Equal Options for Gluten-Free Eaters: Are Accommodations Enough?

I’ll admit that living in New York City I am on a high horse about gluten-free fare. There are so many “organic” “vegan” and “gluten-free” restaurants in this city, it’s almost difficult to find one that won’t accommodate the diet of the day. Unfortunately, however, the key word there is accommodate. I have found that there are a lot of restaurants that are willing to “try the gluten-free thing” but aren’t actually capable of maintaining celiac friendliness. There will be cross-contamination, with servers and line cooks unaware of what gluten-free really means. Gluten-free to many restaurants simply means presenting a burger sans bun or a Caesar salad without the croutons (note: be careful, many Caesar dressings are made with Worcestershire sauce, often containing soy sauce, which has gluten!).

I recently traveled to Colorado and was struck by how prevalent the gluten-free options were. For example, I went skiing and at the lodge, where there are limited dining options to begin with, I saw a sign advertising that “any of our sandwiches can be made gluten-free.” I was skeptical, explaining to my friends that what that probably meant was my turkey burger would have either no bun, or an extra large piece of romaine lettuce as a substitute. Much to my surprise, not only was my burger grilled on a piece of aluminum foil to prevent cross contamination, it was also served on a corn and flaxseed tortilla, which had also been warmed separately. I was struck at how diligent a dining establishment could be without overtly bragging what type of accommodation they could make. Moreover, I was amazed that I wasn’t charged extra for the “special treatment.” My dietary accommodation was just that. It was an equal substitution for a food that I needed to keep me on the slopes without stomach issues.

This was not a unique occurrence in Colorado. At a brewery they offered gluten-free beer and gluten-free buns for their sandwiches, as well as providing specific asterisks to denote the gluten-free options. At a Mexican restaurant in Denver there was a box on each menu with the statement

Our menu offerings allow us to easily accommodate most of your dietary needs, including vegetarian and gluten-free. If you require special dietary modifications, please let your server know. Your requests will be handled professionally and with care by our kitchen staff. However, those with extreme intolerances or allergies should know that our kitchen is not set up to be free of cross-contamination.

This statement impressed me because it acknowledged that the staff was educated in what was or was not gluten-free. It also served to notify restaurant-goers that while they are capable of accommodating gluten-free, they don’t make any pretentions about being a dedicated kitchen. There are so many restaurants that don’t seem to grasp the difference between offering gluten-free items, and actually being safe for a gluten-free eater.

After my trip to Colorado, it is clear to me that other cities are doing gluten-free much better than NYC, a city that claims to know how to do food. What is your experience with travel and your own metropolis? What city does gluten-free the best?

12 thoughts on “Equal Options for Gluten-Free Eaters: Are Accommodations Enough?”

  1. We’re so happy you had a great experience in gluten-free Colorado. The awareness here is prevalent and important to creating a welcoming, comfortable atmosphere for all allergy sufferers.

  2. I just had a similar experience in Colorado. I was amazed by not just the gluten-free options but also the knowledge! They were much more aware of cross-contamination and what Celiac Disease is, compared to where I live (MA).

  3. For GF travelers. Argentina — at least in the cities — was amazingly knowledgeable about GF dining. The only word you need to know is “celiaca.” Point to yourself and say the magic word and they know what to do, no Spanish required to describe everything you can/can’t eat. In Buenas Aires, a lovely ice cream shop even has a symbol (wheat stalk) on the menu board for the ice creams that are NOT GF. Amazing! Who knew?

  4. You are right about Denver/Boulder–they do a superb job of accommodating GF needs. Surprisingly, Las Vegas is also excellent–first and only time since I was diagnosed that I had eggs benedict GF–at Mon Ami Gabi in the Paris hotel.

    Boston is also very good. Lots of restaurants offer gluten free menus and it is not uncommon to get GF bread at the table. Eugene, Ashland and Portland–all in Oregon–are way ahead of the curve as well.

    But the best memory I have so far is hot rolls fresh out of the oven at a restaurant overlooking the water in Venice, accompanied by gluten free Italian spaghetti. Bliss! Italy has an entire chain of GF friendly hotels. Makes it much easier to travel.

    Happy travels!

  5. Colorado Springs and St. Louis have been the best for me. New York City was actually the second worst in my experience. The worst being New Orleans.

  6. Your comments totally resonate with me. Some restaurants seem to think that eating gluten free is a fad diet rather than understanding that serious harm can come to not being careful with a Celiac’s food. We always talk to a manager about how GF meals are handled prior to ordering.

  7. Glutenfreeglobetrotter has a map and list of dozens of safe places in Manhattan for good food. I used it on a trip and had wonderful safe food. I’m surprised you didn’t know about if you live there! The Risotteria has an amazing menu. It’s in the West Village.

  8. I agree with your article, it amazes me sometimes how much food is cooked in wheat flour. I recently went to Hudson Grille restaurant in Midtown in Atlanta, which touts their wings as GF (because they were not breaded), but they fried them in the same oil as their chicken tenders and other breaded items, so obviously they are not GF!!

  9. It is so frustrating that so many restaurants don’t understand the difference between offering gluten-free options and being celiac friendly. Servers look at me like I have two heads if I mention the words “cross-contamination.” And even some of the better ones have such small selections I’d rather just eat at home.

  10. Denver is a wonderful city for celiacs! I travel there for business occasionally, and it’s so exciting to have choices. Beau Jo’s Pizza not only has gluten-free pizza, but the salad bar is kept GF. The croutons and other “glutinous” foods are kept in a separate serving area. I don’t recall ever having to explain the real meaning of GF to any server in Denver.
    Many of the GF foods that are distributed nationally are made in Colorado.

  11. My son has a restaurant in NYC called Market Cafe on 9th Ave. He has an extensive GF menu that focuses on all that you can have rather than what you must eliminate. Because of my own celiac, dairy, soy and egg issues, he is fully aware of the necessity of carefully handling food and dietary restrictions in avoidance of cross-contamination. I also went through his kitchen and looked at every ingredient in each recipe with him to determine what is GF etc. Since all of his meals are made to order with fresh ingredients almost all of his meals are GF just as they are. He has eliminated using flour for lightly dusting or breading by switching to cornstarch which can be eliminated if allergic to corn. He has a dedicated fryer for fries and even has gluten free breads, buns, and pasta. As one who finds it difficult to find restaurants that actually know what they are doing in regards to food issues, I wish his restaurant was in California where I live. I have never been sick at his place. I wish I could go into every restaurant’s kitchen as I did my son’s. I know that I am safe in his establishment.

  12. While in Colorado skiing at Beaver Creek & Vail, we were not able to GF beer at any of the bars & restruants. Quite a disappointment! So we were delighted to find a place at the airport that not only had a separete GF menu, but choices of GF beer.

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