Depending on your level of gluten sensitivity, a restaurant visit can be anywhere from no big deal to a big ordeal. There are many restaurants out there who have attempted to expand business by jumping on the GF bandwagon, but many do it without research first. I have encountered restaurants who advertised a gluten-free menu that consisted of a plain iceberg salad with no dressing, and those who have listed items as “gluten-free” without actually checking with the supplier because they didn’t actually contain bread.
When checking out a new restaurant, first try their website. If they offer an online gluten-free menu it is a good way to see the extent of their selection.
Signs that they may have done their homework include:
* Detailed ordering instructions (i.e. with or without a particular sauce or side)
* Specifics on which flavors of dressing or sauces are GF (meaning they have at least checked with the manufacturer)
* Wide variety, including both sides and dessert options
* Mention of a gluten-free agency such as the NFCA
* Mention of dedicated gluten-free fryers or equipment in the kitchen
* Gluten-Free flags on the primary menu, instead of having a separate allergens menu (more likely that the servers are gluten-aware).
Red flags that there may be a problem include:
* Extensive legal disclaimers about not guaranteeing absence of allergens and “at your own risk”.
* presence of deep-fried foods on the gluten-free menu (such as french fries) without mention of a dedicated GF fryer (You can call and ask)
* an extremely limited menu that includes mostly salads
* a primary menu that would require extremely careful handling by kitchen staff to prevent cross-contamination (e.g. a worker in a pizza place is going to be covered with flour and it will be in the air; to make a GF pizza in that environment is extremely tricky)
Check reviews on http://www.glutenfreeregistry.com/ and http://www.urbanspoon.com and look for reports of people being glutened. Pay attention to the reviewer’s gluten status, if given (i.e. how sensitive they are).
Once you have evaluated online, call or visit the restaurant during off-peak hours and talk to the manager and chef. Ask if their kitchen and serving staff are trained in gluten-free food handling to prevent cross-contamination of the food. Ask if the gluten-free items are prepared on a separate cooking surface, or what other measures are taken to prevent cross-contamination. Ask if the gluten-free status of the ingredients are verified every 6 months or more with the manufacturer to know they are gluten-free.
A visit may even be better, because you can also evaluate the cleanliness of the place. If the food is gluten-free but the booths are full of crumbs and the plates are greasy, then you are still risking getting sick. If you ask about the gluten-free menu and the hostess gives you a blank look or they have to go fetch a separate notebook or print it from online, that may be a red flag that the corporate office went gluten-free without telling the staff. If the manager, chef and staff are knowledgeable and confident in their gluten-free status and you are confident that they are taking proper precautions, it may be time to try the food.
The first three times you eat at a new restaurant, do so on a day when you can afford to be sick. If you work M-F, then visit on a Friday afternoon so that you can sacrifice the weekend if you get glutened. If you’re a student, try new restaurants on a semester break when you don’t have other plans. I say the first three times, because we have had a good first experience with a place, only to be glutened on subsequent visits. The kitchen staff is not the same from day to day. Only you know how much time you need to allow for a glutening; for my partner a bad exposure can give him pain and brain fog for up to three days.
Go to the restaurant on off-peak hours (either before or after the noon or dinner rush.) We have found that if we show up at a restaurant between 4pm and 5pm, we get kitchen staff who have the time and energy to be careful. They aren’t rushed off their feet or exhausted from the dinner rush.
Afterwards, take the time to post reviews on gluten-free registry and other resources. Mention your level of gluten-sensitivity and whether or not you were glutened by the food. This will help others better evaluate the restaurant.