My whole family jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon a couple years ago. Other than coming up with good around-the-house snack ideas for the kids (and parents), and other than the first few months when we were dealing with doughnut withdrawal, its been a pretty easy transition.
Except for traveling.
Eating out in general has its challenges, but in your own town, you find your dependable standbys. On the road, however, you don’t know what you’re going to find.
Looking for more gluten-free resources? This Everything Gluten Free page is a library of everything gluten free we’ve worked on.
We should dispel the myth, first of all, that you need to have a special “gluten-free” menu or earmarked gluten-free items to be a gluten-free-friendly restaurant. I remember when we first went gluten-free, people would often ask us, “What do you eat?” They asked the question as if nearly every edible thing on the planet must be made of wheat. I would usually just give them an odd look and say, “You know—meat, vegetables, fruit, cheese. I eat food. What do you think I eat?”
So, lesson #1 for restaurant owners is this: if you want to be a halfway gluten-free-friendly, just don’t throw a bunch of random flour all over your otherwise naturally gluten-free food. Seriously, IHOP, why do you put pancake batter in your eggs?
For gluten-free travelers, my two best bits of advice are these:
- Find types of restaurants that have naturally gluten-free options: steak houses, Mexican, Japanese, etc. You still have to avoid the obvious offenders (flour tortillas, bread, soy sauce, certain seasonings, etc.), but there are plenty of normal options for you at these places.
- Think of easy ways to make things gluten-free: bun-less burgers, no croutons on your salad, etc.
(If you have a serious gluten-sensitivity, you do need to be more careful, asking about seasonings, cross-contamination, and such.)
There are many restaurants that boast about their gluten-free menu, but not all of them live up to the hype. On my last road trip around Michigan, I used my Find Me Gluten-Free app and then catalogued by dining adventures.
Here are three kinds of “gluten-free-friendly” restaurants you’re likely to find when traveling:
1. The Lame
You know the place. They say they have “gluten-free options,” but all this means is they have a bag of frozen gluten-free buns in the kitchen they will happily nuke in the microwave for you.
On my trip to Mackinac Island (beautiful place, by the way), I had the misfortune of eating at the Yankee Rebel Tavern. After ordering our over-priced “Tavern Burgers” and waiting far too long for them, we were served our burgers without fries.
When asked about why no fries were given, they said the fries were coated with wheat flour (why, oh why, do you ruin perfectly good fried potatoes like that). Thanks for telling us that ahead of time – ya know, when we specifically ordered burgers so we could get fries.
They gave us chips as a consolation prize. Our burger buns tasted like fine gravel and our burgers tasted like they came off a rubber conveyor belt.
If you visit a place like this, you can always season your food with the salt of your own tears as you think about the days when the gluten content of your food didn’t even cross your mind.
2. The Livable
“Livable” gluten-free-friendly restaurants are those where you can get some semblance of a meal and feel satisfied, but you still feel like a second-class citizen in the dining kingdom.
We recently had breakfast at Pancake Chef. If you want to just substitute a plate of normal-people pancakes for Celiac pancakes, you can do that for $1.30 extra—and as far as gluten-free pancakes go, they are pretty good. But if you want to substitute gluten-free items in their assorted breakfasts, there’s a lot of monkeying around.
If you ever tried doing gluten-free substitutions at a place like this, the waiter says they’ll have to go talk to the manager about the new inflated price of your dish because they just don’t deal very much with the likes of you.
3. The Legit
There are some legit gluten-free-friendly restaurants out there—places where they make gluten-free folks feel like royalty. “Come right this way, sir. We have a special chef just for you.”
First, there are your 100% gluten-free joints. These are rare, but when you find them, its like you walked into your own gluten-free Cheers—where everybody knows your shame and they’re always glad you came.
In the Detroit area we found Moo Cluck Moo, a gluten-free, preservative-free, hormone-free burger-lovers heaven. Their made-from-scratch, high-protein, high-fiber, low-carb buns are great, and their fresh burgers comes with all the fixins’. Awesome place!
Also in the Detroit area is Renee’s Gourmet Pizzeria, with its entirely gluten-free and nut-free kitchen and dining room. (You aren’t even aloud to bring in outside food for fear of contamination.) They even have deep dish pizza—a boogeyman in the gluten-free universe. It was amazing.
Then, there are your restaurants with so many gluten-free options you forget you’re eating around normal people.
We recently discovered a sub chain, Erbert & Gerberts. They have several options on the menu that promise no cross-contamination, and the rest of their sandwiches they can make with Udis bread, which I enjoy quite a bit. The sandwiches are top-notch, but a bit expensive.
We also recently found Lagniappe Cajun Creole Eatery (in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, of all places) with an enormous gluten-free menu. You can tell their chefs take time crafting gluten-free options that aren’t just subpar versions of their gluten-filled foods. The food was simply amazing. If die-hard cajun cooks can do it, anyone can.