Anyone who follows a strict gluten free diet knows that dining out can be tricky. Some restaurants have gluten free items clearly marked on their menu. Some have GF menus that are printed separately from their “normal” offerings. Some expect you to ask while others think it is a fad and do not take it seriously. That means that the GF diner needs to make sure they know what they are getting when they choose to eat somewhere other than home.
After I started on a 100% gluten free diet (no cheating or guessing) I found it difficult to know which restaurants were safe and which were not. But I soon learned that there are some rules to follow.
- Look up the menu on line before you leave the house.
- Choose a time when the restaurant is less busy so the chef has time to devote to your special needs.
- Be prepared to teach your server about the difference in eating GF because you want to and eating GF for your health. If you think the server is not taking you seriously, ask to talk to the chef. But do it with a smile.
- If you find a server who is particularly knowledgeable about eating GF, ask for them when you return to that restaurant.
- Ask questions about specific ingredients and preparation methods. This requires that you are familiar with hidden sources of gluten that might be unknown to your server (sauces, seasonings, processed foods, etc.)
Even if you are prepared and you ask all the right questions, you can still get glutened from cross contamination or just because the staff does not truly understand what it means to be 100% GF. There is a local pizza cafe in my town that offers GF pizza crust. They do not order it already made from a different company. Instead they make it themselves. I have eaten there many times and I have been glutened just once. It was a fairly immediate reaction (within 15 minutes) and I was just glad that I was not far from home. I am convinced that the person preparing the dough rolled it out in wheat flour or on a surface that was not sufficiently protected. And yes, I sent an e-mail to the owner telling them of my experience but I tried to be very nice about it. If a GF item is on the menu, all of the staff need to know what GF means. They won’t know if we don’t let them know.
The first restaurant I dined at that offered a truly GF menu was Maggiano’s Little Italy in St. Louis. I live in Texas so I had to go a long way to find that restaurant. The occasion was a baby shower for my youngest daughter and her first baby. That was in 2010–a time when eating out and being GF were not mutually compatible. There were two of us at the table who needed GF options. The chef came out and talked to us. He asked if we were avoiding gluten or if we needed to be completely gluten free. I appreciated the time he took to ask specific questions that would help him make our experience better. I was especially surprised when they delivered GF rolls to the table. I was even more surprised to find that they actually tasted good. The rolls they serve come from a St. Louis company called Andrea’s Gluten Free. While in St. Louis during that trip I had also visited their store and purchased some items to try. Andrea’s baked goods can be found at local grocery stores and while they are expensive, they are very good. The herbed rolls served at Maggiano’s helped to make that experience something memorable. I have never found any other restaurant that served GF rolls with their meals. So this was truly a treat.
This photo does not do them justice. But they were so good that my husband (who only eats GF because I do) liked them better than the bread he was served. We recently ate at the Maggiano’s in Dallas and found that they did not serve GF rolls there. I was disappointed, especially since there is a company in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that could be making rolls for them. Local Oven sells gluten free products to schools, grocery stores, and restaurants all over the US. Their rolls would make the GF menu complete at the Dallas location.
Last week, we were once again in St. Louis and we ate at Maggiano’s for our Valentine dinner. However, since we knew Valentine’s Day would be busy at any restaurant, we went on Sunday afternoon rather than Saturday night. I was able to spend some time visiting with our server, Tara, and she was especially helpful with answering questions about the GF menu items. She explained which foods could be made gluten free for appetizers, main dish, or dessert. I think this might be the only restaurant I have ever visited that had GF appetizers. That’s progress! I ordered Caesar salad and spaghetti with meat sauce. It is such a traditional dish that I felt it would be a good way to judge quality. What I didn’t know at the time was that I had choices about the type of pasta that would be used. I assumed spaghetti meant long, thin noodles. But at Maggiano’s that is not true. Next time I will know to make a pasta choice when I order. I also learned that the pasta they use is from Barilla. That brand can be found at many grocery stores and I have cooked with it at home. It is truly a toss up as to which one I prefer–Barilla or Schar. Both taste good.
The Maggiano’s menu has a few items that include a special feature. Buy one to eat there and you get to choose a second one to take home. Their servings are quite large but taking home a second meal intrigued me. I chose Fettucini Alfredo to bring home. Unfortunately, I forgot to remind Tara about it at the end of our meal and she forgot to include it. But next time I will look in the take home bag to see what’s there. I saw many tables with take home bags so I asked Tara about it. She told us that almost everyone takes food home since their meals are meant to be shared. My husband had the Chicken Marsala (not GF) and it included three chicken breasts–way more food than any one person should be eating. Our take home bag included more than half of my spaghetti with meat sauce, a third of my husband’s Chicken Marsala with buttery noodles, and some extra GF dinner rolls.
Of course we had to have dessert. It’s all part of getting the full experience at a restaurant! Their GF dessert is limited to just Crème Brulee but it was a great way to end our Valentine dinner. Like their other dishes, this one was more than enough for both of us and we enjoyed every bite.
Whether in St. Louis or Dallas, Maggiano’s Little Italy is definitely a place we will visit again. They make gluten free dining a real delight!