How To Order Gluten Free At Restaurants

A question from Laura:

Dear Rebecca,

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.

Eating out gluten freeThis 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.

How To Order Gluten Free at Restaurants

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!

The Tip

leave a good tip for great gluten free serviceLastly, 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.

Have a Question for Rebecca? Post Your Question Below.

  • TryItThisWay

    I’m so sorry, but I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Do not explain your situation to THREE people starting from the moment you walk in. A mainstream restaurant that hasn’t yet become educated sufficiently in gluten contamination is not able to take your course during their dinner hour. That is INCREDIBLY insensitive. And as Celiacs, we are asking these restaurants to be sensitive to our needs. So that’s just not the way to go about it. Period. Every restaurant we walk into, and do what amounts to a surprise inspection, can’t possibly be ready for us (though many are NAILING this), so it’s on us to do a little research ahead of time. If the group of people I’m with insist on going someplace that doesn’t really have a good set of options for me, then I need to opt out of the event (if they insisted on going to strip club, I’d opt out, and not every friend-event MUST be centered around my needs). It’s possible to eat well in almost any town, by doing a little research ahead of time on the web or by calling between 2pm-4pm when restaurants are slow and they are properly preparing for their evening rush. Any conversation you need to have with management or hostesses, needs to happen THEN and not on the fly. It’s foolish to stake your health on the reliability of the person you’re giving a pop-quiz to when you walk in unannounced and start educating them in their busiest hour.
    Here are the parts I DO agree with:
    1) You can ask your server questions — but if you have any decency as a human being, you will not spring, “can you prepare my food in a separate environment” on a server during the dinner rush. If you haven’t arranged that with a manager between 2-4pm, then order a salad. Here’s the best question to start with, “I’ll be at your restaurant this evening and I have a food allergy. May I pre-order my food now to avoid frustrating your server and my companions?”
    2) Check your food. Even a very well-intentioned server or food runner will miss things, or do things automatically, like sprinkle a seasoning blend onto your plate. Or sprinkle croutons, realize their mistake and —-ugh—- pick them off, leaving crumbs behind which would make us sick for days…. So yes, check your food, and be nice. Be very, very, VERY nice.
    3) Tip well. Always do that anyway unless you’re a jerk.
    Annnnnd here’s what I would ADD:
    1) Develop a relationship with restaurants you like. Visit often and tip well. If you like a restaurant and they like you, you will have no problem because the staff will look out for your well-being.
    2) Actively seek out restaurants that advertise gluten free options. These are the people who already care — so you’re already over the first hurdle.
    3) Call high-end restaurants in your area (between 2-4pm) and ask them questions. Tell them that you have this sensitivity, educate them in terms of how it differs from an allergy, but let them treat it like an allergy, because “allergy” is a very effective code word in restaurants.
    4) Be a delightful customer and companion in all other ways. The surest way to annoy people (the staff AND your companions) is to be a difficult customer. So, don’t do that. It’s awful. Don’t be that person.

    • Guest

      THANK YOU!

    • PrettyLittleCeliac

      We travel a lot and I am frequently in situations where I need to eat at places that do not have dedicated menus. I understand we have special dietary needs but I make it a point to advocate for my health and to be very clear about my needs. There are many restaurants that are not willing or able to accommodate me and I’ve actually been told at least 3 times that they cannot provide me with safe options when we arrive. I’m not going to wait to sit down and get a drink and then be waited on to finally realize if they can provide a safe meal for me.

      While I agree with you to seek our restaurants for having a gluten free menu or options, that doesn’t mean they train there staff. Any review site will show you that people get sick regardless of having a dedicated gluten free menu. I’ve actually been sickened the most at a restaurant who had trained staff and kitchen for gluten free foods and preparation. I was served the wrong plate of food and sick for a week.

      Like I said, I travel frequently and often eat at restaurants without gluten free options or menus. If you explain your situation, they are usually very willing to accommodate you.

  • Ginger

    I don’t agree either. I worked in restaurants for years and your grilled meats are cooked on the same grill bread or seasoned meats are grilled on. Salads, croutons and breads are usually all kept near or together and prepared in the same area, and forget the dressings….unless they have some kind of training. Most still think offering a gf bread substitute is all we need.

  • Theautismguru

    And many chain restaurants buy their baked potatoes seasoned in foil, so contaminated. It takes a heap of questions of all staff. Many restaurants will also simply remove the croutons off the premise salads and don’t tell anyone.