesn’t eat meat, I hate that my only option is to settle for a pale imitation, simply because the chef is too lazy to create dishes for various dietary requirements.

Because that, in my humble opinion, is what it boils down to: laziness. The modern equivalent to 15 years ago, when my life-long vegetarian friend would bemoan the fact that the only option on the menu would inevitably be a goat’s cheese tart or goat’s cheese risotto (goat’s cheese being the single foodstuff she cannot abide). So, now I am bemoaning restaurants’ lack of care in doling out purely plant-based alternatives instead of bothering to offer separate dishes. Just because everyone can eat something, it doesn’t mean they want to. This robbing of choice is exactly the kind of thing that nudges people back to their carnivore ways – if it’s deciding between that or mac and “cheeze”, it’s clear which would be the more appealing.

Like I said: I’ve got no beef with vegans, if you’ll pardon the pun. It’s restaurants who’ve used them as an excuse to cannibalise my menu options that I take issue with. When it comes right down to it, taking the one-size-fits-all (diets) approach does a disservice to both kinds of diner – and makes it harder than ever to resist that spite-fuelled chicken burger.

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