It's easier than ever to eat out on the gluten-free diet. Multiple national and regional restaurant chains offer gluten-free menus and seem to have taken the time to truly understand the needs of people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Even many fast food restaurants now offer gluten-free options.
But it's still possible to run into trouble at a restaurant, especially if you're fairly sensitive to gluten. In most cases, the problem isn't gluten ingredients in the food itself — it's cross contamination.
In fact, I spent a long time basically refusing to eat out, since I almost always got glutened. It wasn't worth the pleasure of the meal to spend two days recovering from it.
Now, though, I've developed a series of rules I follow to ensure a safe restaurant meal. By implementing these, I've been able to resume going out (which I really enjoy), and mostly do it safely.
It's helped that awareness of gluten-free issues and needs has risen generally among the restaurant community as many more people ask for gluten-free options. But it's honestly helped more for me to follow my own rules for gluten-free restaurant dining as methodically as possible.
Rule #1: Choose Your Restaurant Wisely. Restaurants with gluten-free menus are a good place to start, since in many cases (but not all), staff members at those restaurants receive training on how to keep food gluten-free and to avoid cross contamination.
But you still have options if you don't want to go to a chain restaurant. For example, ethnic restaurants offer gluten-free options. In addition, you can try a local restaurant, although you'll need to choose sensibly — the local bakery and café may not offer good gluten-free options, and you may not even be able to enter the place due to the flour in the air. You'll have better luck with an upscale establishment where they make most of the food from scratch.
Rule #2: Talk Directly to the Chef or the Manager. Take it from me: Having your server relay questions back and forth to the chef or the manager doesn't work. Details get overlooked and ingredients get garbled, especially as your requests get more complicated (and avoiding cross contamination is pretty complicated!). Your server may say he knows how to ensure a gluten-free meal, but unless you take the time to quiz him extensively, you won't be sure if he really knows his stuff. Also, he won't be in the kitchen actually preparing your food; the kitchen staff takes care of that.
Instead of trusting your server to get everything right, I recommend either enlisting the help of a manager or — preferably — asking to speak to the chef directly. In most cases, I've found chefs to be very knowledgeable and very willing to help. Once I started skipping the server and going straight to the chef, my restaurant-related glutenings declined dramatically.
Conversely, skipping this rule — even for part of your meal — can lead to big trouble. My daughter (also celiac) and I had a lovely meal at a restaurant we frequented, and where the chef always comes out to talk with us. For dessert, the server (who seemed knowledgeable) said he didn't need to fetch the chef again; he'd bring my daughter the gluten-free brownie sundae the restaurant offered. I didn't remember seeing a gluten-free brownie on the menu, but all seemed well, and my daughter enjoyed her dessert ... until her reaction started a few hours later. As it turned out, the server made a huge mistake: the brownie was sugar-free, not gluten-free.
Rule #3: Stress Cross-Contamination Issues with Your Chef and Server. As I said earlier, most of our problems in restaurants (the brownie incident excepted) have involved cross contamination, not actual gluten food served to us. Workers in busy restaurant kitchens need to share cooking surfaces, utensils and pans ... and it can be difficult to carve out a place to make an allergen meal in that chaos. Some restaurants that excel in gluten-free items actually keep separate kitchens for gluten and non-gluten food (Disney does this in some cases), but most do not.
- To stay safe, make sure you ask the kitchen staff for the following:
- Wash their hands and change their gloves before preparing your food
- Mix any salad in a clean bowl (many restaurants reuse bowls, and they may contain crouton fragments or unsafe salad dressings)
- Avoid using a grill surface that's shared with gluten-containing items (including hamburger buns, sauces and breaded items)
- Use fresh water to cook gluten-free pasta or steam vegetables (some restaurants reuse pasta water for this purpose)
- Place gluten-free pizzas or rolls on a pan instead of directly on an oven surface, and cover them with foil to avoid crumbs
Also, ask your server to keep your food away from the bread basket and other obvious gluten threats; it's possible to have cross contamination introduced between the kitchen and your table.
Rule #4: Question Everything. Many restaurants follow the practice of having someone who's not your server bring your food to the table. In some cases, that person will say reassuringly, "Here's your gluten-free meal." But when the person doesn't say that, I always ask "Is that gluten-free?" I've saved myself from several glutenings this way, as the person realized he had picked up the wrong plate. If something appears on your plate that you didn't order (such as a garnish or a sauce), don't touch it or try to push it aside; instead, find out what it is and whether it's safe. If there's any doubt, ask for another plate to be prepared.
In addition, if you're very sensitive you'll certainly need to ask more questions. For example, the restaurant may offer a dessert that doesn't include gluten ingredients, but it may be made right alongside the gluten-filled pastries on the menu.
Rule #5: When In Doubt, Don't Eat. In most cases, I'm able to eat out safely and enjoyably. But I've skipped meals entirely on occasion because the restaurant seemed clueless about gluten. I don't enjoy going hungry, but I prefer it to getting sick the next day. If the chef doesn't seem to get it — or worse, doesn't seem interested in trying — you're better off not taking a chance.