You have celiac disease (or allergies) and you want to go out with friends to a restaurant. Now what? Well, you better do some research. What restaurants can you go to eat safely? Dining out can be a great source of anxiety for many, especially when first diagnosed.
If you are invited to a restaurant by a friend, call the restaurant during off hours. Speaking to someone during peak times may not result in getting their full attention and a miscommunication can happen. Start by saying that you have Celiac Disease (or an allergy) and ask them if they have anything safe that you can eat on their menu. If they say what is Celiac or seem uneasy about your questions, ask to speak to a manager or the chef. If you still get this puzzled feeling, it is time to choose an alternative restaurant and ask if your friend wouldn’t mind to switch the location. You will need to have another place in mind, so your work is still ongoing.
If you get a list of items on the menu that they claim to be safe for you to eat, ask further questions. You may want to ask how they prepare it? If there is cross contamination, for example, if they have a separate fryer for fries or if it’s shared with the fryer that makes their breaded chicken, or if they wash the space they use to prepare your food prior to avoid any cross contamination. You may want to ask if they are aware that some spices, soy sauce and gravies have gluten in them and if they have safe alternatives. If it’s a pizza place, do they grab the cheese and toppings and place them on gluten crust and then put their hands back into the bins? If it’s a sushi place, to they touch the tempura ingredients from the bin and grab from other bins which would normally be safe to eat from? So much can happen from the time the ingredients are opened to the time they get to your plate. If the restaurant is allergy and celiac aware, they will have a procedure and process for making your meal. They may not guarantee perfection, but if they make a big effort on their part, it is a great sign! If you order from a chain restaurant, don’t assume all branches are the same. Still ask the questions. The amount of risk you are willing to take really depends on you and how severe you react. The last thing you want to do is have to run to a hospital or spend the rest of the night in a washroom.
No matter where you live there are probably restaurants that are 100% gluten free or allergen free. How do you find out? Well, you may want to contact a local Celiac Association Chapter or join a local Gluten free Facebook page. You can read what others write or ask your own question. You will certainly need to verify what you read as people are free to comment and not everyone is in the know. So this comes with a warning; Validate what you read. There are bloggers as well that have resource pages. They are great go to people, however, they may not have a complete listing as it is a lot of work to keep updating as many restaurants and bakeries are added and subtracted month to month. A very useful tool is an APP called Find Me Gluten Free that will tell you where you can find local gluten free restaurants near you. Do call the restaurant you plan to go to first to ensure it suits your needs. For those with allergies, there is a website in Canada called Food Allergy Canada. They have amazing information and is a great resource.
So you got your friend to go to a restaurant you think you will be safe to eat at, planned it out by calling up first to ensure they can in fact accommodate you. You get seated. Now what? Make sure you speak to a chef or manager to ensure all of your concerns are met. There are restaurant cards you can download from the internet that explains what you can and cannot eat. Look up “dining cards for Celiac” and print a few copies. Give one to the waiter so that there is no misunderstanding. When you receive the meal, ask again if that is the gluten free plate. If you are lucky, they have separate plates and utensils that ensure that is the correct meal, but if not, at least you are asking one final time to make sure there was no mixup in the kitchen.
After a successful restaurant outing with accommodating waiters, managers and chefs, I tip well, and make it a point to go back. The more often you frequent a place, the more they get to know how to prepare for you. As long as they are willing to go the extra mile for you, you win!.
Here are a few more tips from previous experience I can share with you.
When an item is made on the premise, you they know what goes in it. But with items the restaurant buys, they would have to read the label to know. I was in a sushi place that said that they are very familiar with gluten-free options. They had the right soy sauce, they prepared the meal in separate space and with no tempura. They claimed to be celiac safe. We ordered salads which they said were all ok, but after eating the seaweed salad, my gluten-free child vomited. The next day I did a little investigating and found out that they buy their seaweed salad and it contained wheat in it. They themselves had no idea and were not able to pass on this information.
Bring your own bread. OK, so this may sound a bit strange, but I make dinner rolls and baguette and when I go to a restaurant, even if they know how to prepare a basic gluten-free meal, they almost never have the bread basket with balsamic vinegar and oil or butter. I usually will pack a few dinner rills or baguette in a foil and give it to the waiter to warm up. They don’t need to touch it and because it is sealed, there is no cross contamination. They bring us the bread on a plate and we get to enjoy the meal like others do. I must confess, I have also brought my own dessert if I know the restaurant cannot accommodate us. The waiters place it on a clean plate and bring it out with everyone else’s desserts so that the gluten-free person doesn’t feel left out.
Always be prepared. So I planned a trip with specific restaurant stops along the way. My family was looking forward to dining at a place we found on a previous trip. We held out all day hoping to really eat everything on the menu all to find out it was closed. Bankrupt. Oops….well, we did have backup. We never leave home without plenty of snacks and food. Carry a protein bar or something nutritious just in case. You never know when you will need it!
Don’t go out to eat at a restaurant that is not Celiac friendly on New Years Eve! I try to avoid dining out on super busy peak times the holidays bring . A busy kitchen means chefs are in a rush and don’t have time to clean a space just for you and often mistakes happen. I usually try to plan to eat in and make our own during these busy times. You can also use these busy times to check out Celiac safe restaurants or gluten-free certified restaurants so that you don’t need to worry.
Finally, if you find yourself in a difficult situation where you are hungry and there are no options and the restaurant doesn’t “get it”, keep things super easy. Ask them for a baked potato, steam veggies and a piece of chicken or fish on a clean pan with just salt and fresh lemon. Sometimes you just need to eat!