Restaurant dining when you're following the gluten-free diet may seem intimidating, especially at first. But a significant uptick in awareness of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, coupled with consumer demand for better gluten-free restaurant options, has led to a virtual gluten-free renaissance in restaurant dining.
It's now possible to get a gluten-free meal in almost every city or larger town, simply because so many chain restaurants offer gluten-free options. And many local restaurants want to serve gluten-free patrons, as well — perhaps those restaurants realize that many of us make very loyal customers, or that we tend to drive the restaurant choices of many people besides ourselves.
Where Should You Start?
To dine out gluten-free, you first should have a good idea of what you'll need to do in order to ensure a completely gluten-free meal — even if a restaurant features an extensive gluten-free menu, you can't assume your meal will remain free from cross-contamination.
I've outlined five rules to keep restaurants safe and fun in this article on dining out gluten-free. In it, you'll find what you need to know — and do — to ensure you have a safe meal.
For example, I strongly recommend that you talk directly to the chef, if possible, and stress the need to avoid cross contamination. When I'm in restaurants, I always emphasize that I'm especially sensitive to gluten, and ask the server and the chef to take special care to guard my food. This seems to help.
You also might want to consider bringing along gluten-free restaurant cards. These cards explain the gluten-free diet, so you don't have to do so, and they're available in a wide assortment of different languages.
Locating a Gluten-Free Restaurant
Next, you probably want to find a restaurant. For that, you've got a couple of options.
U.S. restaurants that advertise gluten-free menu options need to follow the federal Food and Drug Administration's rules on gluten-free labeling — for more on this, see: Do the FDA's Gluten-Free Rules Apply to Restaurants?
These days, chain restaurants frequently offer gluten-free options — I list many of them in this article on gluten-free restaurant menus. You'll need to tread carefully with some of these options, since it may be your responsibility to tell the server to remove a gluten-containing ingredient in an otherwise gluten-free dish.
If you're visiting an unfamiliar city, or you're looking for a new local option, you can try this compilation of gluten-free restaurant directories — some of these resources feature little-known but excellent restaurants that cater to the gluten-free crowd.
It's even possible to find gluten-free options at fast food restaurants, although to eat safely at one of these, you'll need to be especially aware of the possibility of cross contamination
Ethnic Dining Gluten-Free
Once you get the hang of gluten-free dining out, you'll find particular ethnic cuisines suit the gluten-free diet better than others. Therefore, those ethnic restaurants make good gluten-free options. For example, Thai, Indian and Japanese restaurants feature many naturally gluten-free dishes, while some Chinese and Italian restaurants may make adaptations in their dishes to suit you.
Italian restaurants may not seem like they'd be very gluten-free friendly, but some establishments will allow you to bring your own pasta to serve with their sauces and safe side dishes. And if you like Chinese food, you should find these tips for staying gluten-free in a Chinese restaurant useful.
Staying Safe While Having Fun
Regardless of how well-recommended a restaurant comes or how good the gluten-free menu looks, you'll need to keep your guard up more than someone dining without a significant food intolerance.
It helps to know menu terms that mean gluten, since you may spot a problem before your server does. It also will help you to learn some of the sneakier places gluten can hide — I've run across many servers and even some chefs who didn't know these foods might contain gluten.
Still, once you've done your homework — i.e., chosen the right restaurant, spoken to the chef and chosen your meal carefully — the odds are good that you can sit back and enjoy your meal without having to worry very much.