Tuesday, December 15, 2009

It May Be Getting Easier to Dine Out with Nut Allergies

Recently I asked my readers about the biggest concerns they have with regard to caring for a child with nut allergies. Not surprisingly, many people expressed anxiety about dining out at restaurants and for good reason. Eating at a restaurant is a leap of faith for the food allergic because you have to trust someone else to A) understand your allergy in the first place and how to avoid a reaction and then B)prepare the food under the right conditions so that cross-contact with an allergen doesn't take place. Still, for most of us dealing with nut allergies, dining out is a part of life, especially when you want to travel with your family.

I've both written about and heard some scary dining out stories, so I wanted to share some positive tales of dining out that I've read about recently. First, my local food allergy support group sent out a very encouraging e-mail about a member's recent experience at Wildfire, an upscale restaurant chain in the Chicago area and other cities. This support group member's son has peanut and egg allergies, as well as others. She did all the right things--mentioned the allergies when she made the reservation, made the reservation for an early dinner (5 p.m.) and then told her server when she arrived.

The chef himself came to their table and informed them he would prepare the allergy-free meal personally, then asked what the child wanted to eat. He also told the family that they are prepared to deal with food allergies and handle them daily.

Obviously, this is excellent customer service and the family reportedly had an enjoyable meal with a level of confidence in the safety of the food that was unusual to them (in a good way, of course!). I live near this restaurant and I can't wait to try it out with my own family. Oh, and this meal happened on a weekend--a busy time for restaurants. That tells me that if chefs/servers are informed on food allergies, a meal like this doesn't have to seem special, but can be the norm.

Another dining out tale: I was reading a restaurant review in The New Yorker magazine about The Vanderbilt restaurant in Brooklyn. Near the end of the article was a mention of a nut-allergic diner. Apparently, one of the people in the food critic's party was informed by the server that they should avoid a certain dessert containing almond flour. (I always advocate avoiding desserts at a restaurant when you have a nut allergy, by the way. Too risky.)

The reason I mention this review is that it was the first time I ever saw nut allergies mentioned in a New Yorker restaurant review and I've been a subscriber to the mag for about 12 years. Despite the fact that the food critic in the article felt the server handled the allergic diner a bit poorly (they did not offer the chance to re-order a dessert), to me this story indicates a new level of awareness about food allergies that is exciting and hopefully helpful.

Finally, some of you may have read my recent post about chef/restauranteur Emeril Lagasse and his work with Enjoy Life Foods on YouTube. Well, just last week Emeril was honored by the Food Allergy Initiative at their New York benefit with a lifetime achievement award. Also present were many prominent chefs that have restaurants not only in New York but all over the world. The fact that they would attend this event and feel compelled to support a food allergy organization speaks volumes about how much progress has been made.

Does all of this mean that you can let your guard down while dining out? No way, but these are encouraging signs. It also shows that if you speak up about what you need to stay safe and use good judgment, it is possible to have a good experience at a restaurant, even with severe food allergies.


Anonymous said...

I totally agree! We printed out a few of those chef cards from the FAAN website and have handed those out. We've surprised at how accommodating some of the chain restaurants are! Last week at our Cracker Barrel, the chef brought out the flour that they use for the pancakes just to make sure it was ok for my son's PA. I was shocked bcs we've never had anyone do that before and it made even more "special" knowing that the chef took the initiative to do that even though he didn't have to! We rarely call ahead but have had more successes dealing straight w/the manager and chef than going through the waitress when we arrive. The waitresses don't really know much when it comes to how the food is prepared! I've been surprised at how many restaurants are accommodating but am sure it's bcs they don't want you to sue them! They are appreciative when we go to them first. So far, everything has worked out great for us (surprisingly)!

Anonymous said...

Hi! Could you please let your readers know that we called Cooper's Hawk Winery Restaurant (several locations in the suburbs) and the manager answered the phone and was very helpful and knowledgeable about allergies - they make sure there is no cross-contamination in the kitchen and made a note on our reservation. We told the waitress again and she had a form to fill out and the manager came to our table again - they said they take allergies very seriously. It would really be helpful to have a list of these types of restaurants that are on top of allergies, because it can be weary having to explain this over and over especially about cross contamination, etc. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

We got great service regarding our daughter's allergies at Cheesecake Factory and Maggiano's. They brought up good points - deep fried foods have strong possibility of cross-contamination with nuts as well as salads.

Jenny said...


In response to the reader who wants a list of safe restaurants, you might be interested in a new site called www.allergyeats.com that has consumers with food allergies rate restaurants based on their allergy-friendly restaurant experience. The site just began and is not yet complete, but check it out.

No matter what, though, never assume a restaurant is so allergy-friendly that you don't have to communicate with the staff about your allergy needs. You must always discuss this--no matter how tiring you find it. Chefs change, menus change, ingredients change, waiters change. You've got to stay on top of it or your risk accidental ingestion of an allergen. That's just the way it is. And really, the more we speak up, the more that restaurants know they have to handle food allergies seriously.