Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When Restaurants Get Food Allergies Right: Maggiano's Little Italy

Maggiano's menu: note the "Chef Requests" Section and the
notation about menu items that refer to food allergies.

Life-threatening food allergies and restaurants, oh my! Before food allergies, you probably viewed restaurants as a place to relax, have fun with family and friends and enjoy a good meal that you didn't have to cook.

After the diagnosis of a severe food allergy, however, it's another story. Restaurants become something to navigate and the stakes are very high because if the restaurant doesn't fully understand food allergies and we don't have the awareness we need, an emergency can occur. Kind of takes your appetite away, doesn't it?

I know that I am always leery of trying a new restaurant and have pretty strict criteria about where I will take my daughter with severe peanut and tree nut allergies. Our family will only visit restaurants  checked out  in advance and who we feel understand how to avoid allergy mix-ups in the kitchen. The good news: this can be done, but it does take work. Eventually you can find some go-to restaurants. This is so important to me and I've learned so much about how to do this over the years, that I devote an entire chapter to restaurants in my e-book, "The New Nut-Free Mom" http://tinyurl.com/c57j2fy

Given how much stress an unknown restaurant can cause, it makes it even better when a restaurant doesn't run from food allergies, but decides to take it on and accommodate them. Recently, I experienced some of the best service our family has ever received at Maggiano's Little Italy in Oak Brook, Illinois. (They have other locations, click the link above for more details.)

Maggiano's (see their menu above) impressed me greatly with their proactive and educated approach. Important note: We stated our daughter's allergies (peanuts, tree nuts) over the phone when we made the reservation. Please always do this, wherever you go.

We wanted to take our kids out to dinner following a show during the holidays. In searching for a place near the theater, I knew that Maggiano's was an option, so I did some research (which I talk about in great detail in my book.)  I looked at the menu, checked their web site and finally spoke to them on the phone. It looked really good so we decided to try it.

Once we arrived at our table, the chef showed up just a few minutes later to talk about who had the allergies, what menu items we should avoid (not many, but if you go on your own--ask them. Menu items can change at any time) and to ask if we had any questions. This was before we had even spoken to our server, so clearly they have a system for marking their guests allergies while making the reservation.

The chef offered to help us choose a menu item if we needed suggestions for our specific allergy needs. He was very reassuring and it was so appreciated, especially given some of our past experiences at other restaurants and the lack of knowledge and care. In a word, wonderful.

Once I heard from the chef, I'll admit, I felt more relaxed  than I ever do in a new restaurant. The server also took note of our daughter's order and said she would clear it with the chef and that in fact, she "had" to do that since it was noted on our reservation that we had a guest with allergies.

Just to be clear: I never told anyone there that I have a blog or would be reviewing their service. This level of service regarding food allergies is what they do for everyone. In fact, I saw the chef go to several tables once we were seated -- I'm guessing -- for the same reason he came to ours. Food allergies are becoming more common as are food intolerances like celiac disease and believe me, you're not the first person who asked about allergies in any given restaurant.

Maggiano's gave me hope that more restaurants will be embracing the challenge of food-allergic diners instead of turning them away.

I know that so many of us dread dining out at times, and for good reason. Not all restaurants are created equal with regard to food allergies. You have to be careful. But take heart, do your research and hopefully you will find some accommodating restaurants in your own neighborhood.

Remember, for any restaurant, be clear about your allergy needs and educate yourself on their menus and food prep. That is the first step, always. Carry your medications at all times -- don't go to a restaurant without those.

We'll definitely be back to Maggiano's. I'm really glad to have discovered their approach to food allergies. And I almost forgot--the food is delicious! A great family-style restaurant. Thank you to the staff, chefs and everyone who welcomed us.

Learn more about navigating nut allergies,
 including restaurants, in my e-book:  http://tinyurl.com/c57j2fy


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. We are still in the process with the new "adventure" with food allergies. My daughter is not allergic to peanuts, but highly allergic to Tree nuts. (we have to stay away from both due to cross contamination)and going to a "new" resturant can be overwhelming and people ask me all the time how we do it, etc. So Thank you. I love your blog, and i do read it (just hardly comment) it helps us so much and I have learned so much just in the past couple of months.

Marcia said...

Is it possible for a restaurant to be safe for people with P/TNA without completely altering their menu and changing suppliers? Is there a separate allergy safe kitchen? Are certain items removed from the menu in order to accommodate these allergies?

Jenny said...

Marcia, I think that a person with peanut and tree nut allergies can have a safe restaurant meal because I've seen it happen and I don't believe any of the things you mentioned occured. There is also no way for me to know the answer to all of your questions. Every restaurant is different. What is needed is communication, research on the part of the guests with food allergies and education on both sides. For example, allergic diners should know what is high-risk in any restaurant for their particular allergy and avoid it. I also avoid any restaurant that serves many unsafe menu items because I know it can increase the risk. Our role as people bringing an allergic diner (or having allergies ourselves) is to educate and arm ourselves with knowledge. Then we know what questions to ask, etc. It's also helpful to visit restaurants that have educated their chefs and staff and who have exhibited some food allergy awareness. If the chefs and staff and educated, they will know how to deliver "safe" meals to food-allergic diners. However, never assume and never put it all on the restaurant. Both the diner and the restaurant play a role. Restaurants carry some risk--no question. So if you want to eat there, be prepared and communicate your allergies and specific requirements and if you ever feel unsure or they can't answer your questions--get on out of there. At the end of the day, we have to feel comfortable so if you don't want to go to a restaurant, then don't go.

Olivia said...

Always looking for these kinds of great content and information over the internet. Really very appreciating. Keep it up Thanks

Patty said...

This is so helpful. We have also dined at Maggianos and felt relatively safe. Would love to know about some sort of database or website for travelers where we could research restaurants' history and practices with regard to allergies. Sort of a "michelin guide" for people with food allergies. Do you know of anything?

Jenny said...

Patty, check out www.allergyeats.com for more info. This is a great resource and at the very least, provides you with a great place to begin your restaurant research. I've used it on vacations. All the best, Jenny

Jenny said...

we'rejumpin' .... Thank you for your kind remarks! I'm glad you're finding my blog to be helpful.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for this post! We dined at Maggiano's Little Italy in downtown Chicago and felt very safe. The chef came to our table and had a thorough understanding of our dietary needs/risks for cross contamination, etc. The service was fabulous and the food super! So glad we found your blog.

ashley said...

thank you so much for this post, and for your book. our 17-month old son was just diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy a month ago, and we're navigating the new world right now. (in fact, my husband bought your e-book for me, to help me figure out this new scenario for our family!) we will be dining at maggiano's in naperville, illinois on thanksgiving this year (yep, we eat out!), and your post was so helpful. thank you...what you are doing is amazing. :) love from a new nut-free mama.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Ashley. You made my entire week! Thanks to your husband, too, for buying you the e-book. I'm so happy that you find it and my blog to be helpful. Enjoy your trip to Maggiano's and Happy Thanksgiving!