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)
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.