When dining out, it is important to ask questions every time. Though it takes some effort to make sure your meal is gluten-free, you can enjoy eating at restaurants. Another bonus: you are helping to increase awareness of gluten intolerance! Hopefully this will result in more food choices for everyone in the future.
Here are some tips to make your restaurant experience a little easier:
- Call and check menu ahead of time. If you know where you will be dining, look up the restaurant’s website. Often the restaurant will have their menu available to view online. Look over the menu and then call the restaurant ahead of time (at a not-busy time, usually between 2-4 pm) and let them know when you are coming in, that you must eat gluten-free and ask if they will be able to accommodate you. They may have a gluten-free menu available, or they may be able to go over the menu with you on the phone. All this work ahead of time will help you relax and enjoy the meal.
- Narrow down the menu. At the restaurant, find 2 or 3 dishes that look good to you and that seem “safe” (no obvious gluten). Don’t expect the waitperson to spend time going over the entire menu with you. It’s easier and safer to have them check on just a few dishes than the whole menu.
- Get the waitperson’s attention. Try to spend a few minutes with the waitperson before everyone else is asked for their order. A good time might be when the waitperson comes to take drink orders or to tell about the specials. Motion for the waitperson to come close to you — trying to explain things over a table of people can be difficult and embarrassing.
- Communicate. When you have the waitperson’s undivided attention, explain your situation. I usually say something like: “Hi, I need to ask you some questions about menu. I cannot eat gluten, so nothing with wheat in it, or soy sauce because soy sauce has wheat in it.” Then point out your first and second choices and say, “I was thinking of having this. Would you mind checking with the chef to see if these are gluten-free?” If you are not comfortable talking to the waitperson, try using an allergy card instead, especially if there is a language barrier, or asking to speak directly to the chef or someone else. Watch out for the waitperson that gives you too-quick answers or seems unsure of the ingredients. Again, encourage him/her to check with the chef before placing your order. “Would you mind double-checking with the chef? I just need to be really careful. Thank you so much.” Most people are very nice if you are very nice.
- Substitute. Don’t be afraid to ask for modifications to your selections. If they know it is an allergy, the restaurants are usually fine with making substitutions. For example, ask for rice, polenta, potatoes or a vegetable instead of pasta or cous-cous.
- Check your food. When the food comes, check everything out – mistakes will be made! If there is something you feel might not be safe, ask the waiter again. Politely say, “I’m so sorry, but are you sure there is no wheat or soy sauce in here? I just need to be so careful.”
- Enjoy! When you are confident that your food is okay, eat up and enjoy!
- Say thank you. Before you leave, go out of your way to thank the waitperson for accommodating you (I sometimes ask them to pass on thanks to the chef). That will make them be more willing to help you again or any other diners with gluten intolerance.
Even when the above steps are taken, there is risk of cross-contamination and mistakes. Everyone has a different level of tolerance, but the goal is always zero tolerance – no gluten!