Advice from a Travelling Salesman

The Best Vegetarian Menu Items in Chain Restaurants for the Business Traveler

Travelling the nation as a salesperson, and a vegetarian one at that, was challenging on both the palette and waistline.  Finding that quirky vegetarian place is fun if you’re on vacation or travelling for pleasure, but it’s just not realistic in most business situations. You’re in an unfamiliar area with people you’ve maybe just met, so this is not the time to be adventurous either. You need something familiar and to be able to choose items quickly, not struggle with the menu. No need to highlight your dietary choices, just get your stuff together in advance. Just to clarify my personal definition of vegetarian: I don’t eat anything with a face. Yes to dairy, no to fish.

I’ve chosen the widest spread, mid-level chains I’ve actually taken customers to for lunch. Two types of cuisine to avoid if possible are Seafood and barbeque. Seafood restaurants generally put fish products in everything and like to surprise you with it; I’ve ordered a house salad that had shrimp in it that wasn’t on the menu. Even the water at many BBQ joints taste like it’s been hickory smoked!

The following are the best vegetarian menu options I’ve found in popular restaurant chains:

Chili’s – The black bean burger is a great choice. Very tasty. Order it with a side of broccoli rather than fries. If you’re eating with clients, ask them to cut the burger in ½ for you. Trust me, you’ll spend much less time catching Ketchup dribbling off your chin.

Cheesecake Factory – Lots of great options here, and a great place for everyone to find something they like. I like the Roasted Vegetable and Goat Cheese Pizza, and the California Omelet.

Olive Garden - Some of these have not aged well, but if you’re looking for a great budget lunch get the Minestrone Soup and Salad combination. The soup IS vegetarian, and the bread sticks are great.

Ruby Tuesday – Probably the nicest place you can eat that still has a salad bar, and it’s good. If I’m with customers though, I don’t like to leave the table over and over. You can just pick any of the delicious regular burgers they offer and substitute the veggie patty.  Tired of burgers? The Quesadilla appetizer is pretty good too.

PF Chang’s – If you can get to a PF Chang’s, just go! Plenty of tasty vegetarian options. My favorites are the Ma Po Tofu, the Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps and the Stir Fried Eggplant.

TGI Friday’s – This was one of my favorite spots, but they’ve hacked some good options off the menu. If you have to go, stop at a Subway on the way.

Applebee’s – You’re stuck with the Veggie Patch Pizza appetizer and Queso Blanco. Otherwise you’ll have to have them “hold the meat” on one the big salads.

Outback Steak House – Normally I hate to put together side dishes to make a meal, but if you’ve been meat-free for more than a month or two you’ve had to do it. At Outback though, they’ve got some great sides. Get the Garlic Mashed Potatoes and the Blue Cheese Pecan Chopped Salad.

Romano’s Macaroni Grill – A great Italian spot for lunch. Just make sure you have time for a nap after the meal as portions tend to be large and filling. I recommend the Mushroom Ravioli or the Capellini Pomodoro.

California Pizza Kitchen – I wouldn’t take a large party here, because the layout is a little inconvenient for more than 4, but just about anything on this menu is good. Plenty of options.

There are quite a few good Mexican food chains with some really satisfying vegetarian dishes, but none that I’ve found are national. My favorite regional selections are Chevy’s Fresh Mex, for their new Veggie Fajitas and On The Border, just order a veggie burritos and lot’s of extra napkins.