Choosing a restaurant used to be a pleasure, scrolling through menu after menu on the websites of literally any restaurant I fancied. Since going gluten free, it has become significantly more of a challenge. Meals out need to be carefully researched, menus checked, reviews scrutinised. Inevitably I feel like I’m inconveniencing friends and family by restricting the places they can eat when they’re with me. Often I’m disappointed by the provision of gluten free food, or lack thereof. I find myself going to the same restaurants time and time again or ordering the same meal each time I visit a particular restaurant. Over the past week I have (unusually I assure you!) eaten out at 4 different restaurants in my local area and I’ve had different experiences at each of them.
My first meal out was to an independent restaurant I’d not been to before. It was superb. They had an extensive gluten free menu, printed professionally and presented in a folder, just like their standard menus. I was spoilt for choice. I honestly didn’t know where to start, I was like a child in a sweet shop. Eventually I settled on chicken wings, ribs and a chocolate fudge cake. All of it was delicious and I can’t wait to go back.
A few days later I headed to one of a small family of pubs. I’ve eaten there before and I know they won’t poison me but they don’t make life as easy as they could do. I eat there because it’s convenient for a meal with work colleagues but I don’t eat at its sister restaurant near where I live. The reason is that these pubs don’t have a gluten free menu. They can cater gluten free but you are given the full menu and it’s down to you to guess which things they can adapt gluten free for you. This is really irritating for several reasons. Firstly, it rubs your nose in it, looking at all the tasty things on the menu which you can’t eat. Secondly, it means you can’t decide on your meal at the same time as the rest of your party – whilst they’re deciding, you’re trying to make a shortlist of possible options to ask the waiter about. Thirdly it makes ordering food slow and draws attention to you, making you feel a nuisance – you start working through your shortlist, asking ‘can this be done gluten free’? You find something you can eat and order with relief. An added frustration is that there could be other, more appealing, things on the menu which could be done gluten free but you don’t know about them. All they need to do is write ‘gf’ or ‘gf option available’ next to the suitable items on their existing menu. So I opted for the gammon and chips which I always eat there – boring, but at least the chips are a rare treat. This pub could so easily be coeliac friendly, as could its sister pubs. I will drop off a Coeliac UK postcard in the next few days with some feedback on it. Maybe they will take it on board.
Next up was a local chain restaurant at which I’d not eaten before my diagnosis of coeliac disease. I phoned in advance and asked if they had a gluten free menu, I was told that they did. When I arrived at the restaurant, I asked for the gluten free menu and the waitress went to get it for me. What arrived was a dog-eared print out of every allergen in some, but not all, of the items on the full menu. You know, the basic legal requirement in size 6 font which is barely legible. So there I was, comparing the scruffy page to the full menu and trying to work out what I could eat. We had booked early to get a set menu deal and so our options were already reduced, but I ended up with a choice of 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 deserts. More like a school canteen than a restaurant in terms of choice. They most certainly do not have a gluten free menu. Don’t get me wrong, my meal was tasty, but they could have made my life so much easier by (a) not telling me they had a gf menu when they don’t and (b) labelling the gf options on their standard menu.
Last but not least, I went to an independent Italian restaurant. I’ve eaten here before both pre and post diagnosis and have never been disappointed. They don’t have a gf menu but when you ask ‘What gf options do you have?’ the answer is ‘we can do any pizza and any pasta and lots of the starters too.’ You should see the size of the menu, it’s huge. And I can have any pasta or any pizza!! All of their sauces and toppings are gf as standard. We watched them cook the gf pizzas in their pizza oven – each one sitting in an individual foil pizza dish to keep it off the racks where the standard pizzas have been. Fantastic!
So, within a very small area, there is a huge variety in the quality of service being provided to people on a gluten free diet. Some places still can’t cater for us at all. When you find somewhere great please tell them you’re impressed and let them know exactly why. If you find somewhere which could be better please tell them, otherwise they won’t know how to improve.