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3 steps to choosing a truly gluten-free restaurant

Gluten free?
Gluten free?

Every restaurant and its grandma claims to offer 'gluten free options' these days, but how can you maximize your chances of choosing a restaurant where your food will be truly gluten free?

Money talks. And restaurants need money. So if they can get a little bit more by saying 'we're a gluten free restaurant' (or at least 'we offer gluten free food') then you can understand why a ton of them might jump on the gluten free bandwagon.

But how often do they truly understand what 'gluten free' really means to a celiac?


The worst place in the world to be celiac?

I had always thought that the worst place to be a celiac would be Italy. The land of pizzas and pasta. All that gluteny cooking water, flour flying everywhere, great crusty sticks of bread with your salad. Where could a celiac hide?

But since our gluten free Italian holiday I've changed my tune. The thing is, for a long time now, the Italian Coeliac Society have been running a restaurant certification service. One of their local volunteers goes into restaurants in their area who want to offer gluten free options and shows the chefs how to avoid cross-contamination issues.

And then, they go back to check. Regularly. I'd love to see something like that here in the UK, but for now we have to use our own approach to ensuring that where we want to eat really understand what gluten free means.

The hidden dangers of gluten cross-contamination in restaurants

Many celiacs, myself included, can feel uncomfortable about asking restaurant staff (and especially chefs) about their gluten free arrangements. It can feel as if you are treading on their toes - invading their space.

Over the years, I have found the best approach is not to assume that they 'should' know how to produce 100% gluten free food, but that they are doing their best.

So when I'm choosing a gluten free restaurant I take certain things into consideration...

When you are choosing a gluten free restaurant, it's a good idea to ask some specific questions

  • Do they know, for instance, that celiacs can't have meat cooked on a grill where burger buns have been toasted?
  • Do they know that the onions for your salad can't be chopped on a board that last carried bread?
  • Do they know that pasta can't be cooked in water previously used to cook wheat pasta (yes, a follower of celiactravel on Twitter actually saw this done!) And if it is an Italian restaurant, is their gluten free pizza cooked in a separate oven, or at least on a piece of foil?
  • Do they know that fries cannot be cooked in a fryer that has cooked gluten-containing foods?

What sort of restaurants are more likely to be truly gluten free?

Here in my hometown of Oban, Scotland, I regularly eat at a great seafood restaurant Ee-usk. I do so without any fear because the food they cook is almost all naturally gluten free. So the chances of cross-contamination are really very low. What is also rather cool is that their fryer is only used for potato fries.

The Temple Seafood Restaurant in Oban is even safer - they don't even have wheat flour on the premises - they thicken sauces with mashed potato.

These are two extremely safe examples, but it is usually easy to find a restaurant's menu online these days and look at the type of dishes they serve. If half the menu is breaded, crumbed and pastried, you might want to try somewhere else.

Making your final choice

Then, once you have narrowed down your list, an email or a phone call will tell you just how experienced they are at providing gluten free food. I'm usually put off by a waiter who says "oh yes, no problem, you'll be fine".

What I really want to hear is "ah yes, we have several customers who need gluten free food and our chef is very aware of the dangers of cross-contamination. Most of the dishes on the menu can be made gluten free and if there's something else you'd like, we'll be more than happy to have a go at making it for you."

The 3 steps to choosing a truly gluten free restaurant

So there you go, when choosing a gluten free restaurant, you need to bear in mind that the menu is not always the territory.

  1. Do your homework,
  2. Choose restaurants that are more likely to be naturally gluten free,
  3. Above all, communicate with the restaurant beforehand. If you're not sure, choose somewhere else. We all know it ain't worth the risk.

Oh, and the all-important bonus tip. Remember to take your free gluten free restaurant cards!

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