Navigating Restaurants with Food Allergies

Melissa Kossler Dutton

During a recent trip to Olive Garden, Denise Busic noticed that the breadsticks looked different.

She knew she needed to ask some questions.

As the parent of a child with food allergies, Busic routinely talks to restaurant personnel about how they prepare their food. When her son Colin, now 8, was a toddler, he had a severe allergic reaction to a muffin that contained a walnut. Since then, the Powell resident has adopted a detailed strategy for dining out. She routinely checks websites, calls food-production facilities and interviews chefs. She did not allow Colin to eat the breadsticks during that visit but has since confirmed they are still a safe option for him.

It's important to manage food allergies at all times, especially when dining out, said Dr. Michael Pistiner, a pediatric allergist in Boston and chair of the medical advisory team for the Kids With Food Allergies Foundation in Doylestown, Pa.

"Wise restaurant and food choices coupled with excellent communication are a must to ensure a safe dining experience," Pistiner said.

Make sure the restaurant takes food allergies seriously, he added.

"Knowing that a restaurant has an awareness of allergies and policies on how to deal with them is an important first step," Pistiner said. "If you feel like there is not a clear understanding or awareness, then feel free to politely leave."

Choosing a restaurant

Families with food allergies can't eat at just any restaurant. They need to ask about what allergens are present and how they handle them.

But families also need to be realistic about what restaurants they choose. It's not a good idea to take a person with a seafood allergy to a seafood restaurant. It's very risky to take a person with a peanut or tree nut allergy to a Chinese restaurant as many dishes contain nuts.

Persons with allergies have to accept that not every restaurant can provide them a safe meal, said Sloane Miller, who runs the website

"Sometimes the accommodation is no," she said. "If a restaurant is telling you no, believe them."

Vetting a restaurant

Before visiting a restaurant, go online and see what its website says about handling food allergies. More and more establishments are posting their policies online.

Jason's Deli has a "gluten-sensitive" menu posted online. The restaurant offers gluten-free bread and has a variety of food items that don't contain gluten. However, the website states that the restaurant "cannot recommend this for persons with Celiac Disease." Instead the menu options are designed for "those with minor gluten sensitivities or those that prefer to avoid gluten for nutritional reasons."

Locally, the Rusty Bucket Restaurant and Tavern has earned praise for its gluten-free menu.

On its website, the restaurant promises to "do our best to accommodate your needs," but also states "our kitchen is not completely gluten-free."

Red Robin's website offers suggestions on how to make its menu items gluten-free. The site recommends asking for grilled chicken rather than breaded and leaving off the bun when ordering a hamburger.

It's important to note that restaurants can change their menus and food suppliers so families also should check about items each time they visit. Most restaurants encourage families to ask questions and decide for themselves whether the safety precautions are enough to protect their children.

Look for detailed allergy information

Some websites even address the possibility of cross-contamination, when food that does not contain an allergen becomes tainted with an allergen during preparation or cooking. A number of major chain restaurants have developed charts that detail potential problems.

Olive Garden has an "Allergen Information Guide" on its website, listing menu items that contain specific allergens and items that are fried or grilled, which could pose a risk of cross-contamination.

The chart has detailed information about fish and seafood, nuts and tree nuts, wheat and gluten and soy.

Red Lobster also posts its "Allergen Menu" online. The menu details what dishes contain different allergens and which might come into contact with them.

Moe's Southwest Grill has a similar approach. The website notes that peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish are not present in menu items but that some items are processed in plants that contain peanuts, tree nuts, milk and soy.

Applebee's provides a list of foods that are not prepared with common allergens like nuts, dairy or eggs. The website encourages diners to consult with a manager before placing an order.

Make the restaurant aware

When dining with a person who has a food allergy or gluten problem, it's a good idea to talk to the manager. It's also helpful to make a reservation and tell the restaurant about any food issues in the party.

A reservation helps the restaurant prepare and plan for your visit, said Ian Rough, regional chef for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, which includes Molly Woo's, Cameron's American Bistro, Cap City Fine Diner and Bar, Marcella's, M, Martini, Mitchell's Ocean Club and Ocean Prime. If a family shares that information when making the reservation at a Cameron Mitchell restaurant, the server, chef and manager will be made aware of the diner's issues at the start of their shift, he said. The restaurants also have a system where they use yellow cards and special computer instructions to make everyone handling the person's food aware of the allergy or sensitivity, Rough said.

Once you're seated, ask if the restaurant has a gluten-free menu. Cap City even has a gluten-free children's menu that includes chicken tenders and grilled cheese.

What goes in the fryer?

When ordering fried food, it's important to ask questions about the fryer. Patrons with peanut allergies need to know what type of oil is in the fryer. It's also necessary to find out what food items go into the fryer. If an almond-encrusted piece of fish is fried in the same oil as chicken nuggets, it could cause problems for a person with an allergy to tree nuts.

To avoid the possibility of cross contamination, the Rusty Bucket does not put fried foods on its gluten-free menu, said Josh Yosick, regional chef for the restaurant.

At Cameron Mitchell restaurants, chefs designate certain fryers for gluten-free dishes, Rough said. They also have special utensils and equipment that are used for those customers.

A growing number of pizza places have added gluten-free options to their menus. Mellow Mushroom, zpizza and Donatos all serve them. Mellow Mushroom's website features the "Special Diets Wizard," which allows patrons to highlight what foods they need to avoid. The website processes the information and provides detailed information about the menu.

Going out for ice cream isn't always a treat for families with allergies. Children with dairy allergies have to find places that offer sorbet or other dairy-free treats. A child with nut allergies has to worry about cross-contamination.

Clerks at Graeter's and Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams will open new containers of ice cream and get fresh scoops for people with nut allergies. The ice cream shops also serve dairy-free sorbets.