What You Should Know About Eating Out With Allergies
"I am really allergic to cow dairy—sheep and goat milk are fine—and I can get away with a tiny bit of butter, but anything more than that and I'll be puking like crazy. I also can't have gluten, but a cross-contamination won't kill me, promise. Other than that, I'll eat anything, and I think I have a good idea of what I can have here on your menu, so..."
This begins my restaurant spiel; one that makes me cringe even as I type it. My rocky relationship with a laundry list of certain foods began 20 years ago with a Lyme disease diagnosis, one still with me to this day.
As a writer who's covered hundreds of chefs and restaurants, I've seen firsthand how the restaurant industry has become more sensitive to people like me. Compare that to ten years ago when I could count on one hand the number of times I heard "gluten" in a dining room.
For those with dietary restrictions and allergies, dining out is easier than ever, and more chefs are cooking with an awareness of our needs. But I've noticed a weird shift lately—I'm started to get sick more often from meals that restaurants have promised "safe."
A few weeks ago I went to a new restaurant headed up by a popular chef that I'd worked with in the past. I ordered a dish that had Manchego cheese on it, which is made from sheep's milk and is totally safe for me. I specified my dairy allergy with the server and she guaranteed it was just sheep's milk. The dish came, and when I smelled it I was unsure; she repeated it was just sheep's milk. I took a bite and swore I could taste cow's milk. A third time—me asking as politely as possible—and the dish again was promise to be safe. After two more bites I called it quits. Soon after it took hours of violent vomiting before the world was sorta okay again, and two days later I still felt like I had the flu.
Why is this happening now? 10 or 20 years ago, a server took it seriously if you made it clear that you had a food allergy, because you were most likely the only one in the restaurant doing so. Today, with more and more people speaking up, servers and cooks have to adapt so often that I've been more bashful in adding my own issues to their plate.These days we're inundating servers and kitchens with dietary requests to the point that they're not taking them, and maybe we're not communicating smartly enough.
To see what's what, I spoke to chefs, general managers and servers around the country to determine just how they want to deal with food allergies and what we should do to make ourselves heard. Consider this your etiquette guide to eating out safely.
First: Choose Your Restaurant Wisely
The first step in dining out safely is remembering that your body is your own, what it can handle is your responsibility, and no one is obligated to feed you.
Marcia Polas is a Pilates instructor in Denver who works primarily with chefs and performing artists, preparing their bodies for physically exhausting fields. She also has Celiac disease so severe that any ingestion of gluten requires an EpiPen and a prayer. Yet she never just assumes a restaurant will take care of her; "I've had a lot of restaurants say, 'We can do anything, don't worry about it.' But I don't want to be the hardest thing that happens to the line on a Saturday night when they're already in the weeds. I stick to places I've been to at the busiest time periods, and I make a phone call and visit new places when it's not their busiest time, to make sure they feel good about feeding me."
In that light, the city's hottest new restaurant may not be your best choice for an allergy-sensitive meal, as cooks and servers are still learning the ropes and surprise come from all sides. Also know what a restaurant is based on: is the menu heavy with soy sauce, all about fried chicken, or proud of pot pie? Those ingredients and dishes are full of common allergens that are hard or impossible for a restaurant to modify.
Tamara Davis once served at a very popular burger restaurant in Los Angeles where "gluten was in the sauce that made the burgers so yummy! I would get long speeches from customers about how we should change it, and that we are losing customers because of it, but what am I supposed to do? I didn't make the recipes."
Tasting menus can be tricky, too, as one nightly or weekly menu uses a limited amount of ingredients geared to meet a chef's particular vision. Ben Aviram, general manager of chef Curtis Stone's tasting menu-only Maude in Los Angeles, says, "There's some nature of an allergy every night, but I think we see less of it because we have less of a choice—if you're a person with allergies you have to be smart as to where to dine."
Instead, try to gauge if a restaurant will work for you by first checking out the menu online. Do a number of dishes look safe? Then you have a starting point for your order, and it's more likely that the kitchen can handle special requests. Many restaurants now mark which items have gluten, dairy, nuts or other common allergens; Stephanie Izard's Girl & The Goat in Chicago even has separate menus for each. But even being aware of ingredients helps; if something is served on a quinoa crisp, you can guess that the chef is already looking at alternatives to wheat.
Next: Speak Up and Speak Soon
Now all that said, good restaurants will work with diners, though options may be more limited, and it's best to know what those are as early as possible.
"Off the bat we ask as we take the reservation," Aviram says of Maude. "Since we're a tasting menu in a small dining room, last minute changes are hard for us. If someone down the night-of and says they're lactose intolerant or gluten-free, our pastry chef isn't able to whip up an option on the fly. If she knows in advance, she can have something ready for them."
While à la carte restaurants don't necessarily cater so personally, many appreciate knowing about preferences when a reservation is made. At Boka in Chicago, manager Matt Sherry puts in dietary requests made during reservations with notes that go directly to the server of that table, and points out that programs like Open Table offer comment sections for just that purpose.
Izard stresses calling in with an allergy first. I recently tried this out for the first time and was greeted with a, "So, you have gluten and dairy restrictions; let's talk about our menu." That one little step made dining out that much more relaxed.
At the Cafes at MoMa, Chef Lynn Bound* goes above and beyond what most restaurants do for those with allergies, making sure cooks change gloves and sanitize their stations when a serious allergy comes in on a ticket. But even she appreciates when a guest shares their needs before ordering. She was able to answer a mother's concerns about her teenage daughter coming in with friends; "She did it the right way by talking to us, and we did what we'd do for anyone else. For a teenage girl that has to be a big deal."
* Bound announced yesterday that she is stepping down from the Cafes at MoMA.
But some places don't take reservations, and others don't plug such information into their system even if they do. So if that point has past, bring up food issues first thing to your server; "The most productive way is when I go to greet a table and someone says, 'These are my dietary needs; what can I eat?'" says Jonathan Wiener, who serves at New York's Blue Smoke. "But when they've already ordered and then say, 'Make that gluten free'? Well, more often than not it's a dish that can't be modified. If they articulate their dietary needs first, I can steer them in the right direction."
Know Your Own Issues Well
In a recent Jimmy Kimmel segment, he quips that in L.A. eating gluten is "comparable to Satanism", then interviews people who claim to be on a gluten-free diet. Not one person can identify what gluten is. A biased sample on a comedy show? Sure, but it also speaks to a good point: if you really do have an allergy, be sure you know what it's about."
A waiter friend once told a story about a customer who claimed to not eat gluten and then gobbled up the bread basket and asked for more. When the waiter pointed out that bread is full of gluten, the women screamed back: "I've been allergic to gluten all my life, and so I know what it is, and bread is not gluten!" Don't be this person.
Back at the MoMa's Terrace 5, Chef Bound recently had a situation "when a woman ordered the soup and the server came to me after and said, 'she's deathly allergic to shellfish.' I told her she couldn't have it because we make it in the same kettle as lobster stock, and she responded that she never would have thought of that. If you're deathly allergic, why wouldn't you think of that? If someone's deathly allergic, we take it seriously!"
So know your allergies! When you don't, you put others at risk, as a kitchen may not respect their legitimate intolerance to certain ingredients. No one could be expected to know just how a restaurant cooks its food—that's one of the reasons we go to restaurants—but if cross-contamination is an issue for you, ask your server if there are any risks.
Be specific about how food affects you so the kitchen can keep you safe while staying on task. Aviram points out that not all kitchens have the support staff to easily accommodate any request. "When people have a strong understanding of the nature of their restriction and are honest about it, that helps. I'd rather know before someone in our kitchen spent all day preparing food for someone who's not going to go into anaphylactic shock."
At Restaurant Gwendolyn in San Antonio, Chef Michael Sohoki goes so far as to learn just how bad his guests' allergies are before meals at his tasting-menu-only restaurant. "If I'm worried about their level of sensitivity I will go to the table and ask how seriously we're talking, and I'll let them tell me how they want it to be handled. We only have ten tables, so if we can't get it right here, you can't get it right anywhere."
Then Trust Your Server
After that whole Manchego story, why trust your server? Because once you're clear about your needs, your best bet for a happy meal is to let the restaurant work for you. A good server can tell you where a restaurant can make substitutions, where they can't, and what dishes are at risk for cross-contamination.
More and more servers are trained to know the allergens on their menus, with proactive restaurants like Blue Smoke printing out a "server menu" that specifies which dishes can or cannot be modified. At Tao in Las Vegas, manager Adam Gewanter has new front of house staff members train through each station in the kitchen, "going through each food item with the chef, watching things being prepared, so that they know ingredients as much as possible." Pre-shift meetings often specify which dishes contain common allergens so the front of house staff is well versed in what they can accommodate.
And we should trust servers who take that responsibility seriously. Ben Rosenblatt also serves in Manhattan, and he knows his menu to the point that when someone orders a gluten-free bun, he's quick to point out that their fryers are shared, so sides like fries should be avoided. Weiner warns those with serious allergies that the candy sprinkles at Blue Smoke are manufactured on shared equipment. Aviram shocked me with his extensive knowledge of which fruits, vegetables, and sea creatures were in the same family (and therefore commonly grouped allergens), and is able to specify the proteins in gluten, dairy, and the like that challenge most diners.
So instead of looking at a menu, picking the dish you want, and then insisting the server and cooks modify it to your needs, try telling the server what you can't have first and then ask for their advice—chances are there's more than one option on the menu that will make you happy without driving the kitchen staff nuts.
Be Reasonable With Expectations—Every Time
Most of us assume service is service regardless of when we eat out, be it on a quiet Tuesday or a raging Saturday. But every night is a different for a restaurant, and it's a sad-but-true fact that on less busy nights you're more likely to get close attention, especially if you're asking for the kitchen to be flexible for your dietary needs.
Wiener points out that "people in Manhattan especially have entitlement when it comes to their food. One quiet day the chef told a couple, 'Yes, I will build this special meal for you because there's nobody here and you have these wants and needs.' When they come back on a packed Friday or Saturday night and want the same thing? We did something nice because we had the time. Don't expect that for every single restaurant."
If Bad Things Happen, Speak Up
Tell the restaurant. They want you to. But be smart about it.
I've never once called a restaurant after leaving ill for fear that I'm making too big a deal out of something small. And that fear isn't completely ungrounded; Rosenblatt confessed, "if I know what the menu item is and I know it has no cow's milk in it, I probably wouldn't believe it was something I served you, and I'd think you were being obnoxious."
Other servers contend that accidents happen. Human error is real and some dishes aren't 100% safe. Davis says she'll bend over backwards to make a guest happy, but that serving people with allergies sometimes gives her anxiety because she "personally can't stand in the kitchen and watch them make the food, so once I've talked to the chef and put it on the ticket it's out of my hands. I would hope that everyone understands that."
But if you've vetted the restaurant, spoken clearly about your food problems and double- or triple-asked about a dish—and then still got sick? Let the restaurant know and don't feel guilty about it. If your reaction is immediate and drastic, ask for medical help right away. But if it's mild enough that you want to wait until you're home (who doesn't want their own toilet or bed when things go down?), call up the next day and ask to speak to the manager.
Polas admits that she doesn't let staff know right away if something is wrong with her food. "They need to recognize and understand that I was frightened, that I needed to make sure I was able to get home and be okay, and then I could deal what happened. It wasn't intentional, but if they guaranteed their food to be gluten free for me, instead of never going back there I need to help them figure out what went wrong, in a non-accusatory fashion. They need to recognize and understand that we are in it together."
"Nobody wants someone getting sick; no server, cook, or front of house manager," says Boka's Sherry. "To be honest, it hurts to hear, but we need to hear it, because it's only to help get things better and prevent that from happening again in the future. Over-communicating is what we appreciate."
Gewanter suggests directly calling the manager of the restaurant, "but if you're comfortable with less confrontation, send an email and I'll follow up. Our interest is making sure that your experience is 100% of what you expected."
"We have a regular here, a woman with a very serious gluten allergy," says Chef Gavin Kaysen of New York's Cafe Boulud. "She sent me an email saying she got really sick after eating with us and that it was our fault. I promised her we didn't make her sick—I plated every dish for her—but I'd look into it and I wanted her to look into what else could have made it happen that day, so we could really figure it out. I really wanted to know. She called later to say that there was gluten as a thickening agent in her lipstick, so every time she put it on she was making herself sick. It was amazing to me the idea of gluten extending beyond food."
This doesn't mean that every restaurant is going to jump at hearing that they made you sick, but being brave (and polite!) can only help the next person eating in that restaurant stay safe.
And when everything goes well...
When a restaurant gets it right, a genuine show of thanks goes a long way. "I always make sure, when I leave a place, that I look everyone I can in the eye, thanking them for feeding me and keeping me safe," says Polas. "Whether it's the least elegant, simplest plate of food or something spectacular that I could never have made myself, the fact that they're willing to go through that effort to nourish me and allow me to go out with friends, and get what a shared meal gives us...I don't think they grasp what they're doing, and it's a gift I don't take for granted."
And if You Don't Really Have an Allergy?
Be honest with yourself and everyone else about it.
In Cincinnati, Chef Dan Wright points out a substantial difference; "Not everyone is allergic to gluten, so it annoys the shit outta me when everyone acts like they are. I have a brother in law who has Celiac disease; he's allergic to gluten. He can't have it. Then there are people that come in and don't want it because they feel fat when they eat it; just say you don't eat gluten and don't pawn it off as this life or death allergy that other people legitimately have."
"I get it, if you're allergic you want to be cautious about it," Rosenblatt says. "But if there's one thing that annoys or bothers me it's when people who don't have an allergy say they do; I can tell based on how they order. I was serving mimosas to a girl who said she was allergic to orange juice, and asked if she could have another juice instead. When I said we didn't have anything else but cranberry, she said, 'Well, you can put a little orange juice in.'"
"I live in L.A." says Davis. "Of course I suspect people of lying. There is always some new cleanse people are on or weight loss trend people jump into."
If one of these stories sounds like you, be upfront about what you really can or can't eat. Don't make a cook's life harder than it has to be, only to have a bagel with cream cheese for breakfast the next morning.
And for the Restaurants Out There...
We recognize the professionals we've spoken with take their jobs seriously. Not all restaurants are so dedicated, and super-casual restaurants may not be sensitive to your needs.
Kaysen recently confessed to me that he has Celiac disease, which gives him great insight into dealing with others' allergies:
Allergies are not going to go away. Even if it's a "fad," it's not going to go away, because people who do have allergies or a disease will still need to have alternatives, and I think it's an opportunity for us. I had a great meal at Betony where Bryce [Shuman] asked if he could cook for us, and he didn't skip a beat when I mentioned that everything had to be gluten-free for me. At the Four Seasons I can get gluten-free English muffins for Eggs Benedict, and I love that, because at most hotels you can't get anything. That should happen more often, but not just in fine or "middle" class dining. I think everyone needs to jump on the bandwagon a little bit. It's not going anywhere.
Bound seconds that; "It's easy to cook things with cream and butter and make the usual dishes, but you should want to challenge yourself to meet where we are as a society."
What can we as diners do? Be smart, be vocal, be kind, and don't muddy the waters. The same goes for restaurants.