Good Food, Innovative Menu, Lousy Service

Is there a better way to review vegan restaurants?

Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash
Two restaurant reviewers on Yelp

A “vegetarian paradise”, this diner mini-chain “stays true to its mission”, providing “delicious”, eco-conscious eats (many of which are vegan too) plus “rich, flavorful” “milk-free milkshakes”; there’s a “cute staff” and the low-key atmosphere befits the budget prices, so “long lines” are the “only downside” for most.

What’s worse, many restaurants tagged as “vegan” are anything but. A search on Yelp for the best vegan restaurants in Indianapolis, Indiana, pulls up hundreds of entries, only five of which are actually vegan.


QISA (pronounced kwee-sa) stands for Quality, Innovation, Service, and Ambience. Each element is given a score of one to five with three being average, one being exceptionally bad, and five being exceptionally good. By anchoring the scale at three, one starts with the assumption that most restaurants are forgettable, neither horribly bad nor incredibly exceptional. Praise or warnings requires a nudge in either direction.

  • Innovation, which refers to both innovation and creativity. A 5-rating provides something novel or a completely new take on an old theme. A 1-rating suggests boring food.
  • Service, which means just that. Most restaurants are 3-rated, suggesting the service was adequate. I realize that this measure is highly subjective. If I have to wait too long for my food, they get my order wrong (and don’t correct it), or they are just plain rude, this will be a 2 or 1. But if they are friendly or (and I’m not proud of this) flirt with me, I might go up to a 4 or 5.
  • Ambience, which is the atmosphere and decor of the restaurant. A 3-rating suggests that I didn’t notice the ambience one way or the other. A 5-rating was transcendent. A 1-rating was uncomfortable, dirty, loud, or just plain wrong.


The restaurant’s level of vegetarianism should be clearly defined: vegan, ovo-lacto, vegan-friendly, vegetarian-friendly, vegetarian-possible, or vegetarian-antagonistic. This is an objective measure, not a crowd-sourced opinion. To be vegan-friendly, at least 10% of the main entrees must be vegan. To be vegan-possible, at least one of the main entrees must be vegan.


Describing vegan and vegetarian restaurants in concise language is challenging, particularly since every restaurant has its own distinct personality. While the menu may change daily, the overall “focus” or fundamental nature should remain consistent. Focus descriptors are meant to provide a high-level framework and context. No restaurant should require more than two descriptors.

  • COMFORT — I sometimes refer to these restaurants as “fried tofu” restaurants. Their focus is to create modern versions of comfort food standards, sometimes, but not always maintaining the high fat, high salt, and high carbs of the original.
  • ECLECTIC — Some restaurants pride themselves in exploring the borders of imagination found in vegetarian cuisine. The primary goal here is creativity, looking to either recreate standard dishes in a completely new guise or create novel dishes that combine fruits, vegetables, grains, sauces, and spices in new and exciting ways.
  • ETHNIC — These restaurants focus on a particular ethnic or cultural cuisine. Typically, the standard ingredients are heavily based on vegetables and grains that lend themselves to vegetarianism. Sometimes these cuisines are vegetarian as part of a religious or cultural code. Indian restaurants are prime examples of ethnically-focused cuisine.
  • EPICUREAN — These are your highbrow restaurants, committed to fancy ingredients, skilled preparation, and artistic flair. Vegetarianism, while strictly maintained, often takes a back seat to the gourmet experience. The owners of the establishment are not focused on saving the world; they are focused on getting the best return on investment for their cooking school tuition.
  • WELLNESS — These restaurants are committed to the health and wellness of the patrons, the planet, or, if at all possible, both. The menu or restaurant Website typically outlines the health benefits of the food, either in preparation, ingredients, or farming practices.

Medical Science Liaison in the pharma industry. Former technical writer, science writer, and market research analyst. General data enthusiast.

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