GF 101: 10 Tips for Ordering Gluten-Free Food at Restaurants

You've been to the doctor. You've gone gluten-free. You've learned what you can eat. You've even learned a little bit about how to cook all over again, or for the first time. And now you might be thinking, I'll never eat in a restaurant again. 

I know. I've been there. And I might still be there if I hadn't forced myself out of my shell. It's tough. Really, really tough - to trust someone else, especially a stranger, with your food when you have food intolerances and allergies.

You CAN eat in restaurants! You can even eat in restaurants without getting sick! 

It takes preparation and attention to detail, but it is entirely possible. The food industry is catching on quickly - to keep business, they need to be able to accommodate gluten-free diners, and to accommodate them well. Gone are the days when the restaurant manager points to the salad menu as the gluten-free diner's only choice (sans crutons, of course).

Gluten-free options may still be limited, but they are growing. Some of the industry's biggest names, like Emeril Lagasse, have an intimate understanding of gluten intolerance and celiac disease.  Sure, there will always be niche places that will never offer a single thing gluten-free (like the deep-fried oreo stand at the state fair), but on the whole, options are expanding. What's more important is they taste great, and they let you go out on the town with family and friends.

It's important to prepare and ask tons of questions when you're dining gluten-free.  Be sure to read the menu carefully, especially if you have multiple food intolerances. Here's an outline of how I deal with ordering gluten-free at restaurants:

1.     Research. Know what food is gluten-free. Know your restaurants: know what restaurants have gluten-free menus, what restaurants have a good reputation for being allergy-friendly, and which ones don't.
2.     When dealing with a restaurant you're not familiar with, call ahead and ask to speak to a manager. Try to call at off-peak hours (between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. is usually best). Ask lots of questions, like whether the restaurant has an allergy policy, whether they can accommodate your food needs, and how they prevent cross-contamination. The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about the restaurant, and help you decide whether or not to give it a shot.
3.     Plan on dining early. This means the first hour of a lunch or dinner service period. This is HUGE. When you dine early, all the tables are clean and empty. The wait staff is fresher and more attentive. When you dine late, the tables aren't always spotless. The wait staff is tired and ready to go home. The chefs and cooks are tired too.  You'll get more attention, better service, and will probably feel more comfortable about your food if you dine early.
4.     When you walk into the restaurant, ask if they have a gluten free menu. If they do, your life just got a whole lot easier. Don't worry if they don't - all is not lost yet. But if you're new to the gluten-free diet, it helps to dine at restaurants with dedicated gluten-free menus for a while first, just to get comfortable with restaurants again.
5.     When you get to your table, be on the lookout for crumbs. If you're not comfortable, ask to be moved, or ask for the table to be cleaned with a clean dishcloth.
6.     If you haven't already, tell your server you need to eat gluten-free. Make sure he or she understands this. If your server rolls his or her eyes, or doesn't seem to comprehend, it's up to you - you can change your communication approach, try to educate your server, ask to speak to a manager, you can ask for a different server, or you can leave. I save the last option for only the most dire circumstances, but this is really about what feels comfortable for you.
7.     When ordering, ask lots of questions. You might not have to ask as many if the restaurant has a dedicated gluten-free menu, but I usually ask them just the same. I ask about marinades, seasonings, coatings, cooking methods, anything that gives me the slightest amount of worry. And my favorite question, the one that I ask the most often, is whether the restaurant has a dedicated gluten-free fryer. If they do, I know I can eat french fries and other fried goodies. If not, well, at least I know.
8.     If the restaurant does not have something that you can eat, consider eating off the menu. If you're going to go this route, be simple. For example, you could ask whether they have unmixed salad (without croutons). You could then ask for them to slice an avocado on top and dress the whole thing with lime juice and olive oil. Or you could ask if they have any unmarinated, uncoated chicken, or fish, or beef. Be sure to give specific directions. One of the first gluten-free meals was at a rural steakhouse, where I told the waitress I was "allergic" to wheat, and ordered a steak that was cooked in a clean frying pan with no seasoning except salt, pepper, and oil. The order was exactly right, it tasted great, and I didn't get sick. But I kept it simple. The fewer ingredients, the lower the chances are for something to go wrong.
9.     Ask more questions once you've gotten your meal. Ask, "this is gluten-free, right?" Don't be afraid to send food back. And if you need to leave the restaurant, you need to leave (after you've spoken to a manager and paid what you owe). It's ok. If it's even a decent restaurant, they'll work to accommodate your needs. People don't go into the food service industry for the pay - they go into it because they want to help people. Including people with dietary concerns.
10. Relax. I'll admit this is often the hardest part for me. But managers, chefs, and servers are all becoming more and more aware of what gluten-free means to their restaurants, their customers, and their bottom lines. They care, they want to make it right, and they've taken every step to make sure you have a safe meal. It's your turn to enjoy it.
 Happy ordering!

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