For my celiac restaurant reviews (including the two recent ones last week), I am starting a 5-star point system. After years of trial and error with celiac disease, needing to eat out for business, dinners with friends, comparing restaurants to what we can cook at home and having a daughter with celiac, I have realized that I have a waterfall of different goals with restaurants.
Five stars ★★★★★
Restaurants with five stars meet my five major criteria, which are: (1) 100% safe for celiacs, (2) great food, (3) gluten free menus that are easy to read, (4) kid-friendly and (5) welcoming to celiacs. They are places where I am excited to eat, feel elated when I leave and would enthusiastically recommend to friends.
What does 100% safe mean? Of course, this is the most important criteria and the entire reason that blogs like mine exist. For a restaurant to get five stars from me, it means that, as someone with celiac disease, I have never gotten sick during or shortly after eating there (unless I am unsure of the cause, because I have eaten in more than one place that could have been gluten-contaminated in the last 24 hours). 100% safe means I have found it safe. Period.
I should note that there are celiacs who nonetheless “do not get sick” from cross-contamination, and they eat food straight off salad bars, etc. Not only does this cause hidden damage to their systems, but I am decidedly not one of those. I call myself instead the “canary in the mine” because if there is a trace of gluten in an item, I am bound to get sick. Unfortunately for me, but good for the blog, I am a perfect lab rat for the celiac diet.
Also note that since restaurants can change over time, downgrades are always possible, so check back for updates if you want my latest word on a place.
What does great food mean? Great food can mean many things, from healthy-yet-yummy to something decadent that I can’t make at home. Mostly it means that I was happy to pay the bill, not eating out for convenience but because it was so damn good. It also means that they have a number of options, so I am not stuck ordering the same thing every time.
What is an easy-to-read GF menu? This one is pretty easy to explain, but surprisingly hard for many restaurants to do. First, it means that the restaurant has a gluten free menu in the first place, rather than making me play 20 questions with the waiter. An easy-to-read gluten free menu means that when I see something marked as gluten free, I know that as someone with celiac disease, I can eat it. Done.
Certain restaurants, for example, have a ton of “gluten free” options, but when you read the fine print on page 3 of the menu, you see there is a possibility of cross-contamination in the majority of the choices. Sometimes, there isn’t even fine print, and you need to interview the waiter, who may or may not know or care about how to treat your food (but instead sees you as a “problem” to deal with).
There are some restaurants that have been extremely accommodating to me about my allergy that nonetheless will not earn 5 stars from me, because I hold a gluten free menu as a super important criteria, especially for someone who is visiting the restaurant for the first time. Dining out is about having fun with friends, not engaging in a drawn-out conversation with a waiter or chef. However, I will consider a menu to be gluten free if, for example, all but a few small items on the menu are safe for celiacs, and the “menu discussion” takes a minute or less.
Important note: Having a gluten free menu does not always equal 100% safe for celiacs.
What does kid-friendly mean? It means that they actually have food options that are inviting to celiac children (with U.S. tastes – I cannot be all things to all geographies), rather than forgetting that these kids exist or including them as an afterthought. There have been many times, by contrast, that I have gone to a restaurant to see chicken tenders and mac & cheese for the gluten kids (not that these are the most nutritious options, but they are what many American kids like), but then asked what they could offer my celiac child, only to be steered you to salads. Sure, some kids do eat salad, but that doesn’t make a kid-friendly restaurant. Then again, if they can make kids’ salmon or steak with no sauce, for example, and don’t bat an eyelash when you ask for it, they may pass the test.
How is a restaurant welcoming to celiacs? A restaurant is welcoming to celiacs if it feels as natural to eat there as if one was a “regular diner” and/or if it goes out of its way to be accommodating to people with celiac disease. This means I don’t need to struggle to understand what I can order, and I can relax once I have and just enjoy the experience of eating out. Huh, what I used to take for granted.
In the photo that follows, here’s a perfect example of a restaurant that is welcoming to celiacs. It’s called Home, and they are located in Branford, CT. They definitely get five stars from me, and one day soon, I will write up a full review. Among other things, they have an extensive gluten free menu, one that is inviting and well presented rather than one that they pulled dog-eared out of a drawer and had to check “if it is still correct.” (Yes, I have seen that happen in other restaurants!)
Four stars ★★★★
These are restaurants that meet four of my criteria, one of which must be is that they are 100% safe for celiacs.
Three stars ★★★
These are restaurants that meet at least three of my criteria, with a footnote that if it is a place I have frequented many times (such as a restaurant chain), they will receive or be downgraded to three stars if there has been at least one occasion (but very few) where I have gotten sick from the restaurant. If this is the case I will note it in the review. To get three stars, however, they have to make ardent strides to try to be safe for celiacs. (See Great Wolf Lodge, for example, which has a gluten free menu and took effort to be accommodating, but nonetheless needs to improve its systems and processes.)
Why, you may ask, would I return to a restaurant if I have already gotten sick there? Well, the answer is simple. In the supply and demand of gluten free choices, at times there is more demand than supply. For example, in my town of Stamford, CT, we have gone to all of the celiac-friendly choices at least 10 times each over the last five years since I received the celiac diagnosis. If I have only gotten sick one of those ten times, it may be attributed to a certain factor that I can hope to correct for the next time (e.g., new clueless waiter or it was during their busiest time – note to newbies, ask for the chef if needed and avoid prime time in most restaurants, just to be safe). In addition, sometimes you are in a place where there is no other good option, so you have the choice of either eating your own food, which can mean eating alone or crashing the restaurant with your lunchbox, or asking to speak to the chef and doing everything in your power to make it a safe visit.
Speaking realistically, if I eliminated completely every restaurant that had ever gotten me sick, my list of choices would be much smaller. What I generally do instead, to make sure that I don’t “screw up” my job or life by being sick, is only visit a 3-star place if I know I have nothing super important the next day. Still, I would only choose a less than 100% safe restaurant if there was no other good option or the convenience factor was super high. I will try to note these points in the review.
Two stars ★★
Two stars means that they have failed at some major criteria, but there may be some redeeming qualities that makes the restaurant worth trying. Alternatively, they may have only one good, safe item on the menu, and if you are going for that, then it’s a good place to go.
One star ★
One star means don’t even go there unless you want to play “celiac roulette” and spin the wheel on whether you’ll get sick. I expect I will have very few of these in my reviews, since I have gotten pretty good at choosing places in the first place. Once in a while, though, I hear about a great new place that someone “vouched” for, or the owner or staff talk me into trying, and it is a bomb. Bombs get one star.
Food image by Anthony Delanoix courtesy Stocksnap.io.
Home menu image by Anne Marie Segal.