Unfamiliar restaurants can sometimes be a traumatic experience for vegans. This is not our fault, even though it's sometimes framed to look like it is. I'm not demanding that all restaurants carry a supply of Gardein and make fresh cashew cheese for us. But I also really don't think it's too much to ask that dishes that don't require animal products (french fries, salads, vegetable pastas) don't have them. Unfortunately that's just not the case in a lot of establishments. It's even worse at restaurants that rely on pre-made and label-less items and have staff that can tell you that they don't think something has butter in it, but they don't actually know because they honestly have no way of knowing.
I'm vegan by choice but I know a lot of people who follow a plant-based diet because of severe allergies and it's for them that I get particularly irked in these instances. If I, through misguidance, accidently eat something with dairy in it I will live and experience little physical repercussion. Although if I did find out about it (as I have in the past), I would (and have been) right pissed off at the resto for a long time. Still, it's a lot more serious when someone who physically cannot have a certain food item has that certain food item because ingredients aren't made explicit.
I don't mean this as a jab to Williamsburg Arms or any restaurant for that matter. It's just sadly an accepted component of our society: as a collective, we don't care what's in our food. So restaurants have no reason to tell us.
I have a list of "safe" restaurants that I typically stick to because they are courteous enough to offer vegan options and don't treat me like a social deviant when I order them. All the same, there's a need to branch out sometimes, particularly when you're not the one picking the restaurant. I stick by my statement that vegans can eat almost anywhere, and this is how I handle it.
My "Unknown Restaurant" Protocol is as follows:
1) I always call the unfamiliar restaurant in advance and ask if they have anything vegan. I do this especially if I'm going with a group of people, so as to not hold up the ordering process once we're all seated. Maybe someday the restaurant standard will call for adequate labels of all dishes for ease of ordering, but until then, a five minute phone call never hurt anybody. I like to do this in advance because in my experience, I've found that you're more likely to get a straight answer if you're asking your questions ahead of time and not while your server is struggling to remember every person in the room's specific requests. Servers work hard, juggling so many different demands and requirements, and I think that helping them out a bit by analyzing your options in advance is the fair thing to do. Also, I've found that many restaurants that do not typically have vegan options will make something vegan for you as long as you give them adequate time to prepare (i.e. sooner than when you're sitting at one of their tables).
2) You will, at some point in your veganism, run into a restaurant that has no idea what is in its food. It's inevitable. A lot of restaurants rely on frozen, pre-packaged items sent from head offices and a lot of times these don't come with labels. I could rant and rave about this all day long, but it doesn't change that this is a 2011 fact of life. When this happens I usually avoid the restaurant entirely.
This isn't always an option, though. Sometimes you have to go to an Unknown Restaurant for work or some sort of family-oriented thing. Sometimes you go to an Unknown Restaurant to celebrate a friend's birthday or recent achievement. Just because you're vegan doesn't mean you shouldn't or can't go, it just may mean that you have to eat before. Or that you have to play a little Vegan Russian Roulette with the menu.
I've done both. I suppose "stricter" vegans may argue with my methods, and in the early days of my veganism I may have argued with my methods too.
This does not mean that I just order whatever and hope for the best. I can't stress that enough. It also doesn't give excuse to eat whatever random thing and then throw my hands in the air and say "Oh my God I didn't realize this three-cheese pasta had cheese in it!". Taking this route means that I analyze the menu as critically as I can (with the help of staff and Google) and look for my safest options - items in which it would be really, really weird to have meat or dairy. Typically this means steering clear of gluten too, in order to avoid potential egg product. The truth is a lot of places serve vegan food, they are just hesitant to guarantee that it is free of animal product.
My methods are not foolproof. God knows they put some really messed up animal products in things for no reason. I suppose in that sense my methods may be controversial - but the once or twice a year that I have to use them doesn't ruffle my feathers too much. For me, veganism has always been about intent - if you try everything in your power to avoid animal products and you somehow end up consuming one anyway, it has nothing to do with your veganism. It has to do with everyone else's lack there of. It's not something I think anyone should ever beat themselves up over, regardless of what the Vegan Police might say. Agonizing and quibbling over things like this is just not how I do veganism.
Honestly, I've found that most of the restaurants that we visit (chain or otherwise) are more than accommodating and helpful in terms of finding or creating vegan options for us, regardless of what's on the menu.
I put my methods to the test at a friend's birthday party at Williamsburg Arms this past weekend. We got a basket of plain waffle fries and then stuck with the Indian curry section of the menu. We got the vegetable plate, which is channa and ali gobi with basmati rice. It sounded safe and definitely tasted safe, completely meat-free, and I've never heard of anyone putting dairy in channa or ali gobi. Although stranger things have happened, I guess, so order with caution. One thing is for sure - their veggie burger is not vegan. They also have plenty of beer that you for sure can have if all this is making your head spin.
1187 Fischer Hallman Road