Some vegetarians–in an attempt to be ‘100% safe’–may make the decision to never eat out or to eat only in vegetarian restaurants. However, most vegetarians want to patronize chains that attempt to meet their needs, even though it’s possible for mistakes to be made at such establishments.
Recently, The Vegetarian Resource Group looked at offerings from the 400 largest restaurant chains in the United States. The establishments in this article appeared to make the best effort (if not always perfect) at serving vegetarians of diverse needs. If you would like to vote on your favorite restaurant chain for vegetarians, go to <www.vrg.org>. Also, you can find more than 2,000 veggie-friendly restaurants listed at our website.
When The VRG started this project, we expected to have more Italian restaurants on the list. Certainly, numerous vegetarians eat pasta and pizza, and many entrants in our college scholarship and essay contests report eating at Italian chains. However, the listings of ingredients tended to be unclear, and it appeared that cheeses sometimes contained animal rennet.
It’s unfortunate to see that salad bars in fast food chains are harder to find than they used to be. On a positive note, though, Mexican restaurants, which in the past often had lard in their food, now tend to offer meatless beans. Also, we were excited to see that Pei Wei and P.F. Chang’s label their items as vegetarian. This makes life easier for people who wouldn’t know if Chinese restaurants included chicken broth or fish sauce in their meals.
In the future, we hope more businesses offer the number of vegetarian and vegan options that Fresh Choice and Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes serve. With a little tweaking of their menus, several bread and bagel places could make our next top restaurant chains list. We look forward to even more options and clearer labeling for the growing number of people interested in vegetarian food. Still, in the end, restaurants will offer what their clientele will continue to support and buy.
And now, we present (in alphabetical order) the top vegetarian-friendly restaurants in the United States selected from the 400 largest chains.
Locations: Approximately 289 restaurants somewhat scattered throughout the U.S.
Vegetarian Menu Items: Black Bean Taco, Fajita Burrito, Guacamole, Salads, Salsa and Chips, Vegetarian Black Bean Burrito
More About Chipotle: Chipotle lists on their website which menu items are vegetarian. They do not use animal rennet in their cheeses. Their guacamole does not contain gelatin or dairy, and their sour cream does not contain gelatin. There is no L-cysteine in the company’s bread products. The black beans are animal-free, but the pinto beans are prepared with bacon. The rice, soft flour tortilla, and corn shell are free of animal products.
Chipotle is also testing a vegan veg/soy protein product for its burritos and tacos: http://www.bizjournals.com/sacramento/blog/cooking/2010/04/roseville_chipotle_tests_new_vegan_option.html
Locations: California, Texas, and Washington State
List of Menu Items That Fresh Choice Calls
More About Fresh Choice: Fresh Choice said it doesn’t claim to be a vegetarian restaurant, but its 50-foot salad bar and soup arcade is conducive to offering many vegetarian items, including tofu. They use the term ‘vegetarian’ since it’s commonly understood by the general population. The word appears on signage above the dishes. The ingredient statements are also posted above the dishes.
There is no meat in vegetarian items, but there could be eggs and dairy. Vegan items do not contain meat, eggs, or dairy. There is animal rennet in cheeses (especially cheddar, Jack, and mozzarella), and that’s why there is no vegetarian pizza. A spokesperson for the company said, if their cheeses contain animal rennet, they will not label the item as vegetarian.
A representative said the word ‘vegetarian’ has been used since the company’s beginning almost 20 years ago. At that time, they had tabbouleh and couscous salads, but they weren’t very popular. Now, since conventional stores have made them popular and have educated the public about them, Fresh Choice is offering them more and more.
The term ‘vegan’ was introduced maybe 15 years ago. Fresh Choice said,
Vegans are the most vocal to the company about what they want in a restaurant, and they have tried to meet their requests and expectations. Fresh Choice is exploring adding more vegan items. Since we started looking at their list, we noticed several
new vegan dishes with quinoa and couscous on the menu.
The company is selling more locally grown and local organic produce as fresh and in prepared salads. However, because organic laws are so strict as to how organic foods must be displayed–especially when sold next to non–organic foods–it would be difficult to market the foods as ‘organic,’ and it would be cost-prohibitive to convert every offering on their entire menu to organic.
Every item won’t be available at every location. All store locations have their own listing on the website, and those are the most current menus. Texas and Washington have their own menus, which differ from the menus at California locations.
There is no designated place in the kitchen just for vegetarian/vegan preparation apart from meat products, but there is proper sanitation between uses.
Locations: Scattered through approximately 34 states but not in California or the Northwest
Menu Items at Moe’s That the Chain Notes as Vegetarian: Art Vandalay Burrito, Instant Friend Quesadilla, Personal Trainer Salad, Ruprict Nachos, Super Kingpin Quesadilla, Unanimous Decision Taco
More About Moe’s Southwest Grill: This report is based on information from the Research &Development Department at Moe’s. All foods at Moe’s that are labeled vegetarian are customizable. This means that the menu items can be ordered without one or more components. Tofu is not listed in the items specifically labeled as ‘vegetarian.’ It can be included in any menu item upon request and substituted for any meat product.
Moe’s stated that the beans and rice contain no animal products, and they are prepared separately from meat products. All burritos, tacos, and quesadillas come with the patron’s choice of black or pinto beans. The rice at Moe’s is made with vegetable stock. The sautéed vegetables are prepared on a grill separate from meat products. The tofu is prepared on the same grill where the vegetables are prepared. The tofu does not contain any animal products, but it is marinated in the
steak marinade that does not contain any meat products.
Animal rennet is not used in any of the cheeses at Moe’s, and neither the guacamole nor the sour cream contains gelatin. None of the salsas or sauces at Moe’s contains animal ingredients. Moe’s R&D said that none of the bread products, including the chips, contains animal-derived ingredients. However, since their pans are on a ‘line,’ the chain can’t control cross-contamination by patrons (i.e., drippings of ingredients into other pans as people are serving themselves).
Locations: Scattered through approximately 17 states
Menu Items That Noodles & Company Called Vegetarian When Asked: Bangkok Curry, Buttered Noodles (cheese omitted), Chinese Chop Salad, House Marinara (cheese omitted), Indonesian Peanut Sauté, Japanese Pan Noodles (with vegetables), Penne Rosa, Thai Curry Soup, Whole Grain Tuscan Linguine (cheese omitted)
More About Noodles & Company: At Noodles & Company, vegetable broth is used to sauté vegetables and tofu, and organic tofu may be added to any dish. Each dish is custom made to order, when ordered. This
means that each dish is prepared specifically for each guest in its respective bowl or sauté pan. All of the chicken is seared on a flat top grill, separate from other meats, and the tofu is tossed into a sauté pan when added to a noodle dish, soup, or salad.
However, Noodles & Company does not label specific dishes as ‘vegetarian.’ Also, they said they do not make any claims about being vegan or having vegan dishes
because of the controversy amongst the vegan community around the use of certain ingredients like sugar.
The company’s Mushroom Stroganoff and its The Med Salad both contain sour cream with gelatin in it. They are actually making adjustments to their recipes now to include vegetarian sour cream. All of their restaurants should be providing the vegetarian version in the future. Their Pad Thai contains fish sauce and oyster sauce. Cheese may or may not contain animal rennet; not enough customers have voiced a preference. Cheese can be omitted from most dishes, though not from the pesto. The Asparagus Linguine is a seasonal offering that can be ordered without the cheese. The sauce contains dairy and wine.
Noodles & Company’s executive chef identified himself as a vegetarian and said he wanted to start a restaurant where his family could eat vegetarian meals.
Locations: Approximately 77 restaurants
Menu Items That Pei Wei Noted as Vegetarian on Its Menu: Blazing Noodles, Edamame, Honey Seared Signature Dish, Pei Wei Spring Rolls, Soba Miso Rice Bowl, Spicy Korean Signature Dish, Sweet &Sour Signature Dish, Thai Dynamite Signature Dish, Teriyaki Bowl
More About Pei Wei: Pei Wei’s menu states which dishes are vegetarian when ordered with the tofu and vegetables option. Note: Pei Wei’s vegetarian items have a vegetarian icon next to the dish. If an option doesn’t have an icon, the dish may contain an animal-derived ingredient, such as shrimp paste.
Pei Wei’s rice is prepared separately from all other foods and is free of animal ingredients. The Pad Thai is not listed as ‘vegetarian.’ This dish does not contain meat, fish, or fowl when purchased as is, but it is not listed as vegetarian because it contains egg.
Even though Pei Wei’s cookware is washed and sanitized, the company does not use the word ‘vegan’ on its menu since cookware may be used for meat one day and then for tofu the next day.
Locations: Approximately 131 locations
Menu Items Labeled as Vegetarian by the Chain:
More About P.F. Chang’s: P.F. Chang’s defines ‘vegetarian’ as containing no animal products, including no eggs or dairy. P.F. Chang’s offers vegetable dumplings (steamed and pan-fried) that contain eggs, and they are not listed as ‘vegetarian’ for this reason. The company said they are stricter than most others in their definitions. Since there are
shades of gray in the definitions of ‘vegetarian’ and ‘vegan,’ they wanted to keep it simple for everyone and choose to just use the word ‘vegetarian.’ The company uses white sugar and doesn’t claim to be vegan.
Tofu is prepared as a vegetable in either vegetable stock or vegetable oil with nothing added that is non-vegetable. P.F. Chang’s said its five-spice bean curd is firmer and has more flavor than its silken tofu. When requested, the chain can substitute crispy silken tofu for five-spice bean curd (and vice versa) in any dish. Also, patrons can request tofu as a substitute for meat in the meat dishes listed on the menu.
P.F. Chang’s uses mushroom oyster sauces in some dishes, but these are vegetarian. Forty percent of their non-vegetarian entrées have a chicken base. Their Lo Mein contains animal products, but they are working on a vegetarian sauce for lo mein, chow mein, and pan-fried noodle dishes to add to the menu in the future.
All entrées at P.F. Chang’s are served with a choice of steamed brown or white rice. The rice is prepared separately from all meat products with nothing non-vegetable added.
The company’s woks are cleaned between uses. There are color-coded cutting boards and separate cleavers to keep meat apart from vegetables. Also, there are separate areas in the kitchen for each food. The food is served
in a line in the stores. There are four to five woks in a line. The line now contains all vegetable broth.
P.F. Chang’ states they are flexible and strive to accommodate everyone and customize dishes made to order.
Locations: Approximately 250 restaurants throughout the United States
List of Menu Items That Qdoba Labels as Vegetarian: Grilled Vegetable Burrito (under Signature Burritos), Tortilla Soup, Vegetarian Burrito, Vegetarian Taco Salad, Vegetarian Taco
More About Qdoba: Qdoba said that their protocol is to have designated dishes for all food preparation (cutting boards, utensils, pans, pots, etc.) that are thoroughly cleaned every day and used for the same purpose the following day. The only pans that do rotate (cleaned thoroughly between uses) are the serving pans (used to bring food out to the serving area from the kitchen).
The company said,
The grilled vegetables are prepared on the same grill that is used for meat products; however, they are never prepared at the same time. Fajita veggies are cooked on the stovetop. The beans and the rice are prepared separately from meat products. Qdoba said that there are no animal-derived ingredients in either the beans or the rice. The company indicated that their tortillas are free of animal ingredients and that none of their bread products, including chips, contains animal ingredients. (We did not ask specifically about L-cysteine.) The fryer oil is used only for frying chips or salad bowls. No meat/egg products are cooked in the same oil.
Qdoba uses a pan release spray that contains artificial butter flavor, but it does not contain animal or dairy components. The company said,
The likelihood that our cheese contains animal-sourced rennet is highly unlikely. However, a few of our suppliers cannot guarantee that our product does not come in contact with trace amounts of animal-based rennet. There is no gelatin in either the sour cream or the guacamole.
Recipe formulations are considered standard at all Qdoba restaurants. The company noted,
There can be variations in some items, but this would not interfere with the items considered vegetarian…. There may be differences in suppliers; however, all suppliers must meet a standard specification.
Qdoba restaurants are set up so that patrons build their meals as they go along a serving area, so it is easy to leave certain components off their menu items.
Locations: Approximately 15 states but concentrated in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, and Texas
Menu Items That Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes Call Vegan:
In addition, Souplantation/Sweet Tomatoes lists 83 vegetarian items on their website.
More About Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes: Souplantation has
signs stating ‘vegetarian,’ ‘vegan,’ or ‘non-vegetarian’ posted above each menu item in the locations. The company also has a brochure available in its restaurants that lists the most commonly served menu items and provides nutritional information. The brochure contains vegetarian, vegan, and non-vegetarian labels for many items and defines the terms in the following ways:
Vegetarian: Vegetarian items may contain dairy or eggs, but no meat or meat products.
Vegan: Vegan items are made up of all plant-based foods and excludes any animal products.
On the brochure’s last page, it states,
Complete ingredient listings are available for viewing upon request. However, Souplantation said that the product information pages do not contain complete microingredient information.
In general, the rennet used in cheeses is
synthetic, but Souplantation can’t guarantee this in all cases.
Honey is not used in the company’s vegan offerings. Vegan foods are prepared separately from other foods. Dishes used for replenishing food at the buffet are cleaned between uses but could be used for meat one day and then for vegetables the next.
In general, most Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes locations are uniform in their standards, but there could be a minimal amount of variation. In emergency situations, the chain would prefer individual restaurants use supplies on hand rather than going to a local supplier.
Souplantation is in its 30th year. There are 107 stores. They do not define themselves as vegetarian or healthy, but they state that they cater to many types of customers.
Locations: 270 stores throughout the United States
Menu Items That Taco Del Mar Labels as Vegan: Mondo Vegan (tortilla, guacamole, rice, beans, lettuce, and salsa), Mondito Vegan (tortilla, guacamole, rice, beans, lettuce, and salsa)
Menu Items That Taco Del Mar Labels as Vegetarian: Cheese Quesadilla, Kid’s Burrito, Kid’s Quesadilla, Mondo Veggie, Mondito Veggie, Mondo Veggie Burrito, Mondito Veggie Burrito, Super Nacho
More About Taco Del Mar: Taco Del Mar steams their long-grain rice apart from meat products, and their rice does not contain animal ingredients. This chain offers black, pinto, and refried beans, none of which contains lard. Their guacamole and sour cream do not contain gelatin, and there is no animal rennet in their Jack cheese. Their tortillas do not contain whey.
Taco Del Mar’s enchilada sauce used to contain fish extract, but it no longer does. This may not be noted in all of their literature.
The company usually has one prep table in the back kitchen and trains its team members and franchisees to
prep ‘like’ items at one time/sanitize the work surface/prep next item.
There are differences in both ingredients and suppliers between the United States and Canada. Also, there will be regional menu variations.
With some clarifications/modifications, these restaurants are future contenders for this list.
Bakers Drive Thru, which serves Mexican and American cuisine at 36 locations in California, features a separate vegetarian section on their website and even offers TVP in some of their dishes. However, as of this writing, we were unable to receive specific answers to some questions that vegetarians may have.
Taco Bell is a convenient restaurant that can be found almost anywhere in the United States and has been a lifesaver for many traveling vegetarians. They will easily serve bean burritos and tacos without the cheese (Fresco Menu). Also, the company has stated and has clearly indicated on its website that there is no lard in the beans. However, there is some concern and/or confusion because, periodically, local employees have told their patrons that the beans are not vegetarian.
Uno Chicago Grill has a separate vegetarian section on their website and an array of options, such as a veggie burger (not vegan), roasted vegetables, pizza with spinach, and soups. It should be noted that those who care about cheese containing animal rennet should make sure to order pizza crusts that have not been sprinkled with cheese.
Special thanks to VRG Restaurant Guide and Membership Manager Sonja Helman, VRG Dietetic Intern Melanie Campbell, VRG Co-Coordinator Charles Stahler, and VRG Research Director Jeanne Yacoubou for their contributions to this article.
The contents of this website and our other publications, including Vegetarian Journal, are not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional. We often depend on product and ingredient information from company statements. It is impossible to be 100% sure about a statement, info can change, people have different views, and mistakes can be made. Please use your own best judgment about whether a product is suitable for you. To be sure, do further research or confirmation on your own.
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