Monday, March 7, 2011

Dining Out Tricks and Tips

As soon as I figured out I was lactose intolerant, I was terrified to go out to restaurants. Who knew who was going to poison my food with a pad of butter, a few drops of milk, or a sprinkle of cheese? I was always too embarrassed to say anything to my server, so opted for the seemingly safe choice...which would come garnished with dairy.

Now that I'm gluten and lactose free, I have had a major attitude adjustment. I am dining away from the comforts of my safe kitchen and exploring some of the best restaurants the city has to offer. Gluten-free awareness is growing so it is much easier to dine out now than it had to have been several years ago.

Here are some of my helpful tricks for dining
  • Choose wisely. Many ethnic cuisines, such as Thai (curries), Indian and Mexican are loaded with gluten and dairy free choices!
  • Do some research online. Many chain restaurants have easy to read allergen charts (that are often also available in the restaurant) so you can plan ahead. I made a little card to keep in my wallet that reminds me what boosts to avoid at Jamba Juice, for instance.
  • Be prepared - whether it is having some rice crackers in a bag or travel packets of gluten-free soy sauce for sushi.
  • Call ahead if possible. Before making a reservation, I always inquire about their gluten and dairy free options. This gives the restaurant plenty of advance notice and I don't know if this was done on purpose or just fate, but one restaurant placed me in the section with the waitress with the Celiac roommate.
  • Let the host know that you have dietary restrictions before sitting down. One over-eager hostess tried to tell me that their pasta didn't have gluten but other servers overheard and quickly corrected her and let me know what options I could have at a pizza and pasta place. Again, purpose or fate, but I had a Celiac waitress at another restaurant after telling the host I needed their gluten free menu.
  • Whenever the server comes around the first time (when my friends are still looking over the menu), I mention my restrictions and ask if he or she has any suggestions or if a particular item or two that caught my eye could be safely prepared.
  • Know what to say! At Chipotle, I do most of my ordering online and now just have to leave a "Change gloves" comment since they recognize my name. If I am going through their line, I ask, "Can you change your gloves? I'm gluten intolerant." The crew are fantastic and always wash their hands and change their gloves; they normally complete the rest of my order so only gluten and dairy free hands have worked with putting my bowl or tacos together. When at a restaurant, the script is a lot more free-flowing, but normally starts with "I'm gluten and lactose intolerant, so I can't have things like wheat flour or any dairy." Depending on my server's response (or lack thereof), I'll continue and say more or take out my dining card.
  • Stress the fact that you can't even have a little bit. One server offered me soup that had (wheat) pasta in it - he wasn't sure if I could have it... I have also had a salad come out with croutons - that was quickly given to a friend.
  • Don't be embarrassed. I've heard horror stories from friends ordering things that are naturally gluten-free only to have them arrive on top of an unannounced serving of bread! If your server does not know you cannot eat a particular allergen, he or she cannot provide you with safe food.
  • Always ask if you are not sure if things are gluten-free. I have had chickpea flour crackers at an Indian restaurant and corn chips at a Mexican restaurant. SO much better than a bread basket!
  • Be smart about what you are ordering. One restaurant advertised their wings being gluten-free. They were. But prepared in the same oil as their breaded wings. Our waitress was smart and caught that the oil was contaminated. She apologized for the delay in bringing our food out - the cooks changed the oil in the fryer. I normally bake my wings in the oven - it's important to know the different methods of preparation!
  • Let yourself be surprised. When wandering around for a light meal, a friend and I went into a small burger place. After hearing I was gluten and dairy free, the woman running the place asked what I wanted. She would make me anything. I was baffled by her "I'm taking care of you response" until she said her daughter has Celiac disease. My bunless hamburger came out on a nice plate (rather than a plastic basket) with several servings of French fries from a dedicated fryer. And have I mentioned that one restaurant had the Low-Carb burger on their menu? It was wrapped in lettuce.
  • Tip generously. Leave positive on-line reviews that include buzz words like "gluten" or "lactose".
  • Have fun. Try new things. I challenge myself to eat things I do not cook myself when dining out. My meals out tend to inspire me to crack open a cookbook and create a similar dish or even one that sounded delicious from the menu but had an offending ingredient!
What tricks do you use when you dine out? Have you had great experiences?

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