Monday, April 13, 2009

Let's Talk About Restaurants

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is "Where can I find an allergy-safe restaurant in Chicago?" Most recently I was asked where to find allergy-friendly restaurants in a portion of the Chicago suburbs.

Since safe dining out is one of the biggest obstacles for food-allergy families, these are understandable questions. I wish I had definitive answers to give out, but here's why I don't: no restaurant is safe for all allergies all the time. Unless the establishment understands your particular food allergy inside and out, you run a risk.

The reasons for this are many: a "reliable" restaurant may have changed chefs. Or ingredients. Or ownership. I'll never forget the example Dr. Robert Wood gives in his book "Food Allergies for Dummies." He had a terrible reaction to peanut at a restaurant. You know where the peanut was? In marinara sauce! Yes, some creative chef decided to add peanut butter to tomato sauce for protein and "body." It put Dr. Wood in the hospital.

So while it is extremely helpful to become a regular at restaurants who are familiar with you and your food allergy needs, you must never assume anything. Just ask--it's so worth it.

Here's another story. I recently ate at Red Robin with my daughter and her friends. I told the waitress of her food allergy and she said "no problem, I'll tell the chef and then we'll write "nut allergy" on the ticket." OK, great. We've eaten there before and my daughter ordered a "low-risk" food. Red Robin has an "allergy alert" menu online. I was reasonably secure and the meal did, in fact, go off without a hitch.

But, I know that at least one of my blog readers visited Red Robin (in another state) and found her nut-allergic son to have hives after eating there. You just never know who's cooking and how much they understand--unless you ask.

There are a few red flags to look out for: does the waitstaff or manager give you a blank look when you mention food allergies or worse, look sheepish or shifty-eyed? Do they act defensive when you question their cooking practices? How's the overall hygiene at the establishment? Is it a very busy time of day for the restaurant? Do they have a menu that's heavy with your particular food allergen? I go with my gut instinct at these times and skip these restaurants. Why take the chance?

All that said, safe dining out can happen. But it takes a lot of input from you, the allergic diner. For example: always ask the cooking staff what the heck is going into the food. If you're in doubt, a phone call to the restaurant's manager (during non-busy hours) is another great strategy. You can gauge a lot from their responses. Once you're in a restaurant, if you'd like even more protection hand the manager a note, available from FAAN that alerts the chef to your allergy. You can download these printable cards at

I know that many of us have restaurant tales to share, so I would like to start a new feature on my blog. Please send me your restaurant experiences, good and bad and I'll post detailed results each month. Name the establishment and the location as well as what you ordered and how you found the whole experience. This is a big help to us all and I hope you'll participate.

I'd love to hear from any part of the country, and Chicagoans in particular, don't be shy! You can send me your info using the "contact me" link to the right of the blog. Thanks in advance--I can't wait to hear.


Jenny said...

And here's more "food for thought" comments from a chef about food-allergic diners. Check it out!

Jake said...

In Chicago, we've had great experiences at Wishbone where they make sure the cooks know about the food allergy. And Potbelly's has an entirely separate station to make their PBJs.

But our kid has never reacted to trace amounts (yet, knock wood) so we can't vouch with 100% certainty that there's never been any cross-contamination.

Anonymous said...

"Hand up" - me, asked you that question too!
I agree with EVERYTHING you said on this post. Ask questions, never assume. In our tiny town 3 hours south of Chicago, we do not have one single restaurant I would take my daughter. Reason? When I ask for allergy information, they all gave me the look as if I have two horns on my head - "what the hack is peanut allergy."
This is not the time and place to educate people, and definitely not worth the risk. I cook at home, use boxed, well labeled prepared food. Although I would rate cooking as my top 5 most hated!
Bistro 110 is a place we went many times. Safe enough for us but I have to say the food does not fit a 3- year-old, it's "adult food!"
There is a Japanese restaurant in Champaign "Karmakura" that we go often and I asked the same questions every time, even with the same waitress.
Sadly, I find talking to family members (when it comes to prepare safe food) are more difficult to deal with than restaurants.
My child is still too young to truly understand or "feel" the reaction, so we are very conservative eating out. But an adult with peanut allergy once shared with me that she would put a tiny bit of food on the tip of her tongue to test it out. If it's not safe, she usually feels a tingling sensation...

Pam said...

Giordano's pizza doesn't post any info on the web, but every time we go there, I ask and have been told each time that there are no peanut/tree nut ingredients in their pizza. We haven't had any allergic reaction yet.

By the way, I'm so glad that you're doing this survey!!!!