I don't eat out on a regular basis because 1.) I'd rather eat at home and know what's in my food 2.) it's cheaper to not eat out and 3.) I love cooking so it doesn't bother me to make a meal or three in a day. That's not to say that I don't eat out ever. I go out with friends often enough and some of my family members eat out almost everyday of the week. Just because I stay away from animal products doesn't mean that I can't go out and enjoy time with my friends and family over a meal. Over the last year I've become more and more adept at making it work for me and my son when we do go out.
One great resource I have that I'd love to share is my iPhone's app called VeganXpress. It has TONS of restaurants listed and what vegan options there are. Also included are snacks (junk food) and beer. Not that I drink often, but now I can pick a beer or snack that's cruelty free. I'm aware that not all people have iPhone's which clearly means you MUST get one. Ha!
Another super simple resource is to just google whatever the restaurant is and something along the lines of "vegan options". Many times you'll get the research someone else has already done. Obviously you'd need to double check the accuracy of the information to make sure it's not outdated, but I've had lots of success doing google searches.
Lastly, picking up the phone and speaking to a manager or owner often is a great way to get right to the heart of the matter. I've had several managers go into the kitchen and look at packages for me which I find to be extremely excellent customer service.
Certain type of restaurants are also excellent choices for someone who's eliminated animal products. Sushi restaurants are a great place. People are often surprised when I say that but it's so easy! I order veggie sushi either with cucumber or avocado, a bowl of miso soup (I always ask if it's miso based broth, just in case), a simple seaweed salad and sometimes veggie fried rice with no egg. Not all at once, though, those are just my many options.
Many "home style" restaurants are a good place to eat also. I request steamed veggies and a bowl of fruit and maybe a side salad. Some buffet places can accommodate you as well but most of their veggies are swimming in butter so I usually stick with a salad and rice if it's vegan.
Sandwich shops and pizza places are a good places also. Subway and Quizno's make a mean veggie sandwich. Just make sure to ask if the bread contains and eggs or milk. I've had good success at some local pizza places also. Often times the thin crust contains no "offending" ingredients" so I order a thin crust, extra sauce, extra veggie, no cheese pizza. Once you take all the cholesterol-laden cheese away you're left with a tasty, healthy meal option.
Mexican places can be a great place to eat vegan. Chips, salsa and guacamole (usually) are all A OK. I always ask the server if there's lard in the beans or chicken stock in the rice and if there is then I get corn tortillas, fajita veggies, salsa and pico and go to town. I eat like a queen at Mexican places. Italian, too! Some bread are safe and many of the pastas are. Nothing is better than a tasty bread with some olive oil, vinegar and pepper. Zomg.
There are some places, AHEM T.G.I Friday's I'm talking to you!, that have nothing but a wimpy salad and an order of french fries for us vegans. In that case I eat the wimpy salad and ask for extra tomatoes and other veggie toppings, a light dressing and fries and just work out a tad harder at the gym that day. When I come across a place that could easily add a few menu items for someone like me I always ask the server to pass along my request.
Most places are willing to accommodate a request if you ask nicely and be very specific about your request. A little flirting never hurt, either.
Happy eating out, vegan style!