How Can Restaurants Best Offer Gluten-free Food?

It’s so hard to travel–whether for business or pleasure–when you have celiac and have to be completely gluten free. The gardener has a pretty bad case of celiac, so he has to be vigilant. Unfortunately, travel and being vigilant don’t mix very well.

A lot of people comment to me that it’s so easy to find gluten free in restaurants today. Well, it’s easy to find restaurants that say they offer gluten free options. But are they really gluten free? Judging by how the gardener reacts, many times they are not.

Then I found an article in the newest issue of Gluten-Free Living called “One-third of labeled gluten-free restaurant food contains gluten” by Van Waffle. (Yup, that’s the byline!)

The title kind of gives away the gist of the article. SO DEPRESSING. And I am so not surprised. Time and again, we have to correct servers about items on the menu. An entree labeled gluten free, but made with regular soy sauce. GONG. Chicken noodle soup listed as gluten free. GONG. French fries made in a fryer that cooks glutenous food. GONG. It goes on and on. Then they lie, too.

The other day I picked up burgers and fries at our favorite local place that has a dedicated fryer, meaning it only fries gluten-free food in it. As usual, the gardener’s burger and fries were in a box. I opened it and looked at it. The lettuce, onion, and tomato were missing. When they gave it to me I said, “This is gluten free, for sure?” Oh yes, yes. Actually I asked two different people! But I had a funny feeling. Our burger place is a brewery, and it’s dark by the bar where you pick up take-out.

When I got to the car I noticed that the box did not say GF on it as it usually did. So I went back in. This time I was very insistent, and the woman who checked it said it wasn’t gluten free. They would make a new one. “They can’t just take it off that bun and put it on another one, you know.” She knew that.

While I waited I wondered why I had given them a nice tip. Three different people had “helped” me, and nobody seemed to care if my husband got sick from their food or not.

What we are doing wrong, for the most part, with gluten free food in restaurants is not taking precautions starting from the menu planning and kitchen design.

One of the places we traveled to this summer was Quebec. There were three restaurants with distinctive ways of handling the situation. As a side note, this issue of Gluten-Free Living has an article about GF food in Quebec!

  1. Ottavio in Gatineau is a very casual Italian restaurant. They don’t serve alcohol, so we picked up some wine at the gas station across the street. The wine was good! but I digress. Ottavio has two separate kitchens–one for gluten and one for no gluten. They also serve the gluten free food on red dishes (P.F. Chang’s also uses separate plates which has got to be so helpful to servers and makes the diner feel more secure).  The food was good, and the gardener did not get sick.
  2. Arepera in Montreal is an extremely casual Venezuelan restaurant that is gluten-free! The food was good, and there was no stress at all. The gardener can’t eat beans either (just one of many food intolerances that have developed as part of celiac disease), but there was plenty of food to eat.
  3. Bistro Le Veravin in Quebec City is supposedly 99% gluten-free. Personally, I think they ought to be 100% because it would make it easier, and I am guessing it is more like 90% gluten free. But the food was delicious, and the gardener did not get sick. He had a wonderful selection of food to choose from. I had the poutine au canard (duck confit poutine) because poutine you see.

So separate kitchens is a wonderful idea for providing gluten-free food for diners. But being 100% gluten free is the best because then the celiac can totally relax and enjoy instead of paying attention to everything so that a mistake doesn’t happen.

Back to poutine: this was a breakfast poutine in Ontario. Wowsa. So good. Sadly, not gluten-free.

Next week we are going to try a gluten-free restaurant that is a little closer to home. Fingers crossed!

Our gas station wine–tasty and gluten-free!




Filed under #writerlife, #writerslife, Food & Drink, gluten free, gluten free restaurant, gluten free travel, Sightseeing & Travel, Writing

36 responses to “How Can Restaurants Best Offer Gluten-free Food?

  1. Thats a super lot of dining carefully!

  2. I have some food sensitivity issues, especially with dairy and I know the worry. Too much butter in a dish will send me directly to the bathroom for the remainder of the dinner. I am fortunate that my symptoms are not as severe as the gardener but I know the anxiety when dining out. I ask a lot of pointed questions and hope the answers are correct. I can’t imagine having celiac disease. Gluten is in everything and most people don’t know that.

    • Yes, gluten is hidden everywhere! And the quantity that makes one sick is awful, too–1/500 of a slice of bread. Dairy is a hard one, too, because it’s in so many things. Both the gardener and I are lactose intolerant, and unlike gluten a little bit can be tolerated by both of us. For instance, we can eat a lot of parmesan cheese (if we wanted to), but condensed milk will make us both sick. Parmesan has very little lactose, whereas condensed milk, as I’m sure you know, is full of it. But we can eat some cheese. As you say, if we eat something with too much butter or cheese, etc. we start to get sick. Is your problem with lactose or is it a milk allergy?

  3. There’s no excuse for a restaurant to be ignorant about what GF means. For some restaurants, advertising as GF is probably just a marketing tactic since not everyone who requests GF is allergic to gluten. It’s frightening that restaurants would lie. I read an article about how a woman with nut allergies almost died because she was unaware that nuts were in the sauce of her entree. When asked, the server said it was only pine nuts which the woman should have been able to eat without reacting. In sum, the restaurant servers and cooks didn’t even know what exactly was in the dishes they were serving! Even with no diet restrictions, I find it tricky to eat out.

    • I think it’s disgusting when the person who prepares the menu doesn’t understand what is gluten-free and what is not. And I used to think if a restaurant didn’t pretend to have gluten-free it was fine because it was “our problem,” not theirs. I no longer feel that way. The statistics are huge for people with celiac and gluten intolerance, but there will be many more diagnosed in the near future. They estimate a ton of people have one of these issues and don’t even know it! I hear within the past year about someone dying from a nut allergy at a restaurant!

      • A friend of mine here in Florida knows someone who works as a restaurant inspector. Although he can’t talk about the restaurants he’s inspected, he has said that, because of his work, he just doesn’t eat out anymore!

  4. I imagine it must be very tricky–and many people have no idea what gluten-free actually means–though you would think a restaurant would. I’m glad you found these places with great food. “Gas station wine!” 🙂

    • The rose is from an Ontario (Canada) winery, and the white is from a Quebec winery. What a surprise to find nice wine at a gas station!
      I was just saying to Marie that I used to think it wasn’t really the restaurants responsibility to offer gluten-free food. I no longer agree with that because of the #s of people who are celiac or have gluten intolerance–and it’s a growing and often undiagnosed problem as well. And then if you do say you have it, you better know what you’re talking about! The best American chains for delivering on promise are P.F. Changs and Outback, but you still have to be careful. The former is better than the latter.

  5. Great article, Luanne. I can imagine how tiring it is to have to stay on alert.

  6. After being sick for so long, I stopped eating out and my health improved dramatically.

    • I only realized I didn’t respond here when I was thinking about how I forgot to ask about your eyes! How are they feeling, Jill? And the rest of you feels better? I wonder what it is about the restaurant cooking? Do you have any theories?

  7. Same trouble here. Easiest to stick with eggs and fruit, but that would make traveling a little boring. I usuallly carry raw almonds and applesauce, just in case.

    • Good idea to carry the snacks! Applesauce is a good idea. The gardener usually carries rice cakes, cashews, dried fruit, rice crackers, and if he has the ability to keep it cold enough, cheese. You have celiac? How long ago were you diagnosed? We have also had trouble where to feed me and other people, my husband has tried to bring his snacks in to eat and the restaurant won’t let him. Sigh.

  8. Such a difficult food situation. I can’t imagine how challenging. Wow!
    Seems like the two kitchen idea is the best if they can afford to do it.
    How is our boy Perry coming along?

    • Two kitchens is a good idea, although 100% gluten free restaurants are even better because then there is no chance of an error. With a good chef in the kitchen, I don’t think anybody would miss the gluten! Case in point: Persian restaurants tend to be gluten free except for the bread and the baklava. There is a restaurant in Phoenix where the owner taught himself to make gluten free pita, so it can be done!!! Not so sure about the baklava though hahahaha. My point is that a Persian restaurant could be 100% gluten free if it wanted to be. Same is true of Thai restaurants. And Indian, again, if they figure out the bread issue. Same with healthy contemporary type food. It might be more difficult with, say, a French restaurant.
      I am waiting to hear from a radiologist about his chest xray. He’s thrown up a couple of times lately. The other thing is that although he’s young I might spring for a thyroid test, just to set my mind at ease.

    • Chest Xray is normal! Now waiting to hear if we do a thyroid test or stop here and hope for the best.

  9. Your story is scary in spots and heartening in others. I know how hard it can be to find food that is not going to make one sick. It’s particularly hard when people lie about the contents — or simply don’t know and don’t care. I hope the local restaurant you mentioned turns out to a be winner.

    • It was actually in California, Yorba Linda. We took our son there for his birthday. Very lovely not to have to worry because everything is gluten free. And they offer things you can’t get elsewhere, such as fish and chips. We will be back! Wishing there was one in Phoenix!!!

  10. It must be a real trial to have to worry about this instead of just being able to go out for a relaxing meal. I hope the restaurant near you proves to be a good one!

    • It was actually near my son, in southern Cali, rather than in Phoenix. I really wish it were closer to us. To have the entire restaurant be gluten free was so carefree! And to be able to order things you can’t easily get elsewhere GF–like fish and chips, for instance.

  11. Loved your three examples. So fun to hear how the problem is solved in different ways and that the gardener did not get sick from them. Sorry to hear it is necessary to put so much effort into it. Good for you for educating us on it!

  12. I’ve been transitioning away from gluten since I got so sick in May. My dad had undiagnosed Celiac’s and suffered terribly his last 2-3 years. If only a doctor would’ve know to test for that, my dad would still be alive. But it was 1991 and not as known as it is now. The autopsy reported sprue disease. So when I got sick, it really made me think about my future digestive health. So far so good. Chickpea pasta is a good substitute for semolina. I’m being cautious, but it’s not easy for that very reason you say. Even menu items labeled gf sometimes aren’t truly gf. Of course, in my case it’s not that imperative. But in others, like the gardener’s, it is.

    • Gosh, Cheryl, that is terrible about your dad. I am so so very sorry! He must have been pretty young. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but I guess it’s nearly 30 years. It did take the gardener 8 years or so to get diagnosed and then he had to lead the doctors to the diagnosis. Ridiculous.
      We read a lot of articles about celiac, and I do think YOU cannot be too careful because there is still so much they do not understand about “celiac sprue.” Have you been tested? And by tested I mean with an actual endoscopy, not just bloodwork? That is the only way my husband was diagnosed. Then the doctor apologized because she didn’t think it was celiac before she did the endoscopy. And he has it pretty bad. But he had 100 symptoms so that can be a little daunting for a diagnostician. You could have it, not know it, and have one symptom–or 100. You see what i mean? They just don’t know. And you can’t take a chance.

      • He died the month after his 59th birthday. It was devastating. The celiac/sprue made him very sick, but his cause of death was sepsis. A surgeon at the VA hospital cut his bowel. The surgeon thought a hernia was causing the symptoms and pain. There wasn’t a hernia. My dad died slowly over a two-week period. I was 23. So far, I’ve had zero symptoms. But neither did my dad until his mid-50s. So, I’m happy to be proactive. We eat pretty clean anyways.

  13. I do so wish you luck. I do know how hard it is, which is why when you’re on an elimination diet, gluten is the first thing you add back, because if you’re okay from there, SO many more options.
    I kid you not, I was googling a gluten-free recipe for a friend the other day, and one of the first ingredients was ‘all purpose flour’ and had I had all the time in the world, I would complain to the author.
    Anyway, I’ve had similar experiences with caffeine. No, it won’t kill me like a cardiac patient, but a large caffeinated coffee will make me sick.

    • I did not know that about an elimination diet–that you add gluten in first. So interesting.
      That is really scary about the all purpose flour. Geez louise. You really need to watch yourself when you have a food intolerance, allergy, or disorder like celiac. The world can seem a little scary at times!
      So do you try to avoid caffeine now or do you order smaller drinks?

  14. We traveled with friends who are on gluten-free diets and I can totally understand your frustration with restaurants that SAY they are gluten free but aren’t. I hope you have a few more places to add to your list of “safe” ones.

  15. Hmmm. Very interesting, Luanne. And just the other day I learned that most curry has gluten. I didn’t even think of that until then.

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