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Eating out in a restaurant has in many ways been my biggest challenge.  I got in the habit of cooking many years ago when I started eating low carb. At that time, I realized that in order to do so, I needed to stay out of the aisles of the grocery store and shop the perimeter. The perimeter is where all the good stuff is, the meats, dairy and produce.  The raw ingredients as it were. So cooking and eating at home are natural for me and while it’s required a few adjustments, it hasn’t been as disorienting to me as it might be to someone who hasn’t cooked much to begin with.

But eating out, that has been challenging.

Gluten Free has become a buzzword lately. Promoted by a number of celebrities as a weight-loss and health regime, many restaurants have jumped onto the gluten-free wagon with a fervor, if not a realistic idea. They promote that they have gluten-free menus without concern for the cross contamination that may be in their kitchen.

Case in point: California Pizza Kitchen this past year, came out with a gluten-free pizza crust. Sounds great right?  Earlier this year, CPK sent out an email to a number of gluten-free bloggers promoting the fact that they were offering a gluten-free menu. Of course they had a disclaimer on the bottom of their gluten-free menu which absolved them of any liability if someone ate from their gluten-free menu and got sick from “food allergies or sensitivities”.

CPK offered a gluten-free pizza crust, but did nothing else to ensure that the items they put on top were gluten-free. They did nothing to prevent cross contamination in their kitchen. Cases in point:

  • Fried items on their gluten-free pizzas were fried in a common fryer (Bang Bang shrimp for example). If items are fried in the same fryer with items that are coated with flour, those items are then cross contaminated.
  • Using the same sauce for their gf pizza as for their regular pizza (including the same ladle) means cross contamination from non gf pizzas.
  • They are using the same pizza pan for their GF and non GF Pizzas and simply putting a piece of foil down over it.

After much outcry from the celiac community, CPK stopped offering their gluten-free pizza.

Contrast that with Subway. In January of 2011, Subway began a limited test of gluten-free rolls and brownies in the Dallas area. The roll out has slowly expanded to approximately 500 locations as of September, 2011. One of the reasons for the slow roll-out?  They are committed to getting it right from supplies to training. 

Under Subway’s new guidelines, whenever a customer orders a gluten-free roll or brownie, the line staff will wipe down the entire counter of any crumbs. They will then wash their hands and change their gloves. The gluten-free rolls and brownies are pre-packaged on fresh deli paper, and the staff use a single-use, pre-packaged knife for cutting.Each gluten-free sandwich will be made and delivered from order to point-of-sale by the same person, as opposed to being passed down the line in the traditional Subway format.

Customers can watch the process from beginning to end.Most importantly, “If they don’t like what they see, they can start it over. It’s important that our customers feel comfortable and safe,” Christiano said. “Nobody is going to die from this, but people get very sick if it’s not done right. We want to provide them with a place to eat where they don’t have to worry about that.”

So two different chain restaurants (and darn it, I can’t wait til the GF subway starts showing up where I live) and two very different experiences.

I have noticed that in this year, that I have the least amount of success eating in regular chain restaurants that offer gluten-free menus. In most cases, the staff has no idea what gluten-free means, and the chances of cross contamination have been great. I’ve stopped eating with co-workers for the most part because 9 out of 10 times I end up sick. Restaurants I have been glutened at include:

  • Chevy’s (I should have walked out when the waitress asked me what gluten was)
  • Uncle Julios (The first time, the cook came out to personally assure me she was familiar with gluten and I still got sick). Note, I’ve eaten there since and as long as I stick with the carne asada and stayed away from all grains I’ve done okay.
  • International House of Pancakes (I stuck with two eggs, bacon and hash browns and still got sick from cross contamination).
  • Carabbas – Made a point of asking for my salad to be made in a clean bowl and still got sick from cross contamination.
  • Romano’s Macaroni Grill – ate there against my better judgement and got sick from cross contamination.

One thing these restaurants all have in common is that they are lower end chain restaurants, one step above fast food.  I’ve noticed that these are the restaurant types I have the most issues with. Other restaurant types have been much better for me.

Ethnic restaurants from areas which don’t use wheat flour to begin with.  I do well with pho which is a Vietnamese beef soup with rice noodles. I also do well with indian restaurants that specialize in the southern region of india. Thai restaurants are also fairly easy to navigate, I stay away from items that are fried or use oyster sauce but still have lots to choose from. Sushi is great for me. I stay away from items that are tempura based or have soy (I can bring my own tamari).

I’ve also found it fairly easy to eat at high-end restaurants. When GC and I were at Berkeley Springs, WV this winter, we ate at a few high-end places for dinner. I made sure to call ahead and both places made sure I had a few choices. I ate well (even though I still bemoan the fact that my choices are limited) and felt fine as well.

On the low-end, family owned diners tend to work well for me. I explain what I need (just like I have at the chains) and the waitresses have been great at making sure my food is fine. I ate at the Lancer Diner in Horsham, PA recently. The waitress knew about celiac, together we came up with a meal (pan fried pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans) that were naturally gluten-free. I’d still stay away from the diner chains (Denny’s, IHop etc).

I’ve also had good luck in barbecue places. Red, Hot and Blue (a regional chain out here) has worked for me and I’ve determined a few things I can eat, (specifically their pulled pork and collard greens).

Brazilian Steak Houses like Fogo de Chao are wonderful for gluten-free eating, as are many steak houses. At Fogo, even the bread served at the table is GF. There were three things I had to stay away from at the salad bar and everything else was fair game.

There are also a few higher end chains that have gotten it right.

  • Legal Sea Foods offers a true GF menu. I’ve had their fried trout a number of times (coated with chickpea flour) and they bring out GF biscuits. They have a good selection on their gluten-free menu and they truly make a commitment to a good gluten-free eating experience.
  • The Melting Pot – GC and I ate there on Friday night (probably what inspired this post) and it was great.  They have an extensive GF menu (and everything on their menu can be done gluten-free). They coat their cheese with corn starch for the fondue. The cheese fondue was served with fresh vegetables and apples for dipping instead of bread.  All the sauces with the meat course were GF with the exception of the Teriyaki sauce. They substituted a marinated salmon which wasn’t gluten-free with andouille sausage which was. For dessert, we got plenty of fruit to dip in the chocolate. I didn’t miss what I couldn’t have.
  • DogFish Head Alehouse is a regional chain that has a grill restaurant to go along with their beer. They do have a seasonal gluten-free beer (called “tweasonale”), which I am told on good authority they will be brewing on a more regular schedule. They have a good sense of dealing with cross contamination and will even grill their calamari rather than frying it. (My friends all ended up liking the grilled calamari better than the fried).
  • Copper Canyon Grill – While they have a limited gluten-free menu, they have a dedicated fryer for their french fries. So many places use the same fryer for both fries and other batter dipped items that the possibilities for cross-contamination are high. This is the one place I can actually eat french fries (still a once in a while treat). They have a wonderful rack of pork ribs here as well.

I also had good experiences with a small regional thin crust pizza chain in Doylestown, PA.  Jules Thin Crust was a stand out in many ways. They had wonderful toppings, they utilize a great deal of local and organic food and they have fully trained their staff in gluten-free food handling in collaboration with the Gluten Intolerance Group of North America. They even sell their GF dough separately!

I’m slowly learning where its been safe for me to eat. What about you?  Where have you learned to avoid? What are your go to places?


  1. Gluten Free Series: Discovering The Need To Be Gluten Free
  2. Gluten Free Series: Holidays and Gluten and Thanksgiving
  3. Gluten Free Series: Cleaning up your Pantry
  4. Gluten Free Series: Eating Out
  5. Gluten Free Series: Kitchen Equipment, What Can Stay, What Can Go

3 Responses to “Gluten Free Series: Eating Out”

  1. maggie says:

    I’ve heard that IHOP adds pancake batter to its egg dishes, particularly omelettes.

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