Southern California

Southern California

So Many Great Places to Dine Gluten-Free!

I‘m lucky enough to have family in Southern California, so every 12-18 months our family has been visiting this beautiful part of the country. Each time we do a little something different  … and each time we try new restaurants (while also feeling the pull back to some of our old favorites).

Most of our time is spent in Orange County, where you’ll find everything from gluten-free friendly national chains, to more unique regional chains, to one-of-a-kind local restaurants. No matter how you choose to spend your time in the area, you’ll likely have plenty of safe dining options nearby.


There’s no place quite like Southern California for shopping. You’ll find just about every store imaginable at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza, an indoor mall known for its luxury boutiques. Consider it the “Fifth Avenue” of Southern California. After you’ve shopped until you’re about to drop, smart choices for a gluten-free meal include The Capital Grille, Claim Jumper, Maggiano’s, Morton’s Steakhouse, Nello Cucina, Seasons 52, or Z’Tejas.

If you prefer a true California shopping experience, head over to Fashion Island in Newport Beach, an outdoor shopping experience that will leave you wishing for a place like this back home! Fashion Island has almost limitless options for gluten-free dining, including regional chain True Food Kitchen, Fleming’s, Roy’s, P.F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, and Yard House. There’s also a Whole Foods right nearby for stocking up on gluten-free snacks and groceries. (The Bite Market in Orange, California is also a great place to find gluten-free favorites.)

For another true California experience, spend a half-day strolling among the specialty stores along Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) in Corona del Mar, visiting surf shops in Huntington Beach or popping into boutiques and art galleries in Laguna Beach. When you’re ready for a meal, I recommend Tommy Bahama restaurant (in both Laguna Beach and in Newport Beach near Fashion Island), BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (in Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach), and Avila’s El Ranchito in Corona del Mar. All have many gluten-free selections on their menus. We like to get our “fix” at these favorite spots, since we don’t happen to have any of them near our hometown.

If you’re ever craving a sweet treat, you’ll find gluten-free cupcakes at places like Sprinkles and Casey’s Cupcakes. Dedicated gluten-free bakeries include Sensitive Sweets in Fountain Valley and Cloud 9 Bakers in San Juan Capistrano. There’s also Golden Spoon and Pinkberry frozen yogurt shops all over, and most of the wonderful flavors are gluten-free.

Theme Parks

If you have kids – or perhaps even if you don’t – you’ll want to include a visit to at least one of Southern California’s theme parks. Personal favorites we’ve visited over the years include Legoland in Carlsbad and the San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park in Escondido. There’s also Knott’s Berry Farm amusement park with “Camp Snoopy” and of course Disneyland in Anaheim. Fortunately, theme parks are generally progressing by offering options to guests following special diets. Find information about gluten-free choices at all these parks by visiting their websites or calling the parks’ guest relations departments directly.

Southern California: So Many Great Places to Dine Gluten-Free! Image


And how can we forget the beaches, the surfers, and the sunsets? My husband’s and my personal favorite spot for years has been the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel that sits perched above Dana Point. Enjoy a cocktail or appetizer near one of their floor to ceiling windows and watch the dozens of heads bobbing in the water at this favorite surfing spot. We’ve enjoyed a large family dinner at the Salt Creek Grill nearby, which has gluten-free notations on their menu, including fresh fish, baby back ribs, chops, and steaks. Another good bet a bit farther north in Newport Coast is Modo Mio, an Italian restaurant in the Crystal Coast Promenade right on Pacific Coast Highway. They offer gluten-free pasta and are very aware of what ingredients go into each of their menu offerings. Just speak with the manager and you’ll be assured of a safe and wonderful gluten-free meal.

Right across Pacific Coast Highway from Modo Mio is Crystal Cove State Park, 2,400 acres of beautiful beaches and hiking trails with opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking, scuba diving and surfing.

For another fun and different experience, visit the Back Bay of Newport Beach, where you can go biking, hiking, canoeing or kayaking. Renting paddle boards from Pirate Coast Paddle Company was a highlight of our most recent visit to Southern California. The calm, protected waters of the sheltered Back Bay make it the perfect place to learn, even for kids.

No matter where you go in Orange County or the greater Southern California area, you’re likely to spot gluten-free friendly chains like California Pizza Kitchen (which recently reintroduced gluten-free pizzas), Z Pizza and In-n-Out Burger, California’s answer to McDonald’s (although like McDonald’s, they don’t offer gluten-free buns for their burgers). For a healthy snack or “liquid meal,” we also like Jamba Juice, which has information listing the ingredients (and any allergens) in each of their mouthwatering fruit smoothies.

If fine dining is more your thing, treat yourself to dinner at The Pelican Grill at the Pelican Hill Resort in Newport Coast. Overlooking the resort’s two award winning golf courses and the Pacific Ocean, this is a view you will never forget. The food is unrivaled with attention to detail and service to match.

Venturing North & South

The beauty of San Diego is only 1-2 hours down the coast and the drive itself is beautiful when following Pacific Coast Highway. If you visit the San Diego Zoo or Sea World (gluten-free options are available at both), consider a stop at the Hotel Del Coronado to watch the sunset along their gorgeous stretch of beach. You’ll also want to make time to wander the grounds and perhaps even schedule a “ghost tour” of this iconic hotel, designated a national historic landmark. Even if you’re not staying at the hotel, you can enjoy dinner at one of their three highly acclaimed restaurants, all of which welcome gluten-free guests.

If time allows, spots I’d recommend visiting in the direction of Los Angeles include The Getty Museum, which leaves you marveling at both the museum itself and the art within its walls. If beaches and people watching are more your thing, don’t miss Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Malibu. You’ll be happy to know you’re never very far from safe dining options. We enjoyed a wonderful, fresh Mexican meal at Blue Plate Taco in Santa Monica on one of our recent trips.

As my good college friend who resides in Santa Monica describes it, “It’s rare to find places that don’t offer gluten-free options, because it’s so common to be gluten-free out here.”

It goes without saying, however, not to let your guard down when dining out anywhere. As we all know, having gluten-free markings on a menu doesn’t necessarily mean the restaurant fully understands how to protect celiac diners from cross contamination. So ask all of the usual questions in advance of your visit, if possible. I always try to have our family trips planned out day-by-day, with restaurants chosen in advance. While it’s not terribly spontaneous, I’ve found it to make for a much better and less stressful experience overall. We can scout out the best dining options ahead of our trip, leaving us more relaxed to enjoy the activities of the day without worrying about whether we’ll be able to find a suitable place to eat when we’re hungry.

Gluten free Karen Broussard headshotABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Karen Broussard publishes 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.

Tags: California Dining Karen Broussard Magazine
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