Top 10 restaurant choices for vegetarians

Years ago, dining at a chain restaurant for vegetarians or vegans meant a wilted salad made from discarded lettuce and tomatoes that didn't look pretty enough to go on a cheeseburger, or you might get a plate of steamed vegetables with no seasoning. But in recent years that has drastically changed. In 2008, a study conducted by The Vegetarian Times showed that 7.3 million Americans were vegetarians and an additional 22.8 million followed a "vegetarian-inclined" diet. Those numbers haven't changed a lot — in the last 20 years, the number of Americans claiming to live a vegetarian lifestyle has remained at about five percent.

But the numbers of products available to vegetarians has exploded. In 2017, the sale of vegetarian products was more than $3.1 billion. And that change is not limited to grocery stores. While a lot of chain restaurants have a long way to go when it comes to supporting vegetarians (we're looking at you, McDonald's), there are a slew of places that have tasty veggie options on their menus and cater to vegetarians and vegans.

Taco Bell

Taco Bell hands down is the top chain restaurant choice for vegetarians. Yes, the company that once rolled out a chalupa with a "taco shell" made of chicken is also the best place for vegetarians to dine when they're not in the mood to cook for themselves. Taco Bell was the first fast food restaurant to be certified by the American Vegetarian Association.

And you don't have to spend 30 minutes at the register making changes in your order to make the perfect vegetarian meal happen. Taco Bell actually has a vegetarian menu that is jaw-droppingly awesome. According to their site, there are now over 5.7 million vegetarian combinations available at Taco Bell, and 13 items that have been certified by the AVA. It's a veggie-lover's dream!

Chipotle

In recent years, Chipotle has had some struggles. It's certainly hard for the once king of fast-casual Mexican restaurants to come back after several high-profile E. coli outbreaks. Even though the CDC suspects the problem was tainted produce, Chipotle is still a prime choice for vegetarians because pretty much anything they offer can suit a meat-free diet. Plus, if you forgo the meat, you won't hear the famous "guac is extra" line when you ask for it on your bowl or in your burrito.

When Chipotle began to roll out sofritas in 2013, the game changed for vegetarians and vegans eating at the chain. Chipotle's sofritas consists of pieces of fried and shredded organic Hodo Soy tofu braised in chipotle peppers and poblano peppers, then cooked with tomatoes, onions, and a variety of spices. It is absolutely delicious, but some people think it's a way for Chipotle to make more money off vegetarians, because sofritas cost as much as adding meat to your meal. Sure, it costs extra, but it's also a tasty way to get more protein in.

Noodles & Company

This popular pasta-based chain (more than 450 locations) offers a variety of Asian- and Italian-inspired noodle dishes for vegetarians. Tofu can be substituted for meats in most dishes or can be added to meatless dishes. For vegetarians, I recommend the penne rosa — penne pasta tossed in a spicy tomato cream wine sauce with roasted mushrooms, fresh spinach, tomatoes, and feta or Parmesan cheese. Go for the feta; it adds a little more depth to the dish. Another vegan-friendly option? The Japanese pan noodles are made with caramelized udon noodles, soy sauce, broccoli, carrots, shiitake mushrooms, sprouts, black sesame seeds, and cilantro.

Subway

Subway has been pushing its healthy menu options down the gullet of the fast food eating masses for well over a decade and by far the healthiest items on their menu are the Veggie Delite sandwich and Veggie Delite salad which are obviously safe for vegetarians to eat. Subway sets itself apart from other sandwich chains with its bread choices, which increase the flavor profile of a veggie-only sandwich.

Many Subway locations also offer a veggie patty and frequently roll out vegetarian-friendly sandwiches like the falafel launched in 2013. Sure, most people thought it tasted like sawdust, but effort counts for a little.

Hardee's and Carl's Jr.

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hardee's or Carl's Jr? Probably overtly sexual advertisements with babes in bikinis chowing down on ridiculously large burgers. But believe it or not, the chain that thought it would be a good idea to top a burger with a hot dog and potato chips is one of the best options for vegetarians when their meat-eating friends and family want to drag them to a burger chain.

According to the folks at Hack the Menu, Hardee's and Carl's Jr. launched Veg It in 2016, which basically means that anyone can order a burger sans meat or substitute the meat for a veggie patty. Like Subway, the veggie patty is not available at all Hardee's and Carl's Jr. locations so it's best to find out if your preferred location has it ahead of time. But just because the chain offers vegetarian options, it doesn't necessarily mean they're healthy. The guacamole meatless Monster Thickburger is a calorie bomb with 46 grams of fat.

Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation

Sweet Tomatoes and Souplantation are excellent choices for not only vegetarians, but vegans as well. The soup and salad buffet chain's mission statement says "eating fresh, healthy, wholesome food is an important part of leading a well-balanced life." Its menus certainly reflect that with a wide range of salads, soups, and pasta dishes suitable for vegetarians. Most of the items are rotating, with veggie-only options always in the mix. This is one restaurant chain where a vegetarian can pig out without getting bored. Unfortunately, the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2016 and will be closing some underperforming locations, so get there while you can to try to keep your local branch open.

Panera Bread

Everybody's favorite cozy place to mooch Wi-Fi pays close attention to the needs of vegetarians with a multitude of breakfast, lunch, and snack items on a dedicated menu. I've been a customer for years, and I can't think of a single time I ordered something with meat there. For me, it's always gotta be an asiago cheese bagel with roasted vegetable cream cheese.

If you're a vegetarian who craves variety, there are several options for you at Panera including the avocado and egg white breakfast sandwich, the tomato mozzarella flatbread, and the vegetarian black bean soup. Because the vegetarian menu relies heavily on egg and cheese products, vegans might find navigating Panera a little difficult, but the chain does have a very limited menu for vegans as well.

Moe's Southwest Grill

In the past year, Moe's Southwest Grill has taken the crown away from Chipotle as the reigning king of fast-casual Mexican restaurants. Some would say Chipotle's E. coli woes had something to do with it, but it could just be Moe's delicious queso and the fact that you get free chips and salsa with every meal. Moe's has made a commitment to fresh ingredients, and all its burritos, bowls, tacos, and quesadillas can be prepared with organic tofu. Moe's is also vegan friendly, uses only soybean oil and vegetable stock, and doesn't put gelatin in its guacamole. Who knew that some restaurants put gelatin in their guacamole? Apparently it's used as a stabilizer in some guacamole recipes, but if you're eating at Moe's you'll know it's made fresh.

Qdoba

If we compare the top three fast-casual Mexican restaurants to members of Destiny's Child, Chipotle would be Beyoncé, Moe's would be Kelly Rowland, and Qdoba would be Michelle Williams. Qdoba is often the forgotten fast-casual Mexican restaurant, but Serious Eats says Qdoba gives Chipotle and Moe's a run for their money when it comes to a jam-packed veggie burrito. Qdoba's star ingredients for its veggie burrito aren't your standard tofu or guacamole, but rather grilled squash and zucchini. Like the competition, customers at Qdoba can fully customize their meals, but what sets Qdoba apart is that guacamole and queso are always free to add to an entree.

Pei Wei

While P.F. Chang's offers several vegetarian dishes like the very spicy ma po tofu, stir-fried eggplant, and the Buddha's Feast, it's P.F. Chang's more casual sister restaurant, Pei Wei, that shines as an excellent choice for vegetarians and vegans craving Asian-inspired cuisine. Like most fast-casual restaurants, Pei Wei's meals are fully customizable and tofu can be added to any meal to replace meat-based protein. An unlikely hero on the menu at Pei Wei is the edamame hummus, but be aware that the vegetable spring rolls are cooked in the same fryer as pork egg rolls and crab wontons.