Monday, June 23, 2008

Dining Out with Food Allergies...Greek Style

Since I have been advocating dining out with food-allergic kids, I just had to post about our great dining out experience in Chicago this weekend.

The family and I visited Athena restaurant in the heart of Chicago's awesome Greektown. My husband is Greek-American and loves the place. I enjoy Greek food also, but sometimes worry about taking my daughter to eat Greek cuisine. This type of cuisine can be very safe--but it also is a culture and cuisine that loves almonds, walnuts, etc. Generally, we order grilled items for our daughter (chicken skewers, that sort of thing) and we find that works very well.

We enjoyed a wonderful courtyard table near a relaxing waterfall and a lovely view of Chicago's skyline. The weather was perfect (and if you live anywhere near Chicago, you know that's no mean feat ) which added to the whole experience.

But the best part of course was our waiter's knowledge of nut allergies and the great attention and service we received. We brought up our concerns right away, and he gave us recommendations for food (the grill!--good to know we were on the same page) and assured us that this particular restaurant has taken their "almond garnishes" off their seafood entrees due to the increase in nut allergies. (The menu does not reflect this new policy--so always ask, people! You just never know.)

We ordered our daughter chicken souvlaki (skewers) and she shared our cucumber-yogurt dip and yummy village salad. It was a joy to dine out with the family and also reassuring to see that it can be done and should be done, even with food allergies.

Every time we have a postive restaurant experience with our daughter, it teaches her how to cope with her allergies and boosts her confidence.

Ethnic dining can be as easy as our experience or much, much trickier to due language barriers and cultural differences, so please make sure you are certain that your needs are understood and addressed. If we had any concerns we would have gotten the chef involved and I urge you to do the same.

Also, when you get nice service from an understanding waitperson, I suggest reflecting that in the tip and also with verbal thanks. I know we all appreciate it when our kids eat out without incident and it's nice to show it.

What are some of your tips? I'd love to hear about your dining experiences--both good and bad. Until then, be cautious but have fun!


Jennifer B said...

I enjoyed this post--thanks! We just got back from a week-long trip, and though we brought a lot of food to picnic with, the kids got tired of that and so did I! So, we decided to try restaurants.

We stopped in an Olive Garden; I was thinking my child could have plain pasta with butter and grated cheese. I spoke with the hostess and the person who seated us. Then, a waitress told us that everything in the restaurant has peanuts. That's right--every single item on their menu! Of course, we left since they clearly did not feel up to accommodating us. We later joked that perhaps even the water has peanuts in it. But it all ended well--we ate at a chain restaurant, Red Robin, and they have an "allergen menu" for the top 8 allergens. We were pleased they made an effort, the manager paid special attention to us, and everything turned out fine.

Jenny said...

Yes, we've also had luck at Red Robin. That's one of our favorites. The food seems very "nut-allergy friendly" for the most part.

I am horrified about what transpired at Olive Garden--it cannot be possible that ALL of their food is tainted with peanuts. It's supposed to be Italian, right?

It sounds like they did not want to have even a chance of liability and I suppose that's there perogative. Still, I'm personally disgusted that a large, nationwide chain restaurant would treat food-allergic consumers this way. I'm going to e-mail Olive Garden -- will you do the same? Olive Garden higher ups should be made aware of their major customer service gaffe.

I'm glad you had a better experience elsewhere. You also illustrate how you must be flexible and have a sense of humor when dining out with food allergies! Good going! :)

Jennifer B said...

FYI, below is the response I received from Olive Garden. I do not anticipate returning to an Olive Garden until they can provide better information on their food. It would be challenging to address the possibility of cross-contamination with all of the vendors, but more information from the Olive Garden on the ingredients they use in-house would be a step in the right direction!

"Thank you for contacting us, concerning your visit to our Greensburg Olive Garden restaurant.

We do apologize that our employees were not well informed about our menu and while none of our recipes include nuts or peanuts, we cannot say with complete accuracy that there are no nuts or possible cross introduction of nuts in our restaurants stemming from our vendors. Our current nutritional database does not include information to the level of detail you require for your child's safety. Our menu is very complex and our vendor sources are extensive, making it very difficult to recommend any items with the confidence that we all need. We trust that you will appreciate our position.

Please be assured, however, that we will follow up to ensure our training program has been properly completed. As a gesture of goodwill and our desire to continue serving you and your family, we have mailed you a complimentary gift card. Please allow fifteen business days for receipt. We believe we can restore your faith in us and look forward to providing you with 100% guest delight in the future."

Jenny said...

Wow, this is frustrating. According to these statements, all restaurants could take this stance, and where would we go then? I checked out Olive Garden's web site and they offer a gluten-free menu--why are they able to offer that menu with "complete confidence?" Why are they accomodating the "gluten-free" population at an ITALIAN restaurant--hello--gluten city!--and they can't tell you that you can offer a nut-free dish????? That's like a Chinese restaurant telling people that they can accomodate peanut allergies, but not dairy. Counterintuitive!!

As I see it, Olive Garden is basically telling you, to stay away from their restaurant, and at the same time offering you a gift certificate and telling you they can "restore your confidence." What??? This is ridiculous. They need to make up their minds on this and it looks like they have--nut allergies, stay away!

They could easily provide a few nut-free options to diners if they choose to do so and clearly they are taking a cowardly route. If no nuts exist on their menu, your family could find a "safe" item, but they are clearly not interested in serving people with nut allergies.

I suggest their new tagline should be "Olive Garden...When You're Here, You're Family...Unless You Have Nut Allergies."

Frankly, their food is crap anyway but I think their treatment of food allergies is disingenous and rude.

Thank you for this eye-opening information and I am sorry they responded to glibly.

I'm not done with Olive Garden---I couldn't e-mail them because I didn't have all the information for their required "fields" but a letter is forthcoming!!!

Sean said...

Any nut free chinese restuarants out there in chicago area?