Eating out is always a risky proposition for celiacs. No matter how careful you are, the presence of gluten in the restaurant makes contamination a possibility. Understanding this, I recommend being as careful as possible to avoid gluten as much as possible, but knowing that you cannot possibly check every ingredient used by the restaurant. It would be very difficult to check items such as mayonnaise or butter at a restaurant, although you should do so at home. Focus instead on the things that are most likely to contain gluten (see below for a list). Many celiacs avoid eating out, but I feel this is an unnecessary restriction. Although eating out is a challenge for celiacs, with education and caution, all celiacs can enjoy restaurant food safely.
As soon as you can (before you sit down, if possible), state that you have a “medically-required diet” (this gets the point across more clearly than saying you have an allergy and establishes the degree of seriousness with which your diet requirements must be treated) and would like to talk to the manager, cook, or someone who would be familiar with the ingredients used in preparing the food. In most cases, it is better to talk directly to the cook or manager rather than the server. Try to eat at off-peak hours; this will make it easier for the staff to help you, as they will not be so busy. Even better, if you know ahead of time where you will be eating, call ahead earlier in the day and talk to the manager or chef. You may want to get a restaurant card that explains the diet in detail (pre-printed cards are available from http://www.triumphdining.com, Celiac.com, CSA, and Living Without magazine). It also helps not to be starving when you arrive at a restaurant, as you won’t be able to eat the bread or chips (because of cross contamination) and will probably have to wait longer for your meal. It helps to carry a food bar or other light snack to help get you through.
Even if you have already explained your needs to the manager, also tell the server as well. When talking to the server, emphasize that they should leave off any bread, crackers, croutons, or other gluten-containing ingredients. State that you don’t want anything containing gluten on the plate, as that would cause contamination and render the entire dish inedible to you.
Explain the diet carefully. Don’t just say wheat intolerance (this is often misunderstood as meat intolerance). Mention that you cannot eat anything that contains wheat, oats, rye, or barley. This includes anything made with flour, breadcrumbs, anything breaded or floured, and anything cooked in the same oil as other foods containing gluten. Mention common gluten-containing ingredients such as malt vinegar, soy sauce, bouillon, broth, and sauces or soups thickened with flour. Another common misunderstanding can occur if you say, “I can’t eat wheat.” You might get the response from a waitress that I once did, “That’s OK honey, we have white bread here.” If you are eating in a Mexican Restaurant, ask if the chips are fried in separate oil from other gluten-containing foods, ditto with French-fries or any other food that is deep-fried. Also ask that the griddle be cleaned before cooking your food.
If the plate comes along with a roll sitting next to your steak, keep your plate and ask them prepare you a completely new meal, this time leaving off the roll. After you get the new meal, give up your contaminated plate (this way they don’t just take your plate to the kitchen and pull of the roll, leaving the crumbs. Be alert to suspicious items such as rice with pasta-looking bits in it (“oh, that’s not wheat, it’s semolina”), large, chewy, flour-looking tortillas, or anything that looks like the sauce may have been put on then scraped off. If something doesn’t look right, ask about it.
Don’t be shy about asking for what you need. It is your health that is at stake. Restaurants are a service industry and are generally willing to help you as much as possible. A server may be grumpy about having to answer lots of questions, but grumpy servers are much easier to endure than being sick all night. If a server is especially difficult (or especially helpful), reflect this in your tip. If a restaurant is unwilling to accommodate you or treats you as an unwelcome problem, don’t return. There is always another restaurant down the road that will be happy to help.
Always check each dish you order, even if you have ordered it before and it was OK. Always mention your needs, even if you have ordered from the same server on several other occasions; it is easy to forget and slip back into the routine of putting a roll on the plate.
If you plan to go to an amusement park, be sure to call several days in advance and talk to someone in the food service department about what foods are gluten-free. I don’t want to list many specific items here because they seem to change frequently. Disneyland and Disney World are used to gluten-free inquiries; if you book a meal in advance they will have gluten-free food available (even gluten-free pancakes, pasta, and pizza). The bad news is that it takes a bit longer to get your meal. There are also a few things you can have at the fast food places. Smaller parks are less accommodating, but usually there is something you can eat. We had trouble at Great America as their hamburgers and French-fries both contain gluten (they do have a few items you can eat; be sure to ask about the sushi). Bonfante Gardens does have a few items that are gluten-free, but call to check ahead. The Boardwalk in Santa Cruz is hopeless. You might get some steamed rice or corn on the cob. We usually head to one of the Mexican places across the street or to the wharf.