I am beyond grateful for all of the restaurants who have chosen to take allergen-free options seriously. While not every establishment can be totally gluten free or free of any other allergen, there are a few things that restaurants do that make diners like me feel safe and welcomed.
It can be a pretty rough experience to go out to eat when you have a food allergy or other illness that requires you to avoid certain ingredients. Having developed celiac disease after 19 years of "normal" life, I can get frustrated with the newfound fear and anxiety that eating out sometimes causes me. "I could be fine", you think to yourself, "or I could end up living in the bathroom for the next 2-5 business days." That risk factor is a pain in the ass, so every time I find a place that can alleviate those negative feelings, I am a customer for life.
We food allergy folks love labeling. We love when we see labeled menus, cutting boards, utensils, a small flag in my pancakes, special plates, you name it.
It signals to us that you are aware of the dangers of cross contamination, and it helps foster a relationship of trust between the customer, front of house staff, and the kitchen. Plus this is a quick and easy way to get us to post pictures of your awesome dishes on social media - woohoo for positive and free advertising!
Have honest staff
I have heard many a horror story about servers either accidentally misinforming customers due to not knowing the right answer, or straight up incorrectly answering questions about allergens because they don't take the customer's questions seriously.
Nothing on Earth makes me more nervous than a server without confidence or with a judgemental attitude. First of all, I am very very sorry that I am inconveniencing you with my questions. No sarcasm here, I hate being the allergy girl at the table and I also wish I didn't have to give you the 3rd degree when I ordered, and I'm doing my best not to make it weirder than it already is. I also know that you might not know the answer and might feel really put on the spot with my questions. Oh yes, and I know I look 'the type', but this is not a fad diet. Please - don't let your irritation with me and my questions get in the way of good service and safety.
Secondly - it is 100% OK (and encouraged) to say "I don't know". I would much rather wait and have the right answer, than trust and end up sick for weeks. Most people with real food allergies have absolutely no problem waiting for the real answer, and will have a hell of a lot of respect for a server who can say, "I don't know, let me find someone who does".
Last but certainly not least - bonus points when your staff asks the golden question - "Celiac/Allergy or preference?". Its a simple way of showing the customer that you know there is a difference in how careful the kitchen needs to be for different type of diners, and cuts right to the chase without embarrassing anyone. I LOVE to be asked this question.
Don't half ass it
This might be a uniquely celiac issue, but it is 100% more frustrating to find out that a place only has "gluten free friendly" options that are catered towards the gluten-free fad diet and would probably make me sick.
Long story short - cross contamination immediately makes a gluten free food not gluten free anymore. This includes fried foods prepared in shared fryers, and things prepared on surfaces where there was gluten like toasters, cutting boards, and pizza ovens. It's pretty lame to promote your place as being gluten free when in reality its not, at least for the people to whom it really matters.
Also - any other celiac sufferers tired of bunless burgers and salads? Yikes. It is SO exciting when I see a place that will let me get a burger on a bun. The simplest things make diners like me feel welcomed and like we got our money's worth.
Look beyond Google Maps & Yelp
There are a lot of apps that cater to those of us with allergies - Yelp and Google Maps are cool, but apps like Find Me Gluten Free and Nima offer me a more detailed list of places I can eat with feedback from people who have the same fears, needs, and hopes as I do.
I frequently cross-check the reviews on multiple different apps to find the safest place to eat, so the more your establishment shows up in different sources, the better!
Seize the Opportunity
Sometimes, a restaurant will treat an allergy sufferer as an opportunity to go above and beyond, rather than as an inconvenient burden. Not only is this a wonderfully refreshing experience, it is something we will talk about for years to come.
This can be as simple as having a manager or chef come by and ask how my meal is, or better yet I have experienced places that will have said manager or chef take my order and take charge of my meal from start to finish - ordering, supervising the preparation, and serving all the way through. On one hand, it kind of makes me feel like a fancy princess, but on the other I simply appreciate that kind of attention to safety.
I also love when a chef takes the opportunity to prepare something unique for me. This is awesome because again woo, special meal, but also because it gives the chef an opportunity to be creative with ingredients and flavors, and shine where he or she might not get to in a normal day.