Thursday, June 26, 2014

Words of caution: gluten-free dining in the ATL (and everywhere else)

It seems like every week a new restaurant in our area launches a gluten-free menu and while that used to be exciting, these days it's more important than ever to investigate these claims in detail.  Lately, I've come across more places that don't have a clue about proper gluten-free service than those that do.

EXAMPLE:  There is a small independent cafe near us that has a sign on the counter noting that gluten-free pancakes and bread are available for a $1 upcharge.  My husband was so excited to see this when he popped in to inquire about gluten-free dishes.  When I called to ask more about these new items, I was nicely told that the pancakes - gluten and gluten-free - are all cooked on the same griddle.  The bread for all sandwiches is toasted together as well.  The person was fairly knowledgeable and commented that someone with a gluten allergy might want to avoid pancakes and toasted bread.  They added that you can order a sandwich on un-toasted bread in order to ensure the (packaged) gluten-free bread would remain that way.  Lastly, the person commented that since the gluten-free bread was stored in the refrigerator, the bread would be cold if ordered that way.  Sounds yummy.....NOT!

EXAMPLE:  Large chain with a pretty extensive gluten-free menu has the most clueless staff I've encountered in a while.  While a kitchen manager explained that the gluten-free pasta is cooked in clean pan/water, etc. which turned out not to be the case - at least on one of my visits there.  After having gluten-free pasta dishes without incident a couple of times, I found gluten pasta mixed in with my gluten-free pasta.  I sent the half eaten dish back - had it taken off our check - and asked to speak to the manager.  He un-apologetically explained that anyone with a gluten allergy should not be ordering gluten-free pasta since it's cooked in the same water as the gluten pasta!  Interesting....  OK - no reason to return there unless I want to order a salad.  I certainly wouldn't trust them to prepare a burger with a gluten-free bun - or any other gluten-free specialty item for that matter!

EXAMPLE:  Multiple pizza places now have gluten-free pizza crusts.  Many of them also serve gluten-free pasta (if they serve regular pasta).  Some can explain what cross-contamination procedures are in place (for pizza and/or pasta dishes) and some can not.  In fact, the question obviously throws the person on the other end of the phone - managers included - more often than not these days.

At the end of the day, jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon can be quite profitable for restaurants when done right or wrong.  Most of us know someone who's gluten-free for reasons unrelated to their health or food allergies.  They're just following the latest fad and can not detect if they are glutened when dining out.  The trendy gf-ers are kind of skewing the size of the gluten-free market which is somewhat positive when it comes to shopping for gluten-free specialty items.  But it's detrimental when it comes to gluten-free dining options.  It is clear to me that servers are encountering more faux gf-ers than those of us that will get sick if our food is not prepared/served correctly.  And that is not good news for any of us.

Always do your homework before trusting that any place you haven't been before knows what they are doing in terms of gluten-free service.  I eat out at least weekly (daily when on vacation) and will continue to do so.  It's great that there are so many places that do get it right.  But I also feel like it's more important than ever to investigate whether or not a place is worth eating at BEFORE you get there.  Like it or not, trendy gf-ers are driving the gluten-free dining market currently more than those of us who have no choice but to eat gluten-free.        

*The names of the places mentioned above are not listed because they could have changed their policies by now (or at any time) and also because there are way more of them out there than I personally know about.  What I encountered could happen anywhere to anyone and it's up to each individual to make their own decisions about where to dine out.  This post is simply a word (or many words) of caution about dining out.  

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