How to Eat Gluten-Free at Restaurants
Dining at restaurants gives you a chance to get out of your house and enjoy good food and your community. And it’s great because you have no cooking or dishes to do.
But is it possible to eat out and eat gluten-free?
Is it Safe to Eat at Restaurants?
Yes, it can be safe to eat at restaurants. But certain risks come with dining out.
A restaurant kitchen is a beehive of activity. Multiple dishes are being prepared at the same time. Chefs and staff are busy preparing meals on shared workspaces, and food is often cooked in shared pots and pans (which is where the risk of cross-contamination comes into play). In all that chaos bread crumbs may accidentally fall into a salad container. So what you thought was going to be a tasty gluten-free salad causes you to feel ill.
Different people will be handling your food. The waitperson takes your order, but a chef prepares the meal. Then someone else might bring the plate to your table. All of this switching around can increase the risk that something can become cross-contaminated.
Despite the risks, thousands of people sensitive to gluten dine out all the time and you can too. All you need is a few restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu, the answers to a few good questions, and the willpower to trust your instincts if something does not seem right.
How to Find Restaurants with Gluten-Free Food
Thanks to the Internet and smart phones, finding gluten-free restaurants is easier. And since going gluten-free has exploded in popularity, restaurants and people are aware of it more than ever.
With a little research you can find restaurants that have a gluten-free menu. If you’re using the Internet, type in a search phrase like “gluten-free restaurant your hometown” which will give you available options.
If you have a Smartphone, there’s an app called “Find Me Gluten-free” that uses your geographic location to find nearby restaurants.
Referrals can help find gems, so you can ask trusted people to suggest gluten-free restaurants. Or ask a favorite waitperson at your local hang-out for menu recommendations.
Many restaurants don’t want to lose customers, so they might work with you to accommodate your needs. But don’t assume a restaurant will have gluten-free food, so do your due diligence ahead of time to find out if they do. It’s best to know before you show up hungry and find there’s nothing on the menu you can eat.
As of this writing, these particular restaurants offer gluten-free menus:
- Bonefish Grill
- Boston Market
- California Pizza Kitchen
- Carrabba’s Italian Grill
- Chipotle Mexican Grill
- In-N-Out Burger
- Le Peep Restaurants
- Noodles & Company
- Olive Garden
- On the Border
- Outback Steakhouse
- P.F. Chang’s China Bistro
- Pei Wei Asian Diner
- Red Robin
- Uno Chicago Grill
Now that you know what to expect and have a few restaurant options, you’re good, right? Wrong. It’s still possible to get gluten if you’re not careful. When you arrive at a restaurant it’s important to immediately establish your dietary restrictions with the wait staff.
Some wait staff know what it means to serve a meal gluten-free, some are eager to learn, some are empathetic, and some just don’t care. So you may need to “educate” your server to make sure you get everything the way you want.
Rather than leaving all the research to your server, call the restaurant ahead of time. The hostess may or may not know the answers, but they can connect you with the manager or assistant manager (which would be ideal because they and the chefs know the menu and the kitchen well). Call during off-peak hours; otherwise, they may not have enough time to discuss your needs.
Below are some good questions to ask (feel free to add any particular questions relating to your special needs):
- What gluten-free menu items do they have?
- What precautions do they take to keep food gluten-free?
- If they serve pancakes or hamburgers, are the gluten-free ones cooked on the same griddle as the non-gluten?
- Is the salad pre-mixed with croutons or other gluten-containing toppings?
- Ask if you can be seated with a gluten-knowledgeable member of the wait staff as some servers are more aware than others.
Keep in mind that researching which restaurants serve gluten-free food only needs to be done periodically. It’s a good idea to check every six months or so to see what changes have occurred — and any time there is a change in management — to ensure the same protocols for gluten-free dining are being followed.
But even if you know the restaurant has a gluten-free menu, you should talk with your server upon arrival to make sure they handle your order properly. Always communicate to your wait person that you have to eat gluten-free. This is an outline of steps to follow when you arrive:
- Ask for the gluten-free menu before being seated.
- When your server comes to take your drink order, let them know you intend to order from the gluten-free menu.
- Ask if they can recommend any gluten-free appetizers. This is a great way to alert them that you’ll be eating gluten-free throughout the meal.
- Ask which salad dressings are gluten-free (don’t be surprised if they don’t know as this usually isn’t a topic of discussion in the kitchen). Places like Amazon.com sells gluten-free salad dressings in portable packets. It’s a good idea to keep some in your car or handbag in case a restaurant can’t tell you if its dressings are gluten-free.
- Confirm that your salad isn’t pre-mixed with croutons or any toppings containing gluten.
Your meal should go well if the answers to all your questions have been answered to your satisfaction.
Another important point: When you plan to dine with a group, take charge for choosing where to go. That way, you’ll be guaranteed to have gluten-free options!
Lastly, if your instincts tell you that something is not right, don’t eat and don’t be afraid to leave.
But what if you’re asked to join the CEO of your company for dinner at the last minute? And what if the restaurant doesn’t have a gluten-free menu? I’ll talk about how to deal with that next.
How to Improvise
On occasion you’ll end up in a situation where you need to dine at a restaurant that doesn’t have a gluten-free menu. For instance, if you’re traveling for work and you’re asked to join your boss or colleague for dinner.
What should you do? You have options available. Of course, the obvious one is to decline (unless it means you’ll upset your boss). Or you could join but not eat.
The other option is to improvise. Mention your needs to your server immediately upon arrival. Then look at the menu and see if you can find what should be a gluten-free item. Foods like grilled chicken or a side of vegetables can often be prepared safely for you by cooking them in a separate pan.
If the setting isn’t conducive for discussing your dietary restrictions in front of your boss (as it would be embarrassing), excuse yourself to talk with the hostess. Or pull the server aside and let them know your special dietary restrictions.
If you’re comfortable with the people at your table, tell the server you’re allergic to gluten and you need to know what options they have. If they’re not sure, suggest they send a manager or chef to see you and ask them what they recommend.
Or tell them what you prefer, such as grilled chicken along with steamed vegetables – all prepared on separate cookware. Meat is safe as long as it’s cooked on a gluten-free surface and is unseasoned. You can also safely eat fruit, or a selection of vegetables.
Or you can order a salad with instructions like:
“I’d like a blank salad. Does that come with croutons or breadsticks? I need a salad that hasn’t touched any bread whatsoever?”
Ask for olive oil and a splash of lemon juice for dressing, a specialty vinaigrette (flavored vinegar and oil), or use one of those handy portable salad dressing packets I mentioned earlier.
You can usually find something safe to eat. It takes a little work and may not be exactly what you want, but it’s only one meal and at least you won’t go away hungry.
- It’s generally safe to eat at restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu.
- You can find restaurants that offer a gluten-free menu by searching on the Internet, or using an app on your Smartphone.
- When you find a restaurant with a gluten-free menu, call ahead of time to discuss available options.
- When you first arrive at a restaurant, make sure the server knows you need to eat gluten-free. Ask questions to make sure they understand your needs. If they seemed confused or don’t know what gluten-free is, talk to the manager or chef.
- If you’re at a restaurant that doesn’t offer a gluten-free menu, you can improvise by eating plain salad, fruit or vegetables. Don’t forget to ask questions about toppings, breadsticks, etc.
- Dining out gives you the opportunity to get out of the house and enjoy food and community, and it provides a respite from cooking and cleaning dishes.
Yes, it can be riskier to eat at restaurants than at home. But most of the risks can be identified and minimized by asking questions. It wouldn’t hurt to always have a list of questions handy so you don’t forget something important.