Home cooking has its benefits, but sometimes you'd really like for someone else to worry about dinner (and the dishes). I need this relief a few times a month, but want to be able to fully relax knowing I'm living up to my zero waste standards, so I've developed a few techniques to eat out in zero waste style.
The first, and most important thing is to eat at a local, independent establishment. National food chains have centralized national shipping centers, which means your food spends months in plastic packaging either in transit or waiting to be in transit. Franchises often pay their workers poorly, are slow to change, and will usually put making a profit above any other considerations. I still occasionally eat at national brand places, but it means more work to make things zero waste on my end, and a lot of feedback to get them to change the waste practices on their end.
Eating at a local joint doesn't automatically mean you'll have a zero waste meal, but it does mean your suggestions will be more easily heard, and that workers will have more liberty to fulfill your requests. There's also a better chance that their employees are fairly treated and compensated--not a zero waste issue, but just a good thing in general.
The second step to eating out in zero waste style is to bring along a few reusable containers and utensils (and possibly even some condiments). This will eliminate your need for styrofoam to-go boxes, plastic forks, and flimsy paper napkins. I like to carry a home-made utensil kit with me (including a napkin, metal silverware, and a glass straw), but there are several ready-to-buy options as well. I also usually carry a bento box and small metal container with me to hold any leftovers I might come across. I use these for other things as well, like collecting compostable garbage I find throughout my day, impromptu and package-free purchases, or gathering found objects for art supplies. I realize that I am a bag lady though, and that few people regularly carry a purse as large as mine, so it will likely be more practical for you to pack an eating-out kit and leave it in your trunk, by the door, or next to your shopping kit.
Lastly, you'll want to change your mindset about eating out. Growing up, going to a restaurant was a great treat reserved for only a few times a year. I eat out more often than that now, but still view it as a special pleasure. I anticipate it, plan for it, and imagine the delicious food I'll enjoy at least a week before going out. This means that when the special day finally comes, I don't forget my reusables, I've mentally prepared myself to refuse the plastic straw, utensils rolled in a paper napkin, and other disposables, and I've pre-written a letter (either on paper or in my head) thanking the establishment for the experience, commending what they did well, and suggesting that they consider composting, locally sourcing ingredients, and eliminating disposables.
I also take care to go on a non-busy day, maybe even at a non-busy time, so that my questions and requests don't bog down the staff during a rush or when they're more likely to be stressed. Tuesdays are considered some of the best days to eat out, as most chefs take Monday off and come back refreshed and ready to enjoy cooking. It's also the day when the food is dependably the highest quality, as expired things get tossed Sunday night or Monday morning (rather than made into stew or Sunday brunch).
On a side note, I know that sometimes I just want to grab something quickly to feed myself and my family without any trouble or thought. These nights usually come when I've been busy doing chores and running errands, and realize on my way home that it's nine at night and I haven't eaten all day. In these cases my go-to restaurants are pizza places and In-n-Out Burger. With pizza, especially carry-out, I know the only garbage is the compostable cardboard box (it's not recyclable because of the pizza grease). None of the places near me include the little plastic table anymore, but at your pizza joint you may need to request that it be left out. I also go to In-n-Out burger because they pay their workers a fair wage, are family owned, don't use frozen pre-made stuff, and pack most of their food in cardboard and paper, making it easy to compost the waste. These aren't ideal solutions, but when it comes to being cranky, hungry, stressed, and unprepared or having some compost to deal with, I always choose to deal with the compost. It keeps me sane and happy, which are two of the most important tools for having a zero waste lifestyle.
Eating out in zero waste style doesn't take more planning than any other nice meal or zero waste shopping trip would. Of course the first few times I tried it I made mistakes, but there's a learning curve in anything, and mistakes are just indicators of what doesn't work. So grab a few Tupperware, your favorite fork, and go out to your favorite restaurant tonight; your sense of taste won't waste any of it.
First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index