Thoughts on food-allergy-friendly restaurants

There are two kinds of restaurants: the kind I can eat at and the kind that I can’t. The problem is that in most cases I have to find out by trial and error. This is a real issue for everyone living with food allergies—especially people with multiple food allergies, like me.

Sometimes it’s obvious. At pizza joints, I know they’re going to serve gluten discs with tomato and dairy on top (see, pizza. Duh!). Fast-food/fried everything places (McWendy King) are kind of a no-brainer, too. And then there are Italian joints with names like Macaroni Grill (hell-o!), and ice cream parlors (could Dairy Queen be a more appropriate moniker?). I don’t even try to walk in those doors, and I appreciate the honesty of the titles for these establishments. Saves me time.

Then there are the places that try to get it right. Many restaurants have gluten-free menus, but I’ve found that most of those items are not also dairy-free. Some places have multiple, individual food-allergy menus, but sometimes, if you order something that matches on both the gluten-free and dairy-free pages, they screw up and give you a side item that is dripping in butter (such as has happened to me at both Applebee’s and Bonefish Grill). P.F. Chang’s goes further, by having the ability to cross-reference food allergies and print out a customized menu for individual patrons, but when I try to combine my gluten and dairy allergies, my menu options shrink to pretty much chicken and lettuce. (Fortunately, they serve delicious cocktails.)

When I order something at many of these places, it usually winds up just being (another!) salad—without cheese, croutons, or dressing—and then I trust them to get it right. (I mean, how hard is a freaking salad?). But when I find out they’ve screwed up, it’s usually after a tiny sliver of cheese has just hit my tongue, burning the inside of my mouth as it goes. (I don’t go to the Claddagh Irish Pub anymore.)

Then there’s the fear-factor. Half the time, when I walk into someplace new, they freak out when I tell them I have food allergies. (Gasp!) I have been at a steak-chain, Buckhead Mountain Grill, where, when I ordered a gluten-free chicken salad, sans cheese, I was served a plate containing only iceberg lettuce and chicken because they were afraid to give me the peanuts, mandarin oranges, tomatoes, and other vegetables (none of which were sautéed) that should have come with it. I have also literally had a waiter at Abuelos, a Mexican-chain restaurant, tell me that he didn’t want to “let” me order enchiladas, sans queso, because he was “afraid that cheese might fall down from a storage bin and accidentally land on” my order. (Really? Cheese will fall from the ceiling in the kitchen? What is this building constructed out of, again?)

Sigh!

It’s still search-and-find, but the places at which I tend to do best are the ones that use fresh ingredients (not prepackaged food, like many of the above-mentioned establishments do). Restaurants with actual chefs, not just line-cooks. Subway and Chipotle are great fast-food options for me. Yes, I’m still eating salads, but they’re not pre-made; I can easily control what’s in it. Sushi places and authentic Mexican, Chinese, and Indian restaurants tend to work for me, too. I still have to be careful, but I’m usually not limited to just salads. And then there is the one, true gem I’ve discovered, the Mellow Mushroom. It’s a pizza chain that has a menu option of (drum roll, please) gluten-free crust and dairy-free cheese! (Cue angel choir.) I gain about three pounds when I go there, so I have to limit myself, but… hallelujah!

I’ll still explore new restaurants, and I’m open to suggestions. In the meantime, I’m eating a lot of dry salad. Thank God for cocktails….

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