the deal is this: i work in midtown. and i'm sure, know for a fact even, that i am not the only vegan stuck working and lunching in the meat-loving lands of the east 50's. there are solutions to clean lunch here, but you have to look hard to find them.
somehow, e. 53rd street between 3rd and 2nd avenues is a little oasis of good food. there's bunchberries, which at first appears to be just like all the other bodega/deli things in midtown. except that their "salad bar" has items like grilled tofu and pasta dishes with no cheese on them. and sometimes they have vegan muffins and cookies, which are quite good. they also have a nice seating area with windows in the back showing the world's tiniest back yard... it's cute.
there's also marakesh, a sit-down restaurant that serves middle eastern and mexican food. i wouldn't suggest the mexican, but the middle eastern stuff is great - standards like falafel, babaganouj, hummus, and vegetarian stuffed grapeleaves.
oddly enough, it's located just below organic harvest. while it is a little pricy, their menu is almost entirely vegan and the food is great. not much of a seating area, o.h. is more of a takeout place.
i've heard it rumored that there's a vegan food cart in these parts, but i haven't found him yet. i do know that there's a fantastic juice cart on the corner of 48th and 3rd, run by a nice guy named sam. it's great - he's got this beautiful array of fruits and vegetables laid out, and he'll make any combonation you can think of, and you just stand there and watch him put four carrots into the juicer, and then three orange halves, and then a nice big chunk of raw ginger... or whatever. it's awesome.
and of course, when pressed, you can usually do alright at the "salad bars" in the bodega/deli places. the one closest to me, azure on the corner of 51st and 3rd, usually has grilled vegetables, stuffed grape leaves, some pasta primavera type items, and that funny triangular concoction of tofu with minced seasoning veggies sitting in soy sauce. they also have, all the way in the back, a stir-fry station, where you pick out a bunch of raw veggies and tofu, and pour some sauce on it, and then they cook it on this huge flat-top with nothing added but water. it's a little tough to see your food sitting there next to raw strips of beef, but they do a pretty good job of keeping peoples' stuff separate, and they're constantly washing down the cooking surface.
there's also "pump", which is in the basement of the building on the east side of 3rd ave between 49th and 50th. it's a 'health food' place, and i haven't actually tried it yet, but they seem to have a decent selection of tofu-based dishes.
ah! and how could i have forgotten! there is always ess-a-bagel on the east side of 3rd ave between 50th and 51st. they have five or six flavors of vegan cream cheese! they're awesome. one of the tofu cream cheeses has lox in it, which is weird and gross on a lot of levels. but the rest of them are really tasty. i believe they get the tofutti cream cheese and mix in their own extras. i love their bagels - of course i usually get the whole wheat. for a while i was going there so often that they knew my order... but i had to move on. i'll go back one day, i'm sure...
so yes, there are things around. and the truth is that at least in new york, a vegan when pressed can find something to eat pretty much anywhere. this gets harder in some places - say, small towns in the south where absolutely everything is cooked with hamhocks. but i've said it before and i'll say it again: new york is the best place to be vegan.