Selecting a Gluten-Free Restaurant
My husband and I usually eat out the most while on vacation, so we are often dining in restaurants that are new to us. We usually utilize a combination of gluten-free restaurant apps, googling “restaurant name” + gluten-free, and calling the restaurant in advance to determine the likelihood of finding a safe and tasty meal, but occasionally we will just walk in and ask if a restaurant can serve us.
More times than not, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find gluten-free meal options at places that may not advertise their gluten-free status. However, we’ve also run into some issues with restaurants that advertise themselves as gluten-free-friendly or offer naturally gluten-free options. Here are some signs to watch out for when selecting a gluten-free restaurant:
Asking someone else
I always find it reassuring when initial person I speak with (usually the host or hostess) determines he or she is not comfortable answering my questions and seeks out someone who is familiar with gluten-free diners. Gluten-free dining is complicated, mostly because of gluten contamination concerns, so it is a good sign when the staff recognizes the significance of carefully answering the questions of potential gluten-free diners.
This one is tricky because sometimes confidence is really a cover for ignorance on the topic (see below), but someone who can answer basic questions about gluten-free dining options with relative ease can usually be trusted to provide reliable information.
Getting a different waiter
As soon as our server visits our table, my husband or I will ask the server if he or she is familiar with serving gluten-free diners. The best waiters will not pretend that they are familiar. Instead, they will find a colleague who is familiar with gluten-free diners and either work together or have that person serve you instead.
Always make sure to generously tip those servers who go out of their way to make your dining experience enjoyable. My husband and I go to our favorite Indian restaurant about once a month and usually end up with the same server because of his familiarity with gluten-free food preparation. We are now “regulars” for him—he takes great care of us, recommends new options that match our tastes, and often gives us dessert for free. In response, we go out of our way to thank him for his assistance and offer a generous gratuity. In the grand scheme of things, a large tip is a small price to pay for an enjoyable dining experience—there is nothing more valuable for a gluten-free diner than having a safe and tasty meal.
Language barrier on basic issues
Although international cuisine can be a great option for gluten-free diners, there can be a language barrier that affects the risk for gluten contamination. Thankfully, you just need one server who can act as translator to assist you in placing a safe order. Always ask if there are any servers who may be able to help you, but don’t be afraid to leave if you feel uncomfortable.
My husband and I were out for a sushi lunch, which we have eaten without issue many times. I know how to order from a sushi menu but often double-check my selection with the server because of issues with hidden ingredients, like tempura or soy sauce. Due to a language barrier, our server assumed I was asking for extra wheat. Thankfully, a different server was able to remedy the issue.
My husband and I were walking around looking for a good place for dinner and came across a Thai restaurant we had not tried. We walked in to ask some questions about their familiarity with gluten-free diners and immediately walked out when they asked us, “What’s an allergy?”
Not being honest about not understanding the issue
As mentioned above, confidence can be a good sign that a restaurant takes gluten-free diners’ concerns seriously. However, confidence and ignorance can be easily confused—at first. It will usually become clear pretty quickly if you are speaking with someone who is not knowledgeable about gluten-free dining concerns.
My family and I patronized a chain restaurant with a gluten-free menu while on vacation last summer. In total, there were five gluten-free diners in our party of six. Our server could not answer basic questions about items on the gluten-free menu and often discouraged us from ordering certain meals because they had nuts or sugar (or other non-gluten ingredients) in them. After our food arrived, it was clear that some of the meals were not gluten-free (croutons on salads, etc.) and our server still did not seem to understand how to keep us safe. Although the manager apologized profusely, our confidence in this restaurant’s ability to handle gluten-free diners has been greatly affected—we will not be back.
Not understanding gluten contamination concerns
The biggest risk for gluten-free diners is not gluten ingredients—it is gluten contamination. Because gluten-free diets have become trendy (and therefore money-makers), many restaurants now offer “gluten-free” meals that are not prepared in a safe way. If you are extremely gluten-sensitive, it is imperative that you ask additional questions to protect yourself.
I’ve been to many restaurants that consider menu items to be gluten-free based on ingredients alone. It often takes multiple questions about how food is prepared to determine if that menu item is actually gluten-free. I was at a buffet-style lunch that was almost completely gluten-free, except for one wheat-based fried dessert. However, the server kept insisting that all of the other fried items were gluten-free even though they had been fried in the same oil as the wheat-based dessert. Despite the server’s confidence, I elected to avoid all the fried options.
If you keep an eye out for these signs, you have a much better chance of selecting a gluten-free restaurant that will provide a safe and enjoyable dining experience.