Gluten-Free Dining at Restaurant Chains
Thank goodness for P.F. Chang’s and Outback. That was one of the many thoughts running through my mind nine years ago when our then two-year-old son Ryan was diagnosed with celiac disease.
I’d always been a health-conscious label reader when grocery shopping and also took pride in being able to put a well-balanced dinner on the table most nights during the week. So embracing the learning curve of gluten-free cooking at home didn’t take long. But after Ryan’s diagnosis, what really threw our family for a loop was the challenge of dining out.
Did restaurants even understand what gluten-free meant? Would they be able to take proper precautions in the kitchen to ensure our son didn’t get sick due to cross contamination? Would we be able to join in family celebrations hosted at restaurants? Where would we be able to dine when we took trips? Would our son ever be able to dine out without worry?
Frankly, it was all a bit overwhelming. However, we were soon encouraged after learning there were already a handful of restaurant chains that were early to embrace gluten-free diners. Chains like P.F. Chang’s, Outback, Bonefish Grill, and Legal Seafoods became our new go-to restaurants. Their interest in serving the gluten-free community– and their regional or national presence–gave us peace of mind and hope that there were indeed some terrific, safe, and varied options for dining out.
Fortunately, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Over the years, we’ve discovered other restaurant chains both locally and when traveling that have made a commitment to the gluten-free community. In fact, I’m happy to report that the list of restaurant chains offering gluten-free menus has grown to over 100 strong!
Some of our family’s favorite regional chains that offer top notch gluten-free menus and have a presence in our area (the suburbs of Washington, D.C.) include Wildfire, Travinia Italian Kitchen, and Glory Days Grill. When traveling, we’ve had the good fortune to stumble upon Biaggi’s Italian Ristorante, and we seek out their restaurants (primarily in the Midwest) whenever we can. A favorite Northeast chain we like to visit in the Boston area is Burton’s Grill, where you’ll find the best fried calamari ever. And whenever we visit California, we try to stop at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (yes, they even offer gluten-free beer to accompany their popular gluten-free pizzas … and you must save room for their gluten-free “Pizookie,” a warm deep dish cookie dessert!).
All these restaurants offer extensive gluten-free menus and are well-versed in the safe preparation of gluten-free meals. Some even began offering gluten-free menus as a result of the owner, CEO, or chef having celiac.
Of course, some restaurant concepts lend themselves particularly well to a gluten-free menu just by nature of the food they serve. That’s the case with Brazilian churrascarias like Chima Brazilian Steakhouse, Fogo de Chao, Rodizio Grill, and Texas de Brazil. They offer a Brazilian style of rotisserie cooking, called “rodizio,” where gauchos (meat chefs) come to your table to carve an array of various roasted meats. We celebrated my birthday this past year at a Chima Brazilian Steakhouse. We were thrilled our son could enjoy most of the meats on the menu, the traditional Brazilian cheese bread (made using tapioca flour), as well as many items from their huge gourmet salad bar.
Many seafood restaurants lend themselves well to gluten-free options, providing there are plenty of non-breaded offerings. The aforementioned Legal Seafoods and Rockfish Seafood Grill, with locations throughout Texas, are two good examples.
Surprisingly, the list of national and regional pizza chains offering gluten-free menus seems to grow by the day: Uno Chicago Grill, Garlic Jim’s, Pizza Pie Café, Sam and Louie’s, Pizza Fusion, Mellow Mushroom, Chuck E. Cheese’s, and even Godfather’s. Be careful, though, as some other pizza chains do not take proper precautions to separate the preparation of their gluten-free pizzas from the regular pizzas. In fact, when Domino’s Pizza launched gluten-free pizza a few years ago, it didn’t give the celiac community much reason to celebrate, as Domino’s stores aren’t equipped to offer a separate area for gluten-free pizza preparation. Therefore, their gluten-free pizzas are really only an option for people looking to reduce their gluten intake by choice, not those following medically necessary gluten-free diets due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
(Their website and takeout boxes make this message clear.)
With the risk of cross contamination present in all but completely dedicated gluten-free restaurants, it begs the question – will you always get a safe meal when dining at restaurants offering gluten-free menus?
With any restaurant – chain or independent – the responsibility is always on you, the diner, to exercise vigilance. Research the restaurant online first, read reviews, and solicit feedback from other gluten-free folks. If possible, I also recommend contacting the restaurant in advance of your visit. Ask about training, procedures to avoid cross contamination, and specific questions about the particular items you might be ordering.
Are the fries cooked in a dedicated fryer reserved only for non-gluten-containing foods? Is the gluten-free pasta boiled in a separate pot? (You’d be surprised how many restaurants cook the gluten-free pasta in a basket in the same water used to boil “regular” pasta!)
After asking specific questions like these, you’ll likely get a feeling very quickly for the restaurant’s degree of gluten-free knowledge. If you’re satisfied with what you learn, I still advise taking a gluten-free dining card with you. Personally hand your card to the manager or chef upon your arrival to ensure your needs are understood.
While some restaurants have successfully launched gluten-free menus on their own, many chains have solicited the help of the Gluten Intolerance Group (GIG) or the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness (NFCA). Both have developed thorough gluten-free training programs for interested restaurants. Information about their specific programs – as well as the restaurants that have undergone training – can be found on their websites.
However, Cynthia Kupper, Executive Director of GIG, noted that training alone is not enough. “If processes are not followed and monitored, there is a high risk of mistakes being made.”
One popular restaurant chain, California Pizza Kitchen (CPK), found that the training and external audits by GIG were what made the difference in their recent and successful re-launch of their gluten-free pizzas. While the chain had tried to offer a gluten-free menu several years ago, they were not aware of the nuances of preparing the gluten-free orders in a safe environment. Negative customer feedback caused them to quickly pull their gluten-free offerings from the menu.
But in October 2013, after working with GIG on the implementation of a strict protocol for making, shipping, storing, and preparing their gluten-free pizzas, California Pizza Kitchen re-launched their gluten-free pizzas nation-wide. According to Brian Sullivan, Senior Vice President for Culinary Development, they have received an over-whelmingly favorable response nationwide. “The gluten-free and celiac community has been very supportive of the care we take to ensure our pizzas are truly gluten-free,” he said. I was personally fortunate enough to attend a tasting at CPK’s Southern California test kitchen in early October. I was especially impressed that they removed any threat of “airborne” gluten from regular flour in their restaurants by switching to rice flour to dust their “regular” pizzas while they’re stretched and hand-tossed.
Picazzo’s Organic Italian Kitchen, with five locations in Arizona, is a shining example of a restaurant that has tried to remove virtually any opportunity for cross contamination by switching over to an almost entirely gluten-free menu. All their pasta is now gluten-free (even the lasagna and ravioli), and a separate brick oven is used for their house-made gluten-free pizza in order to eliminate any contact with their other pizzas. Their customers clearly love Picazzo’s efforts. According to founder and owner Rick Freedman, their gluten-free pizzas make up 40-45% of pizza orders.
Going forward, we can anticipate more restaurant chains providing gluten-free choices given the growth in the market. (Some studies estimate that as much as a third of the population is trying to reduce or eliminate gluten from their diet.) But again, thorough training of all staff and continuous monitoring are essential to keep celiac and gluten sensitive diners safe.
Just as the FDA issued labeling guidelines in August 2013 which specified that any food products bearing a “gluten-free” claim on the label must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten, they are encouraging restaurants, cafeterias, and other food service establishments to comply with the labeling regulation when making “gluten-free” menu claims. According to Alice Bast, Founder and President of the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, their organization “has seen an influx of inquiry from restaurants interested in learning more about their obligations under the FDA’s final gluten-free labeling ruling” However, the FDA has not provided specific guidelines for restaurants as of yet.
In the meantime, it’s up to restaurants to seek out training and practice internal and external monitoring. And it’s up to each of us to continue practicing vigilance when dining anywhere.
The road to safe gluten-free dining continues to be a journey, but I think we can all agree that, in the last decade, we’ve come a long way!
8 Tips for Safe Restaurant Dining
- Research the restaurant online first
- Read reviews of the restaurant
- Solicit feedback from online groups
- Call the restaurant ahead of time to ask questions
- Have them note your GF needs on the reservation
- Take a GF dining card with you, explaining your needs in detail
- Talk with the manager and/or chef upon arrival
- Give feedback, be appreciative of their efforts, and tip well!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes glutenfreetravelsite.com and the free DINE GLUTEN FREE mobile app. Both contain thousands of GF dining and travel reviews from around the world. Karen is also the publisher of the Gluten Free Travel Blog and two e-books available on Amazon: Gluten-Free in London and Gluten-Free in Italy.