A question from Laura:
Help! Tell me how to order gluten free at restaurants! It seems like no matter where I go, servers don’t understand and my order ends up wrong or I get sick. Please help me navigate this tricky situation.
This is such a great question and one I am asked frequently. My husband and I eat out almost every week and travel often so this is something I deal with all the time. For me, it seems like it always ends up being a 4 part process.
The first step, before even getting to the point of ordering, is to politely explain your situation to the hostess manager and server before you sit down. That way you become comfortable prior to getting a seat and ultimately feeling bad if you end up leaving, if you don’t think they can accommodate your needs.
Explain your situation and ask them if they are able to provide you with a safe meal. You will get the obligatory “contamination” disclaimer but putting a face to an order sometimes helps. Ask if they have a gluten-free menu or gluten-free options to choose from because often these are the places who have a basic understanding of gluten.
Next, scan the menu and ask these questions
- Do you have a dedicated fryer for foods that are gluten free? For example, many places will say their french fries are gluten free but do not have separate fryer, so they are automatically contaminated from the start and are not technically gluten free.
- Can you prepare my food separately to prevent cross contamination with your other items? For example, make sure they aren’t cutting your meat with the same knife they used to cut a loaf of bread.
Don’t be afraid to ask your server questions.
For example, have other people had gluten free meals there they love? What’s their favorite dish? Often this will provoke the conversation and they will be interested in learning more about celiac disease or living a gluten free lifestyle.
Now, if you are at a place that doesn’t have a gluten free menu, there are still options you can choose from to play it safe. A salad with balsamic vinegar is uninspiring but safest choice. My doctor always recommends getting a grilled piece of plain meat, steamed veggies and a baked potato with butter or sour cream. When you say plain meat, that means no seasons except salt and pepper! No marinades and no dressings because of the often hidden gluten lurking in them. Just remember to make sure they know you are gluten free and/or have celiac disease even if there is no menu. Take the same precautions anywhere you go!
Finally, check your food when it comes out!
I can’t emphasize this enough. Servers and restaurants are busy and everyone who works there is human so sometimes they make mistake. It’s very easy for a food runner to deliver to you a salad prepared with croutons or switch a gluten free bun for a regular one. We aren’t the only customers eating there and especially when they are busy and more prone to mistakes.
If your meal does come out incorrect, be nice! I can’t emphasize being nice enough. Many years ago, I worked as a server and I can tell you the nice customers always received the best service from me. Politely explain the problem with your meal and ask for it to be corrected. I promise I’ve never experienced a server that wasn’t remorseful for sending out the wrong food!
Lastly, don’t forget to tip the server well if they went out of their way to help you or make sure you had a safe experience. That will hopefully serve as a reminder for the next person that comes in and they will provide them with awesome, safe customer service as well. I like to write a note on my credit card receipt that says “Thank you for keeping me safe.” If they really went out of their way or the manager checks in with me as well, I will write a thank you note to the owner of the restaurant or write a rave review online for the world to see.
So, what do you do if your service is subpar? I always talk to the management first. Most places are quick to remedy the situation because they don’t want customers leaving with a negative feeling about their restaurant. If management does not respond or fails to provide an appropriate response, then writing an accurate, detailed review of your experience online would be your best bet. Avoid getting heated, calling names, being accusatory or showing your emotions in the review. Stick with the facts from your experience to be sure other readers take your review seriously and even potentially provoke a response from the restaurant.