Eating Out Gluten Free
A basic “how to” guide
Eating out for Celiacs can be stressful. You have a lot on your mind with everything you cannot eat, and then you are throwing into the mix the worries about cross-contamination, what restaurants you can eat at, the options available, and so much more. It is liable to give you a headache just thinking about the possibility of going out.
The wonderful news is that many restaurants have made great headway in accommodating people with Celiac DiseaseCeliac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating glutenthe tough, viscid, nitrogenous substance remaining when the flour of wheat or other grain is washed to remove the starch, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye. by implementing glutenthe tough, viscid, nitrogenous substance remaining when the flour of wheat or other grain is washed to remove the starch-free menus and training staff members on how to take orders and work with customers who have special dietary needs. We are able to go out with friends and family and enjoy any number of cuisines thanks to these restaurants. Likewise, if you plan ahead a little and are willing to politely work with the staff, it is fairly easy to get a good gluten-free meal at just about any establishment.
Here’s a basic guide to get you through most restaurants:
1. Do your research before you leave your house
Cards on the table, you have special dietary needs. Unfortunately you cannot simply walk into any restaurant and plop yourself down and go hog wild on the menu. Sorry, but your genetics decided to take your gut a different course. That’s okay. There are a lot of us.
All this means is that you need to do a little thinking before you drive down to your local diner. Do a little web searching, phone calling, etc. and make a list of restaurants in your area that have gluten-free menus or are willing to work with you. You might be surprised how many there are. If you are traveling, order TriumphDining’s Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide, get on UrbanSpoon (in the features section of each restaurant, look for “Gluten-Free Friendly”), or Yelp and start finding gluten-free friendly restaurants where you are heading.
I keep lists of gluten-free restaurants for my city and the cities around me handy so I’m always prepared in case friends call up and want to go out to eat. I also do a routine check-up on every one of the restaurants—a quick phone call works best—to make sure their menu hasn’t changed or they haven’t moved locations.
2. Call ahead
This works especially well for high-end restaurants. My grandmother, for instance, loves to take the family out to Pappadeaux’s, but they do not have a gluten-free menu. Of course I’m the only one with Celiac DiseaseCeliac disease is a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents it from absorbing parts of food that are important for staying healthy. The damage is due to a reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye., so I always offer to make the reservation. I make sure that whoever takes down our name puts a notation that I will need to speak to the manager on duty or sous chef when I arrive because of “food allergies” (see number 9). To this day I’ve always been met at my table by a manager or chef ready to go over the menu with me take my order and never had a problem.
3. Know the cuisine
Not every cuisine is the same. You cannot go into a Thai restaurant and assume that they use the same ingredients as a French or Mexican restaurant. You have a wide range of food out there and need to know what to avoid depending on what type of cuisine you are eating. Do a little reading before you venture out into the world of food. Pick up some cookbooks, watch the Food Network, or take a cooking class to learn about different cooking styles and types of cuisine.
4. Bring a dining card
TriumpDining has a wonderful selection of dining cards for Celiacs to use. I bought the set a while back and carry them with me wherever I go. They have helped me out in more situations than I can count, and I know they will come in handy for years to come. I love that they are tailored for various cuisines and come in multiple languages. So when I go to my favorite Thai restaurant I know I can just hand them my card, and they can read the card in their native tongue and whip me up a delicious dish with no gluten!
5. Be kind!
You know the saying, “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”? It certainly rings true when asking for special dietary needs. If you are super kind to the wait staff, they will be super kind to you and treat you and your needs with dignity and respect. You are much more likely to get exactly what you need if you ask for it with a smile and a please and thank you.
6. Ask to speak to the right person
Naturally the “right person” varies depending on the type of restaurant you are eating at, but just about any place you walk into you can usually spot them almost immediately. They look authoritative and have an air of “busy bee” about them.
If you are in a fine dining restaurant, you’re most likely looking for the maître d’, head chef, or sous chef. In a more local, mom and pop restaurant, you’ll be more inclined to speak to the owner or general manager. In either situation, you are looking for the person who knows the ins and outs of their restaurant and has the pull to get you what you need.
7. It is okay to ask questions and answer them
Do not be afraid to ask questions about anything and everything you are about to order. From what ingredients are going to be used to how they avoid cross-contamination, nothing is “off limits” in terms of questions. Remember, be polite!
The flip side, be prepared to answer questions. Your waiter will probably have a couple of questions for you too, so don’t balk at answering. I’ve had waiters ask me general questions and very specific questions about ingredients in a dish that someone at another table wanted to order, but didn’t know if they could have.
8. Avoid Celiac and gluten “proselytizing”, for the most part
I’ve falling into the trap of trying to correct every fallacy about Celiac Disease and educate every restaurant owner about gluten-intolerance. And, I’ve learned from experience that it just creates more headaches for me and more confusion for the staff. Yes, I would love for everyone to understand what I go through, but it just isn’t feasible. It is much easier to focus on the meal in front of me and avoid gluten “proselytizing”.
However, there are certainly situations where I can give a stump speech about Celiac Disease, and in those instances I am more than happy to go into an in-depth exposé on what gluten is and what it means to be gluten-free. I do, though, save those conversations for when I have the time to explain everything and answer questions.
9. Cringe…use the word “allergy”
You and I know that we don’t have an allergy, but trying to explain what an autoimmuneTerm describing cells and antibodies arising from and directed against the individual's own tissues. disease is to someone in 1 minute or less is nigh impossible. Sometimes it is just easier to bite the bullet and use “allergy” for our selfish purposes of getting what we want—an edible meal. I know you want to explain to the world what Celiac Disease is, but in a busy restaurant when your waiter has 5-10 other tables to deal with, you might just be shooting yourself in the foot. Saying you have an allergy gets an immediate response of “okay, we’ll keep your food separate from everything”.
10. Never assume anything!
Sadly just because a chef was professionally trained doesn’t mean they know the first thing about gluten or Celiac Disease. The same goes for the entire restaurant industry. Many restaurants are doing better with training, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. Don’t assume that just because something is on the gluten-free menu that it has been handled properly or ordered from a gluten-free vendor. Check everything and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
11. Double and triple check everything
For your own health, politely ask for your order to be checked, rechecked, and triple checked. If need be, politely ask for the person who cooked your meal to come visit your table before you take a bite, so you can go over your meal with them. If you are nice and explain that you are extremely sensitive, the staff should have no problem helping you double or triple check your plate to ensure you are well cared for.
12. Have patience (especially when something isn’t quite right)
Not everything is going to be perfect. You cannot expect someone who in all likelihood doesn’t understand your condition to get your order 100% correct, so take a deep breath and politely ask for [blank] to be fixed. Giving your waiter and the kitchen staff a little patience and politely explaining why something wasn’t right with your order helps them learn from their mistakes. Yelling at them and demanding comped food doesn’t help anyone. The staff doesn’t learn what went wrong and Celiacs just got recognized in a terrible light.
13. Say “Please” and “Thank you”, often!
You would be surprised how little people say “please” and “thank you” today. For someone to say those simple words, especially in a service industry like restaurants, is an amazing boost. It differentiates you from the hundreds of other customers your waiter saw that week and helps keep you, and more importantly gluten-intolerance, on their mind.
14. Tip Generously!
I know that handling my food can be a pain in the keester, and I’m not the waiter’s only table. They have a ton to do and they are taking extra time to make sure I don’t get sick. I always start with a 20-25% tip. If the staff was exceptional and the service and care was through the roof awesome, I most definitely go higher in tip. I remind myself that the staff worked extra hard to try and understand my disease and made sure I had a fantastic meal. I also like to leave thank you notes with my tip to let my servers know how special their service made me feel.
15. Build relationships
This is a combination of most everything above. Basically, leave a good impression with a restaurant that treated you right and keep going back. They will learn who you are and start to learn more about Celiac Disease. This is great for when you are building your list of local restaurants where you can always eat.
I have a few restaurants here in town that know me by name and know automatically to give me a gluten-free menu, no bread on the table, and always tell me when there is a new special that can be made gluten-free. It is great to be able to just walk into those restaurants and know that I don’t have to think about explaining what I need.
16. Spread the word
Find a fabulous gluten-friendly restaurant? Tell everyone! Write a review, call your gluten-free buddies, shout it from the roof tops! The rest of us want to know about your find and how awesome it was. And, the restaurant is more likely to expand their gluten-free menu if they get flooded with Celiac sufferers and we all give them stellar reviews!!