Top 10 Tips for Gluten-Free Restaurant Dining

We’re often asked to write on the subject of how to get a gluten free meal in a restaurant, something that’s very near and dear to our hearts. Gluten free restaurant dining is hard, but there are some things you can do in a restaurant to greatly improve your experience.

Here are our Top 10 favorite tips to get you started. These tips are cribbed from the introduction to our Essential Gluten Free Restaurant, 4th Edition:

  • Talk to the Right Person. Make sure your instructions are heard by someone who has the power, ability, and motivation to help you. That can be the manager, the maitre d’, or even the owner.
  • Don’t Say Gluten…At First. For chefs, the term “gluten” can include some foods that are safe for the gluten-free diet, such as rice, corn, and other starches. That’s why I recommend spelling out “no wheat, rye, barley, and oats (in a restaurant setting),” and avoiding the word “gluten” the first time you visit a new restaurant.
  • Don’t be Afraid to Say “Allergy.” We all know Celiac disease isn’t an allergy, but I’ve heard of incidents where the gluten free diet has been treated by some restaurants as a fad diet. These customers didn’t get the attention they need… and deserve. I’ve also learned over the years that the word “allergy” means business in the restaurant world. Many restaurants have special procedures designed to handle food allergies. By calling attention to your special needs as an “allergy,” you signal to the staff to follow these special procedures, increasing the chance that you’ll get a safe meal.
  • Double Check. When your meal is served, always confirm with the server that it was prepared gluten-free. Good restaurants will tend to do this for you as a matter of course, but when they don’t, be proactive and ask—before eating.
  • Make it Easy. You know more about the gluten-free diet than your waiter does, so don’t make him guess the menu options that might be right for you. Scout the menu for choices that are likely to be gluten-free and present them to the waiter as starting points for further investigation. Let the waiter use his limited time to interface with the kitchen and to confirm that your choice is a safe one.
  • Make Yourself a Familiar Figure. As a gluten free diner, frequent visits to the same restaurant can have two impacts. First, working with you regularly reinforces for the staff the specific needs of your diet. Second, regular visits increase your value as a customer. The more valuable you are as a customer, the greater the incentive is for the restaurant to invest in providing a variety of delicious gluten-free options.
  • Reward Extra Service with an Extra Tip. I generally tip between 20-25% when someone handles my needs well, though I’ll go higher for exceptional service. The reason is that waiting on Celiacs requires far more effort than waiting on a typical patron. If you tip like everyone else, the waiter actually makes less money for the time invested with you than he does elsewhere. A good tip can neutralize this imbalance, and a great tip can actually give your waiter the incentive to go all out for you on future visits.
  • Notify the Restaurant Beforehand. When you can, it’s best to make reservations and let the restaurant know about your special dietary needs in advance. This gives the restaurant time to get up to snuff on the details of the diet, look into what might be gluten-free for you, and (sometimes) even make special accommodations. You can end up with more options and less hassle.
  • Take the Cuisine into Account. Be careful not to overwhelm the kitchen with irrelevant information that will impair their ability to grasp the big picture and help you. For example, the kitchen at an Indian restaurant doesn’t need to know about croutons and pasta, two ingredients typically found in Italian but not Indian cuisine. Too much information will distract the kitchen from the important task at hand—making you a gluten-free Indian meal.
  • Use a Dining Card. Communicating all the relevant information about Celiac Disease can be incredibly challenging. That’s why I use a good dining card to underscore my verbal instructions. It’s a written record of your conversation, and (if it’s carefully translated) can help you bridge a language barrier. Just make sure you know what the card says and that you can trust the translation.

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