FeaturesJune/July 2010 Issue

Let's Eat Out: Tips for Safe Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining

Here's your menu when you're in the mood for trouble-free (and symptom-free) meals dining out.

Tips for Safe Restaurant Dining

More restaurants are training staff to serve food-allergic guests and to encourage customers to discuss their sensitivity concerns and ask for ingredient alternatives.

[Updated July 14, 2015] 

My adult son e-mailed me recently, asking for dining-out tips that he could share with his colleague who had just been diagnosed with celiac disease. I chuckled as I reflected back to 1993, when my son was diagnosed.

Along with helping him learn to spell and read, I also taught him the meat and potatoes of the gluten-free diet. I recall incrementally loosening the reins as he matured and his social events no longer included me. I coached him on the questions to ask in restaurants, how to order a burger without a bun, how to ask whether the fries were cooked in a dedicated fryer, and what to say to a host when he was invited to a party.

“Call ahead,” I suggested. “Select the simplest foods–plain broiled chicken, baked potatoes. Above all, be friendly but don’t assume people know about your diet.”

Fast forward to 2010 and I’m stunned at how much easier life has become. Don’t get me wrong. Dining out on a special diet still presents challenges. There are always the big wild cards—cross-contamination and lack of knowledge at any given establishment on a given day.

These concerns remain front and center for food-allergic customers and require vigilance on the part of the diner. But life is so much easier than it was even three years ago. The trend for restaurants to cater to special diets is strenghtening.

Not only is the number of gluten-free eateries expanding, so are the options within the menus. Restaurants are serving a broader selection, often including staples like gluten-free breads, pasta and pizza. And restaurant managers and personnel are showing a higher level of understanding of dietary needs. 

More chain restaurants announced gluten-free options this year, among them Chili’s, which states its menu is updated monthly, and Bertucci’s, which joined the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) and now offers a printed menu for gluten-free diners. With locations in most states, these two restaurants present nice dining choices for food-sensitive travelers.

Add them to the growing list of chains—which includes Panera’s, 99 Restaurants, and fast-food giant Burger King—that have announced they now offer gluten-free menu selections.

Food Sensitivity: On the Rise

More than 12 million Americans—about 1 in 25 people—have food allergies, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). Up to 3 million more have celiac disease, requiring a strict gluten-free diet, and several million more are following a gluten-free diet because it makes them feel better.

Gluten Free Menu Red Robin

More and more restaurants have worked gluten-free fare into their menus in recent years. Pictured are menu examples from Red Robin and (below) The Cheesecake Factory. Ultimately, though, as Food Editor Beth Hillson puts it, "the responsibility for a safe dining-out experience falls in your lap. We all have more than one close call to recount—pancake batter added to omelets, pasta cooked in the regular pasta water, dishes switched in the kitchen, wait staff with inaccurate information. The key to safety is to be vigilant and to ask questions."

With the prevalence of food allergies, associated anaphylaxis, and food sensitivities on the rise, these numbers are difficult to ignore. It’s clear that restaurants, grab-and-go establishments, hotels, university dining halls, secondary school lunchrooms, and hospital cafeterias are paying attention.

Organizations like the National Restaurant Association and the Gluten-Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP), a program run by Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG), are working closely with dining establishments to ensure that we’re able to eat out safely. On its website, the National Restaurant Association calls food allergies an important issue for the nation's nearly 1 million restaurants. Many are training their staff to serve food-allergic guests and to encourage customers to openly discuss their sensitivity concerns and ingredient alternatives.

Gluten-Free Menus: Good Business

According to Cynthia Kupper, GIG’s executive director, the growth this year in the GFRAP program is nothing short of remarkable. “The restaurant industry as a whole is reporting the trend,” she says. “Everyone wants to offer gluten-free options these days.”

Gluten Free Menu Cheesecake Factory

Kupper attributes some of this growth to the slow economy. Being allergy-friendly can bring in business.

“We can document that most restaurants will see a 14 percent increase in revenue from offering a gluten-free menu," Kupper says. There's also a downside, she notes, to so many jumping on the bandwagon: “Not everyone has a good understanding of the proper way to handle food allergies.”

Education of restaurant staff is key. Training must be applied in a way that is practical and can be understood by everyone, from dishwashers and servers to the chefs. GFRAP’s goal is to make safety procedures palatable and the results profitable for a participating restaurant. “We don’t want to overwhelm them with too much information or too many rules,” Kupper says. “Nevertheless, if restaurants can’t commit to a protocol that’s safe, they can’t call themselves gluten-free.”

She cites a tavern in North Carolina that listed fries as gluten-free but added the disclaimer that they were prepared in a shared fryer. “By printing this on their menu, they thought they were covered. I told them they’ll lose customers. If you can’t guarantee the safety of your gluten-free menu, why offer one?” she says.

When Kupper and GFRAP staff visit a restaurant that applies for gluten-free certification, they audit the establishment in a process similar to kosher certification, identifying ingredients, reviewing menus and examining policies and procedures. Cross-contamination is a great concern. “We ask what standard a facility can live with, and if it’s not high enough, we won’t work with them,” says Kupper.

Specialty Foods

Gluten Free Dr. Lucys Cookies

An onslaught of specialty products is giving those on a gluten-free diet an increasing number of food choices. Pictured: Dr. Lucy's gluten-free cookies, which come in a variety of flavors.

The industry’s interest in gluten-free dining is spilling into the market for specialty products. As more restaurants offer gluten-free menus, they’re also buying up more gluten-free pastas, breads, pizza crusts, cookies, and desserts to support the new selections.

Topped with the restaurant's own fixings, gluten-free pizza shells made by French Meadow Bakery, Still Riding Pizza, and others are now served in eateries across the country. Dr. Lucy’s cookies are now sold at Starbuck’s and some establishments are carrying gluten-free hamburger rolls.

These products help restaurants broaden their menus without risking customers’ safety due to potential cross contamination in the kitchen.

There are other changes: More places now dust their pizzas with cornmeal, rather than wheat flour. And as demand for gluten-free prepared and par-baked products grows, Kupper believes manufacturers will offer case sizes that better fit restaurants’ needs.

Signs of Safety

Ultimately, the responsibility for a safe dining-out experience falls in your lap. We all have more than one close call to recount—pancake batter added to omelets, pasta cooked in the regular pasta water, dishes switched in the kitchen, wait staff with inaccurate information.

The key to safety is to be vigilant and to ask questions. What procedures are in place at the restaurant to ensure a safe meal? How does the kitchen become aware of your dietary needs? Does the chef know all the ingredients in your dish? Does the restaurant offer a gluten-free or allergen-friendly menu that makes sense? (If soy sauce is served with the “gluten-free sashimi,” this might not be the place you want to eat.)

Don’t assume. Confirm that the waiter understands the diet. Double-check when your meal arrives to be sure you’ve received the correct dish. (The person who took your order may not be the same person who delivers your plate.)

People with food allergies are wise to seek out restaurants that have gluten-free menus. An establishment that is knowledgeable about one type of special diet is better able to accommodate another.

Chef Ming Tsai, owner of Blue Ginger, an allergy-friendly restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and father of a little boy who has multiple food allergies, offers these suggestions:

  •  Call ahead and make a reservation. Inform the staff of your allergies when you call. Be mindful you'll get more focused attention if you don't call during peak hours.
  •  Bring a typed card that lists your allergies. It is helpful for the chef and it communicates that the allergy is very serious.
  •  Ask until you feel comfortable. “If you have to ask a question five times to make yourself feel comfortable, ask it five times. It is no one’s life but your own. You have nothing to prove to anyone,” Tsai says.
  •  Always carry your epinephrine. Even with proper training and best intentions, a restaurant can make mistakes. Don’t put your life in someone else’s hands. It’s also a good idea to wear a medical alert bracelet.

Country Living

Those of us who live in a large metropolitan area, particularly on the East or West coasts, may marvel at the growing crop of restaurants we can frequent. But what about those who live in rural America?

If your home is in the country or in a small town, chances are the local eatery has little idea of how to handle your special diet. My advice is to go back to basics:

♦ Avoid fried foods, sauces, stews, pot pies, and soups where allergens can hide.

♦ Remember that desserts may contain nuts or gluten.

♦ Watch out for buffets—utensils can be switched and ingredients inadvertently dropped and mixed into other dishes. When you order, keep it simple. For example, choose a salad (carry your own dressing or ask for oil and vinegar), unseasoned broiled or grilled meat, a baked potato, and fresh fruit for dessert.

Chances are that the closest natural food store is also miles away and your local grocery doesn't carry a selection of specialty products. My advice: Batch your special-diet shopping and stock up when you’re in a larger city. See if you can work with your local grocer to bring some products in.

Mail order is an option, particularly if you take advantage of shipping discounts. The Internet is particularly helpful for those in remote areas. Deal only with reputable companies that you know and trust.

Check the web for any restaurants located within reasonable driving distance that cater to special diets. Websites often list menus, maps, and reservation services. In addition, most support groups have websites where members share local dining experiences. These personal endorsements are helpful, as contributors often foster a relationship with the chef and staff before they post their recommendations.

Here are just a few of the many online resources offering helpful restaurant and travel tips.

• The Gluten Free Restaurant Awareness Program (GFRAP) lists certified restaurants (chain and independent eateries) throughout the United States and a few in Canada. All have undergone rigorous audit. Searches can be done by city, state and zip code. Visit www.glutenfreerestaurants.org.

Triumph Dining publishes The Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide, a directory that contains more than 5,000 gluten-free establishments, including 80-plus chains. Triumph also sells a product guide and dining cards in many languages. Visit www.triumphdining.com.

• Gluten-Free, founded by celiac Kim Koeller, specializes in tools and tips for dining out and traveling. Passport’s strengths are its international focus and hi-tech iPhone and iPod applications. Website: www.glutenfreepassport.com.

The website www.glutenfreetravelsite.com features information on restaurants (chains and independent eateries), grocery stores, resorts, cruises and more. Most information is contributed by readers. Karen Broussard launched the site after her 2-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac disease. Each year, readers vote for the most celiac-friendly destination. Two years ago, it was New York City. Last year’s winner was Disneyworld.

See also www.clanthompson.com, a website published by a Maine family that has six members with celiac disease. Launched in 1997, it’s chock-full of information on dining, traveling, products, diet, cooking, and even medications.

Progress Made

Tips for Safe Restaurant Dining

For those with severe food allergies, dining out can still be fun and relaxing—with the right preparation and planning.

When I e-mailed my son back about his colleague’s diagnosis, addressing his request for restaurant advice, I found myself shaking my head. Looking back 17 years when he was diagnosed—and then back 35 years when I was—what an amazing difference! Public awareness of celiac disease and food allergies has come a long way. The service and relative safety I now enjoy in the Northeast where I dine out are evidence of that.

My son and his colleague live and work in bustling New York City, where there are gluten-free restaurant options galore.

“Most places have gluten-free selections,” I wrote him back. “Tell her it’s no big deal.”

Beth Hillson is food editor of Gluten Free & More.

Katrina Avila Munichiello contributed to this article.

Comments (19)

.. good info in here .. even if a restaurant has a dedicated fryer for French Fries -- ask if the fries are battered! A local grill has fantastic fries - dedicated fryer - but the fries are battered with wheat !
.. totally weird ----
.. has the vendor never heard of cornstarch ?

Posted by: Peggy C | July 15, 2015 10:58 AM    Report this comment

I don't know how, when your article says this, "Dining out on a special diet still presents challenges. There are always the big wild cards -- cross contamination and lack of knowledge at any given establishment on a given day," that you can put the following in the title: "trouble-free (and symptom-free) meals dining out."

This part of the article is right and the title is sensationalized and therefore misleading. This is not helpful. True, things are easier than they were three years ago, but let's be realistic because that's what keeps us safe. Being totally gluten free is still hard and time consuming work. Eating out in restaurants is always a risk to your health when you have celiac (and some other health issues as well).

To SalmonNationWoman, here is how we safely eat out: we take a picnic and go to parks, lakes, rivers etc. Is it as convenient as a restaurant, not even close. Is restaurant food as safe as my own, not even close.

Posted by: K C | July 14, 2015 2:21 PM    Report this comment

I always carry a bottle of gluten digest with me. You can't take it and eat a full course of gluten containing products but in case of accidental cross contamination it can be a life saver.

Posted by: jake1234 | July 14, 2015 1:30 PM    Report this comment

Wow! You've certainly done a great job by posting this bit of information for the benefit of us viewers. It's so great to know that the Internet is not a dumb place after all.c

Posted by: AlexSmith | May 24, 2014 4:46 AM    Report this comment

I am not only gluten intolerant, but all grain intolerant. The one exception is millet in limited quantities. Unfortunately, I am also intolerant of quinoa and buckwheat; both of which are not grains. They were such a tasty alternative, but did not like me. I would like to see more 'helps' for people like me here. Anyone else out there who is grain intolerant? I do used a lot of nut flours and coconut flour, chia flour and more. Any bakeries out there I can order from when I don't have time to make my stuff from scratch?
Angel R.

Posted by: Angela R | March 22, 2013 2:09 PM    Report this comment

We have great respect and admiration for Paul and AllergyEats.com. This website wasn't big or well-known back three years ago when this article was first published. We have regularly included the website in sidebars more recently. Living Without is a big fan of AllergyEats.com. - Moderator

Posted by: LW Moderator | March 21, 2013 2:52 PM    Report this comment

Even Domino's (in their extra small print) says, "Domino's(R) pizza made with a Gluten Free Crust is prepared in a common kitchen with the risk of gluten exposure. Therefore, Domino's(R) DOES NOT recommend this pizza for customers with celiac disease. Customers with gluten sensitivities should exercise judgment in consuming this pizza."

Posted by: LW Moderator | March 20, 2013 3:27 PM    Report this comment

I was disappointed not to see AllergyEats listed as a great resource for people dining out with food allergies and intolerances. For full disclosure, I am the Founder of the company. We have become by far the largest and fastest-growing guide to allergy-friendly restaurants thanks to the greatness of our community. AllergyEats is a peer-based restaurant rating site whereby individuals with food allergies and intolerances rate their dining experiences for the benefit of future potential food-allergic diners. This of it as a Yelp for those with food allergies. Any restaurant can develop a gluten-free menu, and some can earn certifications without following through and providing consistent training, but do those restaurants really understand cross-contamination and the other needs of food-allergic or gluten free diners? Anecdotal data says no! As more and more restaurants have introduced gluten-free menus, I've seen a definite uptick in the number of people online claiming to have gotten "gluttened" at restaurants with a gluten-free menu.

AllergyEats uses the wisdom of the crowds to help food allergic and intolerant diners know which restaurants have and have not provided others in the community with a safe and comfortable meal. Sure, we have links to a restaurant's gluten-free menu (where available), allergen list, and more. We're also partnered with GIG and NFCA to display their logos next to restaurants that have gone through the GFRAP and GREAT Kitchens programs. But there is no other resource that can provide the real world feedback that AllergyEats provides. This makes us a unique and great one-stop starting point to finding an allergy-friendly or gluten free-friendly restaurant. And even better... the more ratings we receive from you, our fellow community members, the more valuable the site becomes for all of us!

Posted by: PAUL A | March 20, 2013 3:09 PM    Report this comment

Sue Ann questioned Panera's gluten-free options. Ask for "The Hidden Menu". There are several GF options that are not widely publicized and can be food online.

Sue, Buon Gusto in Brighton, MI is the best for GF Italian fare I have found. People come from all over to eat at this small gem. Ayse's Turkish Cafe in Ann Arbor is another small outstanding place. The Melting Pot also is very knowledgeable on GF and other allergy needs and is a safe place to eat. I have not had much success eating elsewhere in SE MI. If anyone knows of other places, I too would love to learn about them.

Posted by: Lisa D | March 19, 2013 3:13 PM    Report this comment

SueAnn, you seem to be confusing gluten free with other digestive issues you have. IBS suffers often are gluten intolerant but not always. Most IBS sufferers can have difficulty digesting fibrous foods but this upset isn't always a result of gluten intolerance. My mother had colitis and couldn't eat salad and watermelon, her fave, was her worst enemy. There are researchers who beleive these digestive problems are entertwined. Try working on one thing at a time. Ditch the gluten for awhile and then try salad again. Once your digestive system isn't so fired up you might be able to tolerate greens.
I would suggest you see a nutritionist who can help you work this out. Yes, salad is gluten free sans the croutons and with a simple olive oil/ non-wheat vinegar dressing. I'm dairy/egg intolerant too, so salad is okay but I have to drop the croutons, boiled egg and cow milk cheese. Ask questions. A few weeks ago I had a wonderful greek salad loaded with a mild Feta cheese. When my husband paid the check he asked what brand the cheese was because it was mild (the way he likes it). The restaurant owner told us they had gone to the milder cow milk feta because most of their patrons found the sheep/goat cheese it too pungent. Whoops! Now I know (after the tummy ache subsided) to ask about the source of ANY protein. Its a journey. Also; if this is self-diagnosed gluten intolerance, that's a big no-no. You REALLY need to see a nutritionist or other health professional for guidance if that's the case.

Posted by: Rosalie L | March 19, 2013 1:56 PM    Report this comment

I read articles like this in hope that there may be some new information that would make my multi-allergic/intolerant life easier. I haven't eaten out since figuring it all out; about 5 and half years. I'm not only severely gluten intolerant but wheat/grains/legume allergic. Even being in a Panera parking lot where flour dust lingers in the air can trigger a reaction. Even simple foods and salads are not safe when prepared with SOY OIL. What may be even worse is Epinephrine makes things A LOT worse by dangerously elevating blood pressure and heart rate.

I can't be the only person in the world with multiple allergies that can't find a single safe place to eat. I want to hear from THOSE PEOPLE and how they handle travel, dining out, social situations where no matter how well planned situations can catch us without back-up food.

Posted by: SalmonNationWoman | March 19, 2013 10:39 AM    Report this comment

You articles is excellent and I've never been disappointed with your magazine, however you need to check your referred links. Clanthompson.com had absolutely no information on gluten free.

Posted by: Holly A | March 19, 2013 9:22 AM    Report this comment

You could add Dominos pizza to your list. They have a wonderful 10" gluten-free pizza that can be made up with almost any topping.

Posted by: barbara w | March 4, 2013 8:09 PM    Report this comment

Google "McDonald's gluten free" for a list. Ice cream sundaes and shakes are on the list. Fruit and yogurt parfait with no granola is on the list. Beef patties (no bun) are on the list, but I wouldn't choose that because of the possibility of cross contamination in the kitchen. I'd stick with something like the shake that comes right out of the machine, virtually untouched by human hands. But check the posted list frequently. Everything changes.

Posted by: Elgie | June 18, 2011 7:36 AM    Report this comment

Does anyone have any fast food suggestions? When my children and I are out and need a quick bite, I have no clue what is safe and what is not. For instance, is McDonald's frozen yogurt gluten-free? What about their topping for a sundae?

Posted by: Marilyn S | June 17, 2011 9:00 PM    Report this comment

The Melting Pot, is a fondue restaurant, that has gluten free bread, GF cake and brownies with dessert. They can make your cheese fondue with GF beer as well. Great restaurant and staff is knowledgeable.

Posted by: Meridith E | August 8, 2010 9:51 PM    Report this comment

I have been gluten-free for a little over 6 months and am feeling much better. But I have other allergies to take into account as well, when eating out. The easiest thing for me is to inform the waiter that I have food allergies, and ask for a protein (fish, chicken, steak) broiled or grilled with EVOO, and a salad (with no croutons, cheese, or peppers or tomatoes). And I ask for lemon slices and oil on the side. Many of my dietary no-no's lurk in dressings. I can eat in almost any good restaurant and be well fed and happy ordering like this. I knew for many years that I had a problem with wheat, but would only give it up for awhile. In February I made the commitment to go gluten-free forever and it was a wonderful decision. And not nearly as hard as I thought it would be.

Posted by: ginny | August 4, 2010 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Sue, I read your above comment, do you know of any good places in Michigan besides the one you mentioned ? We live in Southeast Michigan, about 30 miles south of Detroit....and finding not a lot available in the restaurant area...

Posted by: Donna G | August 1, 2010 11:01 AM    Report this comment

Great article. I have IBS and was told by the doctor 2 weeks ago that I needed to eat gluten free for 30 days. I have been following an IBS diet for 10 years and it has really helped. There is one sandwich that I am able to eat at Panera's without the greens and dressing on it. When I saw Panera on your list I wondered what bread was gluten free. When I see a bakery listed as having some items gluten free I expect that to mean bread. I drove there and the young man that helped me got out a very large notebook he called the "bible" and happily showed me two salads and two soups. Any place that serves salads can say they have gluten free foods. I was very disappointed but not surprised. My guess is that many of the places listed in your article are saying they have gluten free items that will turn out to be salads. For all of us with IBS, salads are out so this doesn't help me at all. I have said goodbye to Panera's. I would like to share that there is a wonderful eatery in Grand Rapids Michigan, Marie Catrib's of Grand Rapids. They carry many items that are gluten free, dairy free and vegan. Everything is made fresh and is very tasty. The wait staff are all trained about food allergies. They have a wonderful bakery and deli. I can't say enough about how much they care about providing for people with special diets. They are so willing to make something you will not only be safe eating but also enjoy. This restaurant gives me hope that others will follow and not just say they have gluten free items because they serve salad.

Posted by: Sue Ann | July 30, 2010 11:00 PM    Report this comment

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