Sunday, January 22, 2017

Restaurant Sleuthing: My Tips and Tricks for Finding Gluten-Free Restaurants

Oftentimes, when I am speaking with readers on social media or talking with gluten-free friends in real life, people always ask how I am able to find so many gluten-free eats wherever I go. The truth is, that finding gluten-free restaurants is almost a part time job, and requires as much research as any of the research papers I have to write for class. 

There is so much fear surrounding eating out gluten-free that it can be absolutely overwhelming to consider all the options and still feel 100% comfortable with taking a chance. If there's anything I've learned as a blogger it's that gluten-free eats can be found almost anywhere, you just need to do research and ask questions. 

I've assembled the following resources and tactics I use to help me find the restaurants that I review over on the main blog. I hope they are helpful, and invite you to share your tips and tricks to tackling the challenge of eating out.

Deciding Where to Eat

Useful Apps/Websites

Now that most of us have a little supercomputer in our pockets, it's easy to put them up to the task of finding gluten-free fare. 
  • Find Me Gluten-Free (Website/App): Enter your address and this database pulls up restaurants by proximity, with user reviews that give an on-the-ground look at the gluten-free reality of dining there. Sometimes other restrictions are noted, but the site is gluten-free focused.
  • GREAT Kitchens (Website): This list includes restaurants that have obtained GREAT Kitchen certification from Beyond Celiac, which requires staff training, ingredient verification, and gluten-free protocols.
  • SafeFARE (Website): This database from FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education) features restaurants that have passed either ServSafe or Allertrain trainings. They can also pull listings by address.
  • AllergyEats (Website): This directory relies on diner's reports of allergen friendliness. Entries are sorted by address, and are screened for the top 8 allergens.
  • Gluten-Free Food Service (Guide): This directory features restaurants that have passed the Gluten Intolerance Group's food service certification program.

Local Bloggers

As a blogger on the gluten-free beat of D.C. and Baltimore, I can attest that being a regional blogger definitely entails building up an encyclopedia-like knowledge base of safe places to eat. A simple Google (or Instagram/Twitter/Facebook) can help you identify celiacs all over the world who are sharing safe eats they've found. Here's some bloggers I have relied on the past to inform my restaurant selections in different cities: 

Factors to Consider

So you've read a blog or done a restaurant search that has resulted in some promising candidates. What's next? Look for some tell-tale signs that show that the restaurant is going to be gluten aware. The following are what I look for when looking at a restaurant's website or calling the staff to get a feel for what their awareness is:
  • Is the menu marked to indicate gluten-free, vegan, or other dietary considerations? 
  • Does the restaurant have a separate gluten-free menu?
  • When calling the restaurant, are the staff hesitant about gluten-free options? If so, ask to speak to someone in the kitchen.
  • Look at the menu- does it rely heavily on food with a high chance of cross contamination (i.e. pasta, pizza, fried food)? If so, ask the staff about cross contamination prevention protocols. 

The Bottom Line

While it can be difficult to narrow down options- or find one safe option- depending on where you are traveling, with a due diligence, crowdsourcing, and self-advocacy, finding gluten-free eats can be achieved. 

A great example of a restaurant being open about their gluten-free awareness (the full review). 

You've Decided on a Restaurant- Now What?

Stay Vigilant: 

Just because the restaurant has a gluten-free menu, or because the wait staff seems knowledgable, don't let down your guard. Make sure to pay attention, ask questions, and advocate for yourself- after all, communication is the best way to prevent mix-ups. You're only truly safe if you are eating at a 100% gluten-free restaurant, so if you are not, make sure to bring it up with the staff (even if you've been there before) and ask about ingredients and protocol. 

Worst Case Scenario:

It happens. The restaurant brings out a salad with gluten-full croutons, or the staffs' answers to your questions are not transparent. What to do then? Don't be afraid to ask for a manager to explain the importance of gluten-free protocols, and if that doesn't work, don't be afraid to walk out of the restaurant altogether. No meal is worth risking your health: period. Oftentimes these confrontations result well, with greater understanding on the restaurant's part, but not always. If all else fails and you're in an unfamiliar town, look for alternatives- like a chain restaurant with a good gluten-free track record or a grocery store to piece together a meal. It happens to all of us at some point, and I've learned that it's best to try to find "plan B" and not let the experience ruin the trip. 

Have any tips about finding gluten-free restaurants you want to share? Comment below!

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