Part 4: In the Restaurant

gluten free business lunch

Part 4: Out to eat? Play it safe. Really, really safe.

When you’ve got celiac disease, going out to eat sucks. I wish I could sugarcoat it for you a little bit, but there are just no two ways around it.

Why does a normal person go out to eat? To try new foods. To eat in a different atmosphere. To get waited on. To steal from your kid’s plates when they’re not looking.

But almost everything that is fun and spontaneous about eating out can be overshadowed by the anxiety of whether you can get through your ordeal unscathed.

Will your waiter be understanding/patient/human?

Will the kitchen know what you’re talking about when you try to explain what gluten is?

Will they take it as seriously as you need them to take it?

Do they really understand about cross-contamination?

And lastly, will you have your next six months ruined because you just wanted to get out of the house for an evening?

So what’s a poor celiac do to??

Follow these steps…

The Dude went out with the extended family a few night’s back to a restaurant I have never been to. It’s a nerve-wracking experience. Here are the steps I took to (hopefully) ensure my night went as smoothly as humanly possible. Do the same and increase your odds of a healthy, happy evening.

Step 1: A few hours before we left, I called the restaurant and asked to speak with the manager (who sounded about 12…first bit of trepidation.) I explained my situation and I was told they actually had a gluten-free menu. That’s a good sign, but not a guarantee they have their sh*t together.

Step 2: As we entered the restaurant, I again asked to speak with the manager just to say “Hey…I’m the guy who called. Please be my friend tonight.” We went over the menu a bit and I took my seat.

Step 3: While everyone else looks at the menu to see what they want, I study the menu to see what I cannot have (which is usually about 95% of the menu). It’s a process of elimination that can take some time. If it’s a large menu, sometimes I don’t even bother and I just wait until the waitress comes along.

Step 4: The waitress comes over to the table and I stand up and quietly explain my situation to her. Note that I said quietly. I hate the attention that my situation brings and I also don’t want to put the waitress on the spot in front of the whole table. We go over the do’s and don’ts and the can’s and can’ts of making gluten free food.

Step 5: It’s time to order. The moment of truth. I usually have at least three items that I will ask questions about and will always go with the safest choice, even if it’s not my first choice. I get the Ahi Tuna with no sauce, veggies and brown rice. A bit nervous about the rice, but she assures me it’s ok. Then she asks if I want the soup with my dinner. Of course I say no, but she says it’s vegetarian chile and it’s totally safe for me to eat. At this point, I had a weak moment. I said ok. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Too many ingredients. Too many things that can go wrong. The risk far outweighed the reward. Mrs. Dude wasn’t a happy camper. And rightfully so. I did not practice what I preach. It’s two days later and I think I’m ok (though it took me four hours to get out of bed this morning), but it was still an idiotic decision.

Is the extra work/worry worth it? Are you better off just staying home? I can’t answer that. From a health perspective, you put yourself at risk anytime you eat food that someone else prepares. But at the same time, we have to live our life, right?

Just don’t order the chile.

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24 thoughts on “Part 4: In the Restaurant”

  1. Nice post but I have a question. Could you list somewhere exactly what questions you ask the waitress/manager/chef? I tend to get overwhelmed and blank out. I just always feel like such a nuisance but I realize that this is what I mist do to at least have a chance of getting a safe meal. Thanks! Love your blog.

    1. Hi Sharon. The questions I ask depend on the type of restaurant I’m at and the specific food I order.

      But for the most part, I put a big emphasis on flour, since that can be a staple in a lot of kitchens. I also mention bread crumbs. And I emphasize that they must use clean pots, etc. when cooking to avoid cross-contamination. And most important, I make sure the waitress writes NO GLUTEN on the slip and circles it so the chef always has it in front of him/her as the meal is being prepared.

      Yeah…it’s a pain.

  2. I was diagnosed in August 2011 and have found that outside meals are the final frontier after figuring out the tricky stuff (removing contamination at home, learning which processed foods I can trust–even the GF-labeled foods are suspect, replacing toiletry items that contain hidden gluten, figuring out that, like oatmeal, beans and legumes are often contaminated, etc.). Now that the tricky stuff is tackled, I feel like I’m actually healing and not getting glutened.

    That brings me to the final frontier. I’ve gone to restaurants with a GF menu and gotten massively glutened due to lack of safe food handling practices (even after politely and quietly providing some simple instructions and phoning ahead). We now only frequent restaurants that boast a decent GF menu AND safe food handling practices. And the experience and service are usually good. I’m hoping that after I’ve fully recovered, my immune system won’t be so sensitive. This is really isolating! Our family and friends miss us when we can’t go to gluten-y restaurants with them. (Not to mention my need for extra rest during the recovery process, which has really cut into leisure time to spend with them, too.) I know there isn’t a solution…just co-miserating. 🙂

    1. Co-miserate with me any time you wish 🙂

      Have you found a decent number of restaurants that offer a separate gluten-free menu? I know PF Changs does but that food is so heavy/salty/large that it always makes me feel ill and I no longer go there.

      Hang in there Jen!

  3. I have had the best luck with local places. For example, there’s a restaurant owned by a family with several celiacs, and they have separate kitchen. Lettuce Entertain Restaurants (found in some areas in the US and even a few abroad) are usually awesome when it comes to gluten free and cater to celiacs–not just gluten free. Many of them have a separate area in the kitchen just for us! My husband and I learned a lot about local options by going to a celiac research dinner/wine tasting benefit and talking to veteran celiacs.

    As far as chains, I’ve been thinking about trying Red Lobster, as they have a gluten-free menu, and it seems like they understand contamination based on how the menu is organized. Plus, basic baked or steamed fish is inherently healthy, and it’s not like an Italian restaurant where segmentation seems impossible. But I’ve been too chicken, and my husband encourages me not to risk it yet!

    1. I gotta side with your hubby on this one. Not that Red Lobster is “fast food” but I gotta believe that is sort of their kitchen mentality.

      Tread lightly…

  4. Since I’m newly diagnosed, I haven’t tackled any restaurants. We do have a couple locally that offer a pretty decent gluten free menu but I’m afraid to try them. I’m not sure what questions to even ask, and as you said, I don’t like to bring attention to myself. Do you ask if the food is prepared in a separate location? With separate utensils? I’m so new to this that I’m not even sure how to go about this! Any advice would be appreciated!

    1. The Gluten Dude

      Hi Danica. I would say just try to follow my steps outlined above. But yes, the kitchen must use utensils/cookware that is separate or has at least been run through the dishwasher.

      And just go plain until you learn what you can and can’t eat at a certain restaurant. No sauces. Just plain fish or meat and a veggie. I know…it’s boring. But it’s safe.

      And if you have any doubts, do not eat there.

      Good luck to you.

  5. What about when you go eat sushi? What kinds of questions do you ask about what they use in their rice, sauces, etc? Do you ask all of the these questions on the phone or when you arrive?

    1. Make sure sushi rice is not cooked with soy sauce. A few places do to make it stick together. Most don’t though.

      No crab meat unless it’s real. Most use imitation.

      I simply stick with sashimi or salmon/avocado rolls.

      No matter how careful you are, I won’t say it’s not a risk.

      Good luck.

  6. So happy I found this website, been gluten free about a year, celiac disease, mis diagnosed for years, found out at 59 years
    young. So many challenges w/ restaurant food. If going out w/ a group, I call ahead , discuss gf options, get all my info and I pretty much know what to order when I get there. I always remind the server that my food has to be prepared alone, and that I have a disease. Looking forward to more tips.

  7. Hi there Mr. Dude
    We love Red Robin for hamburgers and fries. We live in north east North Carolina and go to the one in Chesapeake, Va and they are super awesome. They have a separate allergy frier for the fries and serve gluten free buns, I believe they are Udi’s brand. I know that the kitchen manager always cooks the allergy foods. and then the floor manager always brings it out. I know this because several times before they worked out all the kinks the kitchen manager would come to our table and bring the package or bottle of anything s/he had questions on its ingredients, as of the last time we went in the manager ( most know us by now) we were told that they had mandatory training for management, kitchen and staff for allergy most heavily on gluten and nut. It is great to be able to go with our friends who have kids or a group of friends because they always take care of us. ( my husband is gluten free at home and whenever I am with him )
    another great place for burgers is Five Guys. there friers are only used for fries when you step up to the counter and tell them you have a gluten allergy everyone in the kitchen except the bun person( separate grill for buns.) pulls off their gloves and replaces them. then they cook our burgers of course you have to get it bunless or wrapped in lettuce but it is so good,
    I think most places are getting more and more aware of gluten as an allergy and try to take steps to insure our safety.
    Oh and in Chesapeake the Cupcakery ( they were on cupcake wars) their kitchen in chesapeake is dedicated GF and they make some wonderful cupcakes.
    Thanks you for this blog. I have been diagnosed for about 4 years and being a cook myself it made for some hard thinking and changing of my ways. but know I can cook for 30 people at a bbq or birthday party and no one is the wiser that all that they are eating is GF. Even on pizza night.
    Thank you

  8. When my nephew graduated last summer, his parents decided to have the open-house at a popular pizza parlor. I called the manager a couple of days before, prepared to just have a soda if need be. Somehow I wound up asking if I could bring a couple of slices of pizza that I made at home. I’d be happy to pay the price for a small one, I just couldn’t risk getting sick. He actually told me I was welcome to bring my own (as long as it wasn’t from a rival restaurant) and I didn’t have to pay anything to do it. So I got to enjoy time with my extended family…and eat some pretty decent homemade pizza.

    I’ve also taken my own salad dressing and croutons with me to the two restaurants I trust. But I’ve still been served a salad with no croutons (because I brought my own), only to see crouton crumbs all over the top…indicating that someone put them on – then picked them off. The waitress argued with me that they certainly did not…until I pointed out the one they’d missed, hiding under a piece of lettuce.

    I thought I’d lucked out with a Mexican restaurant that claims their only gluten-containing food is flour tortillas, so my daughter and I stopped in to pick up a few tacos…until they slapped a corn tortilla on the same warmer they used for the flour ones. Yeah. I cancelled the order. If they hadn’t started preparing it right in front of us though, I’d have never known…until the asthma-like symptoms hit.

    So I pretty much avoid restaurants. In fact, I haven’t set foot inside one in more than three months. That’s one of the things I miss most now that I can’t have gluten. I used to love going out for supper…and lunch and breakfast. Now it just reminds me of everything I can’t have. Not unless I make it myself.

  9. I honestly don’t want to eat out anymore because I can’t relax and enjoy it. I’d much rather invite everyone to my house and cook a delicious meal (I have become a good cook and getting better all the time). The other tactic I’ve taken is to socialize doing activities that don’t revolve around food, like hiking or going to a concert.

    That said, I survived eating out each evening for two weeks while traveling the countryside in England without incident. That, however, was the result of at least two weeks of calling restaurants and speaking to chefs (not cooks in chain restaurants) and managers. If they or I didn’t feel comfortable with their ability to feed me safely, I didn’t go there. England is way ahead of the US on the whole understanding of Celiac and their willingness to accommodate. And I was told the chefs enjoy the challenge of coming up with something delicious to fit your needs. I guess what I’m saying in a long convoluted way is I’d much rather spend more for a really good safe meal and eat out rarely than eat out often at places with iffy food practices. I’m rambling….

  10. Venturing out this evening for my first restaurant meal since DX nearly two years ago. A bit nervous, but I think I got this.

    This is the restaurant,

    and their current menu,

    Most of their dishes are incidentally/naturally GF, as opposed to ersatz versions of conventional non-GF meals, which meshes well with my eating philosophy (aside from the veg aspect, but I can handle that for one meal). Here’s a NYT review, which interestingly makes only passing reference to their GF fare:

  11. Have you ever addressed how to let a restaurant know you’ve been Glutened?

    We have a California Pizza Kitchen here where I live, and my dietician says they flow everything right in terms of protocol and cross contamination. Which is great! But from experience of working in a restaurant I know employees don’t always follow standards set in place. We also have a PF Changs but I’ve gotten sick there too. So I really want CPK to work because for me, it would be my only eat out resort. I’ve tried In N Out and they even made my food on a separate grill but something somewhere along the lines I was cross contaminated.

    I’d like to have one safe restaurant and I would like it to be CPK, any recommendations on how I can politely tell them, hey you glutened me and please get your ducks in a row because I would really really like to continue coming here…
    As always, thanks in advance GlutenDude 😉

  12. My Mom and I went to Twigs, a restaurant in Rochester, MN. I found it on an app called “Find Me Gluten Free.” The owner has Celiac. It has 2 kitchens, one dedicated gluten free. They had a FULL menu that was gluten free. When we arrived we were asked if anyone needed a gluten free menu. I got fresh made, warm, home made bread and it was soft and moist. I had a barbecue sandwich and fries. They were excellent. It takes me over 4 hous to get there and I was just there for my Dad’s surgery at Mayo, but I’m thinking, “ROAD TRIP!” for a gluten free friend and I. My Mom, who ate from the regular menu, thought it wsd a great choice too.

  13. I use the “Find me GF” ap also. You might also try the Vegetarian and Vegan restaurants. They seem to be knowledgeable on GF & some of them are all GF also but don’t necessarily advertise that way. I am in Sarasota and have found four restaurants I actually feel healthy walking out of!

  14. Hey! I stumbled across these five articles recently as I have been searching for ways to manage my celiac. I was diagnosed five years ago in college and while I have stayed away from gluten in the big areas I met with a nutritionist recently who helped me see I was still eating contaminated food all the time in my apartment with roommates and with my frequent eating out. Eating out with celiac standards I’m realizing is extremely difficult and this article has come at a great time to show me I’m not alone and that I need to continue striving for the best living possible. I am thankful that this problem is the biggest health issue I have and that there are so many resources. I will say though, at my age I’m struggling with making home meals and trying to have a normal social life. Any advice for a 20-something in how to navigate social situations and embrace my friends while also eating clean? It’s really hard to have to say no over and over again because I can’t eat out where people invite me.

  15. I go to Asian restaurants and salad bars. ( ask for low sodium tamari sauce – soy sauce made with wheat)

    I want to say DISNEY is excellent. Get their manager – explain your limitations. On more than one occasion, they cooked for me an item that was off menu. I feel very confident eating there.

    Beware of makeup – love Origins but they use wheat germ in many products.

  16. I was looking for advice on how to approach a new allergy diagnosis (not celiac, but a food preservative called natamycin) while eating out. I really appreciate the steps you laid out. I’ve found one restaurant locally that is so kind and helpful for my allergy and several that have dismissed me as foolish. It’s still hard to not let the anxiety and paranoia ruin a meal out, but the steps help ease that!

    Thank you from someone learning about food allergies.

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Who I am. And who I'm not.

Who I am. And who I'm not.

I AM someone who's been gluten-free since 2007 due to a diagnosis of severe celiac disease. I'm someone who can steer you in the right direction when it comes to going gluten-free. And I'm someone who will always give you the naked truth about going gluten free.

I AM NOT someone who embraces this gluten-free craziness. I didn’t find freedom, a better life or any of that other crap when I got diagnosed. With all due respect to Hunter S. Thompson, I found fear and loathing of an unknown world. But if I can share my wisdom, tell my stories and make the transition easier on you, I’ve done my job.

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