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Traveling Gluten-free - Are Gluten-Free Menus Good or Bad? 05/25/2008 - When traveling should you go to a restaurant with a gluten-free menu or not—that is the question. It is important to let you know that because of your comments I can come up with discussions like this, so please keep them coming.  Let’s talk about gluten-free menus (this is, of course, only my opinion).

Gluten-Free Menu Pros:

  • Gives the person a chance to order from a menu that was made for them.
  • The restaurant should know about all the ingredients that will make you sick.   
Gluten-Free Menu Cons (Sorry but experiences when going to restaurants with gluten-frees menus have only been bad ones, although I am sure that there are good restaurants out there.  I live in a very small town that is surrounded by small towns.  I am the only celiac for 100 miles that I know of.  I’m sure that in a big city it would be different. I have eaten in the big city too, and also had a terrible experience with their gluten-free menu):
  • The staff often has no idea what gluten-free really means. The staff thinks that it is only wheat and not all the other items that are on our forbidden list. Sometimes they don’t even know that their restaurant does offer a gluten-free menu.
  • The staff has not been properly trained.  That goes for the wait staff and the cooks or chefs who are making your meal.  Cross-contamination occurs and there is nothing that you can do about it.
  • The restaurant is trying to do something nice for us but may be focused more on the extra money that can make with such a menu.
  • The gluten-free menu is so small and only offers a few items, while regular customers have 50 items to choose from.
  • We travel so far to go to one of these restaurants, when we could be getting the same or better service from a nice, local restaurant.
You can see were I am going with this, so I will stop. 

Let’s look at traveling options and my experiences.  I have traveled with my boys around the USA.  Normally we live in a tent and stay at state parks where it is cheap.  We have hit Gettysburg, Niagara Falls, Hershey Pennsylvania, Boston, Florida, Georgia, Colorado, South Dakota, Chicago, New York, and many more places.  I also have gone with my wife to Las Vegas, Washington and some more places.  I have traveled in the USA and do not plan my meals around gluten-free menus at restaurants—and I want to explain why.  I was in New York twice.  I went with my two boys and the other time it was just me and my wife.

The first time in New York with my boys we stopped at Nathan’s in Coney Island.  We watched them eat hot dogs on July 4th on the TV—you know every year somebody eats 50 or so of them.  So we traveled to Coney Island just to go to Nathan’s.  We went to Nathan’s and I waited until there was no line at the window (Rule 1—always wait until it is slow).  I approached the window with my boys (Rule 2, observe how they cook the item you are going to ask for—are they sloppy when they are serving the food? If so ask them to change gloves or give them a fork to get your food).  Noone was behind us so I knew it would be no trouble to ask for special help.  I told the server I have a special diet request and could they help me.  I asked if they had the package handy so I could look at the wrapper the dogs came in.  They go through a lot of dogs so it was right there.  After I reviewed the package I asked them if they could use a plastic fork to get me a couple of dogs. They did and they were great.  Ask for condiments to go, those had the ingredients on them.

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Another time I was with my wife and she wanted to go to T.G.I.F.—at that time they had no gluten-free menu (they might now, I don’t know).  We went in at a slow time and I gave them my Chef Daniel P. restaurant form and I also ate very well with no illness the next day. I used the two rules mentioned above that I always go by.

This year my wife and I went to Las Vegas.  My wife wanted to go to the Las Vegas Stratosphere Tower to eat while overlooking Las Vegas.  They also didn’t have a gluten-free menu, and she made our reservations.  She used Rule 1 and made it for the last reservation they would accept.  I asked for the manager and told him I have a special diet request and tonight I would love to have the duck breast if they were not marinated.  He said he would check with the chef.  A few minutes later the executive chef came out to our table to speak with us (this chef is well paid, and this is what I have been saying from day one to you about chefs in fine dining establishments—they care just like I do).  The fact that he had time to come to our table happened for a few reasons I believe:

  • They were slow enough that the chef could take time away from the kitchen to help his customer.
  • This is the type of place that cares what you think, what you say about their establishment to others—and they don’t want to make anyone sick.
  • I was direct and to the point in what I wanted to eat and the chef could do it. When the chef came out I told him exactly what I told the manager about my illness and the nature of it.   I asked him if he could sauté me some duck breast. Duck breast was on the menu but it was with a terraki sauce and the soy sauce normally has wheat in it.  I wasn’t in the mood for terraki anyway, so this how I ordered my meal—and yes I did write it down on my chef Daniel P restaurant form:
  1. Sauté the duck breast in olive oil until ¾ of the way done.  Pull it out and put it to the side and deglaze the pan with white wine.  Add orange juice, a hint of pineapple juice and tighten it with corn starch or arrow root.  Add the duck breast, orange zest and a splash of lime juice.
  2. Microwave some white rice.
  3. Microwave any fresh vegetables.
  4. No seasonings or garnish.

I just had them make Duck ala Orange for me—and you can do something like this too if you just believe in yourself and do it. Our meal took extra time but we were on top of the world so who cares?  It is worth the wait to not get sick, and we ended up having a fantastic meal.

I have a few thoughts to share with you for when you start to look for gluten-free menus.  Gluten-free menus are good but they are not great.  If I was in Japan and I had to go out to a restaurant, I would want to go to a sushi restaurant.  I would not search around for a place with a gluten-free menu.  I am always going to use Rules 1 and 2 anyway.  In Japan I would look for the restaurant that cuts and serves the sushi right in front of me.  If I was in France, I would use the two Rules first, and also try to find a place that does table-side cooking.  If I was in Louisiana, I would do rule 1 and rule 2 then go to a restaurant that I know has a good reputation and give them my Chef Daniel form and enjoy my meal like everyone else.

You need to eat where you want to eat and not limit yourself.  How many of you would want to eat at Wolfgang Pucks restaurant?  Are you going to say that eating where there is a gluten-free menu will be better than eating at Wolfgang’s place?  What if you were visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris or a bistro across the street from it?  It would be nice to have a gluten-free menu in those places, but it is unlikely. We have to come together as one group and order the same way.  In time I will convert menus at the cruise ships or the chains of motels that have chain restaurants.  Traveling is what we do and it doesn’t matter if you have to restrict your diet or not. We all love food and we will pay extra if we have to, but we must expect not to get sick. 

My ultimate goal is to be able to walk into any restaurant and have a great gluten-free menu. I would love to see a real gluten-free menu with lots of great entrées to pick from.  Ultimately it is up to us to educate workers in the places that we eat in about the gluten-free diet.   We need to come together and start standing up and saying that we are special too.

Chef Daniel. welcomes your comments below (registration is NOT required).

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11 Responses:

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said this on
01 Jun 2008 7:19:42 PM PST
Thank you so much for your comments on eating out. It is so frustrating at times. We were in Sacramento, CA this winter and went to a restaurant that supposedly had a gluten-free menu. It was a joke! I listed the ingredients of many of the foods they serve but didn't specify whether it was gluten-free or not. It was up to me to decide that fact just by reading the listed ingredients, which I didn't trust. Here in Portland, OR we do have some real choices of a true gluten-free menu. I really enjoy eating at Corbett's Fish House which has very good food and I don't get sick! They use rice flour for the breading on the fish and it's nice and lightly crisp.

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said this on
02 Jun 2008 7:14:28 AM PST
Thanks for what you are doing to spread the word with restaurants! We were recently on vacation and were thrilled to find a gluten-free menu at a Chili's in Florida, but when they brought out the Gluten Free burger which we still specifically requested WITHOUT a bun, it was on a bun. The Gluten Free menu listed mashed potatoes, but they came with a thick gravy on them, which my son ate before we realized what was going on, and he had a stomach ache the next day. Obviously, even a Gluten Free menu doesn't mean much at this point in time. But, we appreciate your efforts to educate those who prepare food for the public!


said this on
02 Jun 2008 1:53:15 PM PST
I recently returned from 3 weeks in France; before that it was Germany; now I'm in Hawaii. I have restaurant cards in many languages, and I've never had a problem with meals. I've been doing this for 40 years and consider the cards a god-send--no more misunderstandings about what constitutes a Gluten Free meal.

Jude Lawlor
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said this on
03 Jun 2008 7:00:29 AM PST
I have been afraid to eat out since I was told I have celiac disease and thought I was dying. It helped to kill my mother. I was just diagnosed 3 years ago and am now 60. So late in life and still learning. Thanks for great info as we love to travel.

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said this on
05 Jun 2008 7:48:53 AM PST
Excellent article. I too, have had problems eating at places that offer a gluten free menu, only to find that my burger came with the bun as well as with a side that was not gluten-free...and this was NOT during a busy time!

One must always be diligent...and trust yourself only...

Recently, some friends wanted to eat a a diner in CT, and they were reluctant because of my needs. I am always open to new things, and like to try to eat like 'normal' people, so I obtained the phone number and called in advance, asking about my special needs as well as what time to come. They said, in typical diner style 'don't worry, honey, we'll take care of you...just ask for a fresh pan, and you can come anytime, even during busy hours.' I didn't worry, brought my own bun, and ended up having the best philly cheese steak sandwich--I haven't had one in 5 years!

Too bad we live in Vermont and are almost 2 hours away...

Good luck, everyone, eating out and feeling well is a wonderful thing when it happens.

Pat Sigue
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said this on
13 Jun 2008 8:37:27 PM PST
I live in Union City, CA and have gone to the Outback Steakhouse in Dublin, CA and they have a gluten free menu which includes a flourless dessert. It is very rich but delicious. On the menu, it will let you know exactly what is gluten free and what is not. I have also asked the Olive Garden in Hayward, CA if I could bring my own pasta for them to cook and I was told no. Needless to say I never go there.

Karen Broussard
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said this on
05 Aug 2008 5:46:52 PM PST
I applaud your current mission and career choice! It sounds like you have some great experiences to share. Good luck with your work!

Barbara Vande Berg
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said this on
06 Oct 2008 12:16:31 PM PST
Wonderful that you are getting this word out. I recently went to a restaurant with a gluten free (rather a list of what I COULD NOT eat) that did not know that soy sauce has gluten in it. I informed them and also told them it would help if the list was what I COULD eat and in alphabetical order. The manager was very grateful. And yes, most people have NO idea how complicated it is. Bragg's liquid is a good substitute (if you aren't allergic to soy) for soy sauce. There is also a WHEAT free Tamari sauce that works pretty well for me but I don't know about for true Celiacs. I just have a bad case of gluten intolerance which set off a dairy intolerance as well. So eating out is a real challenge. I just say, 'meat, vegetables, and rice/potato/french fries---check with cook about the oil they are done'd be surprised...' I basically say, 'whole, healthy food, un-adultered with ANYTHING except olive oil and pure salt.' Many just don't understand that spices and mixes, etc., can often have gluten in them.

Joanne DeGarimore
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said this on
18 Aug 2009 11:25:26 AM PST
Being a Restaurant owner and putting together a menu for gluten free / celiac sufferers, all this information is crucial to "get it right". We can't rely on our own selves to think we're putting together a good menu; we need our customers and the sufferers themselves to guide us to what your needs are. Thank you and I hope to serve some happy customers as soon as I make the new menu public. Not sure if I will be back to this particular website but if you have more suggestions, I'd love to hear all! -Joanne, Pier 46 Seafood, Templeton CA

angela west
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said this on
14 Jul 2010 10:17:28 PM PST
Outback BBQ sauce, my favorite.. PF changs, and Chilis all have gluten-free menus here in the Bay area. I often treat my 4 year old twins with celiac out to eat when family comes into town. I have no idea how safe this is. But I am learning how to educate others about this disease. I really appreciate this article so hopefully we will be able to travel when they are older and know how to do it without bringing a second suitcase full of gluten-free food. Well we still will, but we won't be as afraid to travel with your tips.

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said this on
22 Dec 2011 2:13:59 PM PST
I try to bring my spice mix and ask for Worcestershire sauce, that makes the tastes much more pleasant! Oil, butter, and salt are good from them, but when they have no idea what is in their spices and no way to tell when I am in small towns, I let them know of my needs and try to make them interested.

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