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Eating Vegan at Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chili’s

Jason Hughes
Published by Jason Hughes
Fact checked by Markus Oliver, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: May 14, 2022

It can sometimes be really challenging to maintain a vegan diet when eating out. Without preparing your meals yourself, how are you supposed to ensure that all the ingredients used are vegan? This guide has you covered, as we take a close look at vegan menu options at five popular restaurant chains including Applebee’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili’s, Cracker Barrel, and Red Lobster. Using the information here, you'll have several go-to options whether you're dining out close to home or while you're traveling — one of the most difficult situations to stick with a vegan diet.

In this article, we also point out some sneaky "red flag" ingredients to watch out for, in addition to offering vegan menu options. So, who's hungry? Let's get into it!

Whether you’re new to the vegan lifestyle or a seasoned veteran, you already know that maintaining your stringent diet standards can be challenging. From paying closer attention to nutrition labels to getting creative in the kitchen to avoid food ruts, it's critical that you remain diligent when it comes to your meals. This is especially true when eating out at a restaurant.

Dining out is something almost everyone does from time to time. Whether you’re celebrating a special occasion with your family or significant other, grabbing a quick bite on the run, or socializing with friends or co-workers, you’ll need a plan for maintaining your vegan diet. Here are some tips to help you stay the course.

Tips for Eating Out as a Vegan

We've all heard the (extremely accurate) saying, "Those who fail to plan, plan to fail." When you’re dining out or getting take-out food, consider the following tips:

  • Do Your Homework. Thanks to the internet, most restaurants today publish their menus online. Once you've decided on a place to eat, look it up ahead of time and scan the menu, keeping your eyes open for icons or symbols denoting vegan dishes. You can also call the restaurant and inquire about plant-based, animal-free menu items.
  • Talk to a Server, Host, or Manager. Some restaurants ask patrons expressly about allergies or dietary restrictions, but you can take the initiative and ask your server, host, or manager about vegan options. Don’t assume that the person you're speaking to knows the difference between vegan and vegetarian items; instead, be patient and be prepared to explain certain aspects, such as not being able to eat eggs. Some vegans also prefer to stretch the truth a bit and say that they're actually allergic to non-vegan items such as meat, eggs, dairy, cheese, etc.
  • Look to the “Side.” Side dishes are sometimes vegan or can easily be made vegan upon request. For example, vegetable side dishes are often sauteed or roasted in butter or cream by default, but you may be able to substitute olive oil or have them steamed instead. As a bonus, you may be able to create an entire meal out of side dishes, saving some money.
  • Have a Go-To Vegan-Friendly Eatery. Maintain a personal shortlist of restaurants with vegan-friendly menu items so that when a craving hits or you receive a last-minute dinner invitation, you're armed with easy options.
  • Make Smart Substitutes. Think about the various items available and come up with substitution requests in advance. As an example, marinara and salsa are usually vegan-friendly alternatives to dairy-based dips and sauces.
  • Consider Food Preparation. Be aware that some vegan dishes are prepared on the same surfaces as non-vegan options. Ask if vegan items are prepared in separate areas and decide on your comfort level in advance.

Not every restaurant is the same, and neither is every occasion for eating out; however, keeping these tips in mind can help you maintain your diet (and sanity) at restaurants.

Popular Restaurants and the Best Vegan Items on the Menu

Sticking to a vegan diet is significantly easier when you know what to expect. Here’s a look at several options at some of the most popular national chain restaurants.

Applebee’s

Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill + Bar is a casual dining chain that seems to have locations everywhere, making it an excellent option for just about anywhere you may be.

The restaurant offers classic American fare and defines vegan as being free of animal products and byproducts including meat, rennet, eggs, dairy, and honey. Fortunately, there are quite a few vegan options at Applebee's.

  • Brew Pub Pretzels
  • Guacamole and Chips
  • Strawberry Balsamic Chicken Salad*
  • Breadsticks with Marinara Sauce
  • Southwest Chicken Bowl*
  • Tex-Mex Lime Shrimp Bowl*
  • Impossible Cheeseburger (no cheese)
  • Potatoes: Baked Potato (no sour cream or butter) and Fries
  • Steamed Broccoli (no butter)
  • House Salad with Italian Dressing or Lemon Olive Oil Vinaigrette

*If you substitute an Impossible patty for poultry

Buffalo Wild Wings

Buffalo Wild Wings is a casual dining chain popular with diners who like chicken wings. They do actually have numerous animal-free, plant-based options to satisfy your cravings and fuel your gains.

Note: Many BWW locations fry food in beef fat, so inquire about oil or cooking method alternatives (e.g. baking vs. frying) when ordering vegan options at Buffalo Wild Wings.

  • Everything Pretzel Knots (no cheese or honey mustard dressing)
  • Asian Zing Cauliflower Wings (no dressing; request baked, not fried)
  • Southwest Black Bean Burger (no cheese or dressing; request alternate side to fries)
  • Garden Salad with White Wine Vinaigrette (no cheese or croutons)
  • Classic Chicken Salad (no chicken, ask for extra veggies with vegan sauce)
  • Sides: side garden salad with white wine vinaigrette (no cheese or croutons), carrots and celery sticks, mandarin oranges
  • Sauces/Dressings: Salsa, Guacamole or Avocado Smash, Ketchup, Mustard, Marinara, Korean BBQ, Blazin’, Sweet BBQ, Teriyaki, Wild Sauce, Mango Habanero, Hot, Caribbean Jerk, White Wine Vinaigrette

Chilli’s

Chili’s is another casual dining restaurant featuring mostly American fare with a Southwestern spin. Vegan options at Chili's are limited to appetizers, side dishes, and salads.

  • Bottomless Tortilla Chips with Salsa
  • Chips and Tableside Guacamole (Unprepared)
  • Chips and Fresh Guacamole (Prepared)
  • French Fries
  • Fried Pickle Chips (no dressing)
  • Sides: Mexican Rice and Beans, Flour Tortillas (inquire, as they may be made with lard), Corn on the Cob (no butter), Pineapple, Mandarin Oranges, Steamed Broccoli, Side House Salad, Garlic Dill Pickles, Black Beans, Grilled Asparagus, Avocado Slices

Cracker Barrel

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store offers a Southern-inspired country menu heavy on comfort food and breakfast items. While you'll have to skip almost all entrees, there are several vegan options at Cracker Barrel.

  • Coarse-ground grits
  • Impossible sausage (may share cooking surfaces with meats)
  • Fresh apple slices or seasonal fruit
  • Multigrain toast
  • English muffin (plain)
  • Sweet Pepper and Red Skin Hash (plain)
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Salads (skip cheese, croutons, eggs, and dairy-based dressings)
  • Dressings/Sauces: Fat-free Italian, Balsamic Herb Vinaigrette, Ketchup, BBQ
  • Toppings: 100% pure natural syrup, blueberry syrup, sugar-free syrup, and low-sugar fruit spread

Note that Cracker Barrel’s fried items such as steak fries and breaded okra are reportedly fried in lard, an animal fat.

Red Lobster

Red Lobster is a familiar family restaurant offering primarily seafood dishes. Because of this, vegan options at Red Lobster are unsurprisingly limited to side dishes. Be sure to inquire specifically about food preparation, as some items may be cooked in butter.

  • Baked potato (no toppings)
  • Sea-salt french fries
  • Fruit cup
  • Quinoa rice
  • Crispy Brussels sprouts
  • Seasoned fresh broccoli
  • Side salad with Champagne Vinaigrette (no cheese, egg, or croutons)

What Foods You Should Keep an Eye Out For

Watch out for the following non-vegan ingredients when dining out at a restaurant. These are often used as "filler" ingredients, so it's easy to overlook them.

Gelatin

Commonly used as a thickening or gelling agent, gelatin comes from collagen in animal body parts. It is usually colorless, tasteless, and translucent.

Honey

While honey may not be an animal-based product by strict definition, the production of honey usually involves exploitation of bees. If you have ethical or environmental reasons for being vegan, avoid honey.

Isinglass

Derived from the air bladders of fish, isinglass is a type of collagen sometimes used to clarify or stabilize beer and wine.

Milk byproducts

Casein is a protein derived from animal milk that is sometimes used as filler in non-dairy products. It's also present in many protein powders, so outside of restaurants, take extra care when shopping for protein supplements.

FAQs

How do you eat vegan at a steakhouse?

Stick to vegetables, plain (dressing-free) garden salads, plain baked potatoes, or pasta with marinara sauce. Confirm food preparation methods with a server or manager before ordering.

What is the best fast food restaurant for vegans?

While fast food options vary regionally, a good starting point is to look for places that offer Impossible or Beyond Meat products.

Can bread be vegan?

Yes, the essential ingredients for creating bread dough are flour, water, salt, and yeast, a type of fungus — all vegan-friendly ingredients.


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