Allergy Shmallergy

Simplifying life for families with food allergies.

Best (and Worst) Practices of Some of Our Favorite Restaurants June 12, 2017

Restaurants need to pay attention to food allergies.  Aside from the obvious risk of health complications, misunderstanding of such common and serious conditions comes off as uninformed, unsympathetic, and negligent.  Sometimes even the best restaurants aren’t well-informed or trained about handling food allergy requests.  But when a restaurant gets it right, it earns a customer’s loyalty forever.  Below are some of the best and worst practices among our experiences.  I’d love to hear some examples of BEST practices from YOUR dining experiences by commenting below.

 

To understand what’s happening behind the kitchen doors, read Allergic Living’s Special Report, What Restaurants Are Getting Right and Wrong on Food Allergies.  And if you work at a restaurant, please read Simple Strategies for Restaurants to Manage Food Allergies for easy ways to improve food allergy service.

 

 

Hops (Greensboro, NC)

Hops 2015-07-20 19.37.22

The reputation of this burger joint was impossible to ignore.  And, we knew from our first year eating here that it was well-deserved.  In fact, I had been impressed that they offered gluten-free beer and buns, despite the fact that we do not eat gluten-free.

However, one night, arriving with a large group of friends, we noticed that a vegetarian burger containing nuts was added to the menu.  This greatly increased the possibility of cross-contamination for our peanut and tree nut allergic son.  We asked the server if the restaurant could clean a small portion of the grill before making my son’s hamburger. No. Could they grill his burger in a pan?  No.  Would they consider grilling his burger on a piece of clean tin foil?  No.

 

So, we walked across the street and ate there instead.  Rather than thinking flexibly, the restaurant has lost our business – not just our family’s business, but that of our entire group.

 

Miyagi (McLean, VA)

This Japanese restaurant is always crowded.  Its sushi is consistently fresh and delicious.

 

When we explained that my son had a sesame seed allergy and could not have any sesame on his order, they seemed to understand.   But it was a different story when the plate arrived with sesame seeds covering the side dish.  And the replacement was sent back on the same plate with the side dish scraped off.

 

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill (Moorsetown, NJ)

Driving down the New Jersey Turnpike, we all grew hungry and needed a break from the car.  We decided to stop at Firebirds off exit 4 on a whim.  And, what a great choice!  The food was great and the servers were extra careful with our food allergy requests.  The chef himself came over to our table to answer each question we had.

“I like to visit each table with food allergies personally,” he said, “so that you know I understand your concerns and we can discuss a plan so you know you’re eating safely.”

The chef watched his best friend deal with celiac disease and food allergies at restaurants and wanted to change that experience for his own customers.  The effort was enormously appreciated!

 

Clare and Don’s Beach Shack (Falls Church, VA)

This local restaurant is an experience unto itself.  In addition to its fun and friendly indoor ambiance, it has generous outdoor seating with a fire pit for the cool months and live music for the warmer ones.  The owners always make everyone feel warm and welcome.  Their quick response to our questions (even when that requires contacting suppliers or figuring out how to make something safe on the fly) is part of their natural, good-natured customer service.  And, it’s something we’re incredibly grateful for.

In fact, they’ve become so accommodating with and accustomed to my son’s orders that when the ticket comes into the kitchen, his meals often return to the table with a greeting from one of the owners herself.

 

Burton’s Grill (Charlottesville, VA and elsewhere)

This restaurant gets kids’ menus right.  Rather than ordering and substituting everything as food allergy families usually do, this menu allows kids (and their parents) to customize each piece.  And for those of us with dietary restrictions, that means more options, less hassle.  We still had a few questions for our server (safety of hamburger buns and fry oil) and were pleased to see the seriousness with which they sought the answers.  Such a great experience, we made a repeat visit within the same weekend.

 

Harvey Cedar’s Shellfish Co (Long Beach Island, NJ)

This is a perennial favorite for our family and friends.  A down-to-earth seafood restaurant with friendly staff is a no-brainer.  But nothing with food allergies is completely straight-forward.  As my son became more and more adventurous and we posed more and more questions about their menu, one server in particular took it upon himself to create an allergen menu with the help of the owner and chefs.  We were hugely impressed with this simple and easy to navigate menu.  It has encouraged my son to try even MORE menu items which has resulted in his love of swordfish, mussels, and lobster!

 

La Tela (Kiawah Island, SC)

We waited for 45 minutes to sit down at this popular wood-fired pizza and Italian restaurant just off Kiawah Island.  By the time we had been seated, it was late and the kids were STARVING.  We had a great time eating here a couple of years prior and were looking forward to a good meal.

When we told the waiter my son was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds and sensitive to dairy (because of his EOE), a manager returned to discuss the menu with us.  She had thorough knowledge of kitchen preparations and ingredients.  As it turns out, because they use pine nuts in their pesto pizza (which contaminates the oven) only salad and plain pasta were safe for him – a HUGE disappointment.  But they were willing to prepare pasta for my son in a dedicated pot to ensure it was safe.  He was not thrilled, but we appreciated the extra step.

Unfortunately, the pasta arrived covered in sauce – something my son doesn’t like and specifically ordered against.  When we pointed this out to our server, he was clearly put out.  Annoyed and not hiding it, he said that although the kitchen could prepare another batch of pasta, it would take a very long time.  He suggested that my son just eat the meal in front of him.

The last thing you want to do is tell a food allergic child (or anyone with a medical condition) to just suck it up.  We left frustrated with our mixed experience.  While the restaurant itself was great, this visit emphasizes how much of your experience lies with the individual you are working with.  In our case: the server.

 

Sandbox (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Breakfast is tricky for those with dairy allergies.  So much of what kids want to order in the morning (pancakes, waffles, even scrambled eggs) is made with milk.  My son has become used to having fruit and bacon when we’re out at breakfast.  But on this one morning, he really wanted French Toast.  There were a lot of hurdles to overcome before we could safely order this: safety of the bread and preparation surface, can they coat it only in egg…?    Yes on all accounts.  This specially prepared French Toast – made in a separate pan – makes my son SO happy.  Sandbox’s flexible thinking makes him feel great and relaxed.

 

But, when we spoke with the owner, we experienced a funny lack of awareness.  While we complimented her restaurant at being so good at handling food allergies, she made a few insensitive comments.  We told her about my son’s many food allergies. Having been a former teacher, she said, “Oh!  I would have HATED to have you in my class!”  Later, my son asked, “What’s wrong?  Why wouldn’t she have wanted to teach me?”  Not the message you want your customers leaving with.  Also, you wouldn’t say that to someone in a wheelchair or with a serious illness.  Why say that to a child who similarly didn’t choose to have food allergies?

 

Rocco’s Tacos (throughout Florida)

Rocco’s Tacos is our Florida obsession.  My whole family loves eating at this festive and delicious restaurant.  It’s made even easier to love because across locations, Rocco’s takes food allergies seriously.  They seek out ingredients and are creative at work-arounds when necessary.  At our most recent visit in Boca Raton, the server approached us to let me know that his brother had food allergies, conveying that he understood our questions and concerns whole-heartedly.  That kind of information is so helpful when explaining what you (as the food allergy family) are looking for.

And, look!  They flag food allergy orders from the kitchen to table so that mistakes are avoided.  Love that system!

 

Sakura (Vienna, VA)

Japanese hibachi restaurants, as it turns out, can be a fantastic place to eat with food allergies.  Many do not use any dairy.  And their prep surface is diligently cleaned right in front of customers.

 

Sakura’s menu clearly states that they don’t use peanuts or peanut oil in any of its menu items.  They take time to understand the food allergies at our table and craft a careful plan to cook each meal in the proper order to ensure its safety.  When we eat with our extended family, as we often do, we need to avoid my son’s food allergies as well as my in-law’s – that means, no peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, or shrimp.  They prepare everything with ease (and great skill!) right in front of us.

 

Panzone’s Pizza (Long Beach Island, NJ)

Panzone’s boasts some of the best pizza on the Jersey Shore.  But it was when we began ordering their other menu items that we realized how easy they made things for food allergic families like ours.  The owner pulled out a binder filled with ingredient lists for all menu items, including those from her suppliers.  Stock from suppliers is typically our biggest roadblock for information.  Restaurants often have no idea what is in a supplied item and cannot take the time to call to inquire.

 

Perusing Panzone’s ingredient binder allowed us to partake in items that are usually not safe elsewhere: like (cheeseless) cheesesteaks, amazing breaded wings, and fish tacos.

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Visiting DC? Here’s a Food Allergy-Friendly Game Plan March 4, 2015

Despite all this snow and ice, delays and cancellations, Spring Break is really just around the corner.  And, for many people, the spring and summer seasons offer a chance to visit our nation’s capital.  There’s so much to do in Washington DC, it’s almost mind-boggling.  I’m pretty sure I could keep a visitor busy for a solid 6 months here.  So, consider the below an outline and fill in with extras that pique your interests.  And, please let me know about some of your own allergy-friendly finds via Twitter or Facebook using @shmallergy or #shmallergyDC!

Day 1:  The Mall – Part 1

See:  What ISN’T there to see on the National Mall?!  Start at the Washington Monument (and definitely go to the top, it’s amazing – even the ride back down is memorable) and wind your way to the Lincoln Memorial, passing the WWII, Roosevelt, MLK Jr., Korean War and Vietnam War memorials.

Eat:  I’d recommend packing a lunch and having a picnic right on the mall.  There are some beautiful shaded lawns, benches beside the reflecting pools and vistas along the Potomac River.  There’s a Whole Foods in nearby Foggy Bottom (2201 I St NW) that will help you accumulate your dairy-free, gluten-free and other food allergy friendly snacks.  And, Foggy Bottom also hosts a SweetGreen (vegan, dairy and egg-free dishes), dc dosa (gluten-free options), as well as Roti (some gluten-free choices), Chipotle and Subway (where you can find their allergen menus online here).

Day 2:  National Zoo

Eat: Start the day with a hearty breakfast at Open City (2331 Calvert St. NW) where you can enjoy some straightforward favorites like poached eggs and ham alongside mouthwatering brioche french toast.  They serve tofu and fresh fruit here as well if you’re avoiding eggs, dairy, or wheat for example.

See:  Make your way up Connecticut Avenue to the unmissable National Zoo.  Wind downhill while at the zoo via the Asian Trail, passing by our beloved pandas and impressive elephant habitat.  And, take a rest in sight of the famous O-line, an overhead ropes course that the orangutans freely travel from one building to another.

Eat Lunch: Take a short taxi ride to the kid-friendly and ever-delicious 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria.  They don’t take reservations so you don’t need to worry about rushing through the zoo to get there.  Just sit back, and try not to drool over the amazing crust.

Then, See:  Take the opportunity to walk off lunch by strolling a couple of blocks across the street to The National Cathedral.  Between the stunning grounds and gardens, serene setting and unusual gargoyles – there’s something for everyone here.  Bonus points if you can find the Dark Vader gargoyle.

Map of Smithsonian museums on and near the National Mall

Day 3:  Back to the Mall – Part 2

See:  Did I mention that the National Mall hosts EVERYTHING!?!  Get there early and snag a ticket to the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing to see money being printed.  Then, meander over to any of the MANY amazing Smithsonian museums.

Eat:  Walk over to Old Ebbitt Grill.  This restaurant was a favorite of several presidents including Teddy Roosevelt (*read its full history – it’s like eating in a Washington historic landmark). Bonus, Old Ebbitt Grill is part of the Clyde’s Restaurant Group which takes food allergies very seriously.  I’ve found their serving staff to be knowledgeable in regards to food allergies and willing to thoroughly find solutions to allergy questions and substitutions.

Then, See:  A very short walk from Old Ebbitt Grill is The White House.  Regardless of politics, you just have to see it.

Day 4: Capitol Hill

See:  In addition to touring the Capitol building (and trying not to sing “I’m Just a Bill” from Schoolhouse Rock aloud), be sure to stop by the Library of Congress.  Thomas Jefferson’s personal library is on display there and the LOC’s exhibitions are fascinating.

Eat:  Tortilla Coast is probably one of my favorite restaurants in DC.  It’s great for families, relaxed and a favorite of Hill staffers which is how you know it’s good!

Then, see:  Head to Penn Quarter where you’ll find the National Portrait Gallery and catch sight of portraits of all kinds of history-making Americans.  Or, cross the street and check out the Spy Museum!  Being in Penn Quarter sets you up perfectly for a night out.   Catch a Washington Wizards or Georgetown Hoya’s basketball game, a Capitals hockey game, or concert at the Verizon Center.  Or, hop a cab to the National’s Stadium.

Eat Again:  If you’re in the mood for a burger, you’re in luck:  Clyde’s has a fabulous one along with its many other offering and (as mentioned above) is very food allergy savvy; and Shake Shack is an easy go-to with a well-informed online menu to browse before you go.

Day 5:  Georgetown and Arlington

See:  Today is a day to stroll.  Georgetown is full of history from its cobblestone streets to its beautiful university.  But some of the fun in Georgetown is shopping, checking out the canals, and strolling by the Potomac’s waterfront.

Eat: If you find yourself at Georgetown University, you have to eat at The Tombs.  It’s an institution and, again, part of the food allergy aware Clyde’s Group of restaurants.  It purportedly inspired the setting for the 1980s classic “St. Elmo’s Fire” and is a great place to catch a game on TV.

Then, See:  Hop across the river to visit Arlington National Cemetery before plopping back on the bed in your hotel room and realizing you’ll have to plan a second trip to see all the DC has to offer!

 

Play Ball! April 1, 2014

The Washington Nationals have announced their peanut-free days this year and so have many of the MLB and minor-league teams!  Mark your calendars, grab your tickets and bring your glove.  You never know if you’ll catch a fly ball, but you can rest assured knowing that you’ll enjoy the game without worry!

 

Here’s the Nats schedule:

 
PEANUT FREE SEATS
Date Opponent Time
Sat, Apr 26
Nationals vs San Diego Padres

San Diego Padres

1:05 pm
Sun, May 18
Nationals vs New York Mets

New York Mets

1:35 pm
Sat, Jun 21
Nationals vs Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves

7:15 pm
Sat, Jul 19
Nationals vs Milwaukee Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers

7:05 pm
Sun, Aug 17
Nationals vs Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates

5:05 pm
 
 

Check your local team’s website for more information.

 

Chasin’ Tails…. Laissez Les Beignets Rouler! May 7, 2012

A new restaurant opened near us in Arlington, VA:  Chasin’ Tails.  And because I loved their sense of humor (their coming soon banner read “Chasin’ Tails… A Crawfish Seafood Restaurant” just to stay in the good graces of the neighbors as they built), I had to try it.

 

As usual, before we went I reviewed their menu online and phoned in with questions.  The manager was happy to hunt down answers to my many questions, and as a result we had a great experience.  This was a fun, casual, family friendly place that we can’t wait to return to.  Best of all, we had great success with my son’s allergies.

 

Here’s the skinny:

  • The manager checked the full ingredients of everything from the dessert (beignets!!!!!) to the breading of fried items;
  • He was quick to bring up issues, like the fact they use buttermilk to bind the seafood/chicken to its breading;
  • The chefs were willing to alter the way they operate in order to prepare food safely for my son.  For example, when he wanted chicken tenders, they used egg (thank goodness he’s now outgrown that allergy!) to bind the breading to the meat;
  • Their fry oil is a canola/soybean blend.  If you’re allergic to dairy, you may wish to check to see if the fries are fried with the buttermilk-bound seafood and, with the help of your allergist, determine if that is safe;
  • The regular fries are flavored with a cajun spice.  They are DELICIOUS, but a little spicy for the kids.  Like most items, you can order them without the spice.  (P.S.: The amazing sweet potatoes fries – of which I ate 2 lbs – come UNspiced);
  • The beignets are nut-free!  They are warm and they are yummy!
 

My son excitedly tried my lobster, my friend’s shrimp in addition to his own chicken tenders.  Everything we ate was so good, we are all talking about going back very, very soon!

 

Cava Continued March 24, 2012

image

Did I mention Cava has also marked gluten-free dishes? Again, so easy!

(Yes, I loved this place!)

 

Cava March 22, 2012

image

 

I just enjoyed a fabulous meal at Cava in Clarendon with some girlfriends the other night.   Not  only was the food delicious, but I suspect the menu would be pretty easy to negotiate with food allergies.  Although none of us were avoiding foods that night, I saw a number of dishes I would order for my son.  As you can see above, each menu item lists its’ ingredients – making ordering just a littler simpler if you’re avoiding certain foods.

 

Cava features Mediterranean fare – all of which was so good that I could barely choose one dish over the next.  Our waiter convinced us dessert was in our best interest (if we must! ) and he was right.  Warm, dessert-style French Toast was out of this world.  That said, we didn’t even see the dessert menu, so I’m not certain if the other desserts are particularly allergy-friendly or not.  Good news is that you’re in Clarendon and a safe dessert (if you need one) is likely just a walk away.

 

Cava also has additional locations on Capitol Hill and in Rockville and offers some recipes (great for checking for your allergens!) on their CavaFoods products website.

 

Spring Break travel March 3, 2012

If you can’t make it to Dubai this spring break (Danke, Dubai!), but are headed out of town with food allergies, you may want to consider one of these food allergy-friendly establishments:
  • The Kimpton Hotel chain has begun carrying gluten-free items, including pretzels which some of its locations stock in the mini-bar.
  • We already know about Fairmont’s Lifestyle Cuisine menus for guests with dietary preferences.  Now, they’ve begun offering kid’s size portions!
  • The Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels at large have started noting gluten-free menu items.
  • Omni Hotels and Resorts are offering a gluten-free breakfast buffet section.
  • The Disney properties are notoriously food allergy-friendly, walking guests through buffet lines and guiding them through menus to ensure safe selections.  Call ahead and notify of your allergies.
For more suggestions, see Spring Break Bound.  And, bon voyage!