We’ve all been there: you’re out with friends, and they decide they want to get food. I’ve spent plenty of hours watching my friends eat while sipping a glass of water because I can’t eat anything on the menu. Sometimes if I’m really prepared I’ll even pack snacks and sneak bites while the waitress isn’t looking.
But a better course of action is to get a restaurant game-plan. Over the years I’ve cobbled together my own techniques for finding allergy-accommodating restaurants:
1. Before calling a restaurant, thoroughly read through its online menu. Don’t just look at the dishes you might want to eat—look for your allergens’ keywords. For me, these include: “peanut,” “nut,” “almond,” “cashew,” “pecan,” “pistachio,” “amaretto,” “pad thai,” “pesto,” “soybean,” “curry,” “fenugreek,” “mustard,” “melon,” and “avocado”.
Reading the menu can be a great way to easily rule out a restaurant. If you see your allergens listed throughout the menu, it’s probably not a safe place for you to go. If the restaurant does pass this first test, you’ll have the advantage of being able to ask informed, specific questions about the menu.
2. Call the restaurant, tell them you have severe allergies, and ask to speak either to the head chef, or the manager. In my experience, the head chef is more knowledgeable about the food and practices of his or her kitchen.
Don’t be dissuaded if the chef is busy. Call back during an off-time, after lunch but before the dinner rush. In my experience, chefs are more than willing to take a minute or two to help you make an informed decision about whether you’ll be safe visiting their restaurant.
Here’s a list of questions I like to ask whenever I phone a new restaurant [note that depending on your allergies, you may need to tweak the questions so they work for you]:
- Do you have any nuts or peanuts on premise? (If so, what are they?)
- Do you make your bread in-house? (If so, is it prepared near where you store nut products?)
- What is your normal procedure when preparing food for a customer with a severe allergies? (I find that rather than asking them if they use fresh pans, new cutlery, and a separate prep area, you’ll get a more honest answer by first seeing if they know these steps themselves.)
- Is your kitchen large enough/set up in a way so that you can prepare allergic food in a separate area of the kitchen?
- Are nuts stored in both the cold and hot sides of the kitchen, or throughout? Are there certain areas of the menu I should avoid?
3. When you do go out, be sure to carry at least two Epipens or Allerjects, and to let your server know about your allergies when you get there. With all the restaurant-investigating done ahead of time, you’ll be able to focus on your friends, without stressing over the menu.
What are your restaurant rules? Did any of mine surprise you? Do you have any other tips or tricks for eating out safely?