Celiac Readers of Restaurant Reviews – Five Stars Anyone?

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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!)

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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.

Posted in Advice for Newbies, Celiac Disease, Food, Restaurants, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Great Wolf Lodge – Thumbs Down for Celiacs

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I just spent a few days with the family at Great Wolf Lodge. Swimming was amazing, with the slides and the waves. The arcade room felt like Las Vegas. The ropes course was a huge hit, as was the Wolf Den room with bunk beds and a private space for the kids. It was also pretty fun to see grown adults walk around with plush wolf ear headbands all day.

But on to the most important thing, the food. And for those of you who say you don’t go to a place like Great Wolf Lodge for what they have to eat, I say that you must have been born into a different family, because eating (and eating well) is a constant source of conversation in ours.

Resort: Great Wolf Lodge
Location: 150 Great Wolf Dr, Fitchburg, MA
Website: http://www.greatwolf.com

Three stars ★★★

Review: Unfortunately I have lots of complaints about the food and service from the perspective of a celiac. In addition, I lost an entire afternoon (3 hours) to sleep while my family enjoyed the water park, as fatigue is one of my chief side effects of being glutenized.

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My husband and son, and my son’s friend, loved the red and yellow water slide!

We started off well, with Chef Jonathan being super accommodating with food choices and making us feel very “safe” about what we were eating. That was the first night.

On the second day, somehow menu items that had been offered by the chef the night before were no longer options until we pressed for them. Simple things, like gluten free mac & cheese. We were also told, once they finally agreed to make it, that it would take a half hour, not the 15 minutes we were quoted the night before. Have you ever sat with an 8-year-old a half hour at dinner to wait for her meal? Feels like days. She ended up going to the room to watch TV while we took it to go, because she couldn’t take it anymore at the table, after being exhausted from swimming.

The kids’ chicken tenders were gluten free with a dedicated fryer, which was great, but they came out overcooked and spicy, so my daughter wouldn’t eat them. In addition, the Brussel sprouts I ordered the first night straight off the menu came out with a different preparation the second night. I ordered them again because they seemed to be an antidote to the rest of the menu – greens keep my digestive tract in good order, let’s just say that – but the second time they were covered with a sauce that can only be described as “trying to make Brussel sprouts taste like candy.”

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On the last day, I ordered a salad at lunch. Straight off the menu, but I mentioned (as they told me I should when I had called ahead) that I needed it made separate, not the simple gluten free preparation but “safe for celiac”. The waiter was at a loss to understand, and when the chef came he promised me one salad but then served another. I was not sure at that point if either salad was actually prepared properly, and I was very glad it was our last meal there. This was after I had already lost an afternoon to sleep, and I was hoping not to lose another one.

Then I asked the chef for a cheese quesadilla for my daughter, since the earlier chef had offered one. I was told they only had flour tortillas and hard shell corn, nothing for corn tortilla-prepared quesadillas. I asked what else my daughter could eat and was told mac & cheese (which she’d had twice), chicken tenders (which she had ordered and refused due to spiciness) and hamburgers (which she doesn’t like). Finally we ended up suggesting grilled cheese, remembering again that the earlier chef had offered it, and they made her grilled cheese. It was very disconcerting that the gluten free experience differed widely depending on “which chef you got” when you ordered.

On the plus side, there was a fridge in the room, so maybe next time (if there is one) I will do my best to minimize my restaurant contact or skip the food offerings altogether.

Kids: The only reason to go.

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My daughter’s favorite activity was the ropes course. She spent hours on it.

Note: Post updated on August 29, 2015. Great Wolf Lodge receives three of five stars on my new point system, which I have reflected in the post.

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Lobster Landing (And My Return to Glutenfreelandia)

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A funny thing happened on the way to Lobster Landing….

You see, I hadn’t been there since July 2014. And I wanted to go back. In July 2015. But I couldn’t remember the name of the place. “Lobster Something” in Clinton. That’s all I knew.

Then I happily realized that I had posted about them on my blog. It was my last post of the year, before a very long break. So I found them again not by checking Google but by reading my own blog.

In the intervening year, I received an offer from someone to buy the site Glutenfreelandia, which I wasn’t ready to sell. I realized that I am really doing a service here by posting. Not only to the gluten free community, but also to myself. Because as a celiac, I know that you can only really trust posts that recommend gluten free restaurants as safe options if they are written by other celiacs. I say this not as a judgment, but out of experience, having been lead astray too many times by well-meaning folks who eat gluten free by choice. If I have raved about it here, it is safe for me (even if I may have forgotten!) and my celiac companions.

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To make a long story short, I have continued to take pictures of my food for the last few months – an innocuous addiction of any food-related blogger – but I haven’t been posting. So let the floodgates reopen and the blogging recommence! 🙂

Restaurant: Lobster Landing
Location: 152 Commerce Street, Clinton, CT
Website: None
Facebook: LobsterLandingLLC

Five stars ★★★★★

Review: Go there for the Connecticut-style lobster roll. These are the most awesome thing you’ll ever eat, made exactly the way they should be made. Gluten free bun available, and if you request it they will toast up away from the regular stuff. They are totally nonchalant about the whole thing – “do you want gluten or gluten free and can it be on the same grill?” – but extremely knowledgeable about cross-contamination.

The place itself is not fancy at all – it is the antidote to fancy, in fact – outside with some tables in the shade and others in the sun. It’s on the water, but there is no beach nearby. They serve some drinks and chips, and probably other food (I have never bothered to check, because I would be stupid to order anything else).

The lobster is so fresh you will almost fall off your chair. And the bun is actually really good. Usually gluten free buns are to be avoided, but these are soft and crunchy at the same time, just like “the real thing.” If you love lobster, you will love this place, guaranteed.

Kids: Totally welcome.

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Note: Post updated on August 29, 2015. Lobster Landing receives five stars on my new point system, which I have reflected in the post.

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Glutenfreelandia – back soon!

It has been a good, much needed, break from blogging here at Glutenfreelandia. Back soon with more posts!

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Looking for Lobster Rolls…?

I have lived in Connecticut for 9 1/2 years now and on the East Coast since 1997.

They’ve always said that you can’t “become” a New Englander in the same way you would ever be if you were born here. I tend to believe it. I am still finding out new things about my hometown (Stamford) and nearby environment and feel like a newbie more often than I’d like. There is just so much history and goodness here, it takes a lifetime to absorb.

This coming weekend we are attending Visiting Day at my son’s camp near Deep River, Connecticut, which has sent me to the Internet seeking out great – no, awesome – places to eat in the areas of Guilford, Clinton, Madison, etc. These are on the way to the camp and also where we have chosen to stay for the weekend.

Lobster Landing came up with high reviews, and I think we will give it a try. Lobster rolls seem like one of the easiest things that a place should be able to make gluten free, but sadly I haven’t found one of those yet. I wonder sometimes if I need to do more hunting, as there seems to be more and more gluten free everywhere I turn. (Although still not nearly enough!)

Input from my fellow bloggers would be much appreciated, if you have a favorite spot to suggest. Thanks!

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Gluten Free Consumes My Life

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Here I am, many days after Cinco de Mayo, and on the last day of Celiac Awareness Month 2014, finally getting to a post!

It is not that celiac disease is not on my mind all the time. It is. Gluten free consumes my life. Whether I am planning where to go for a business meeting, making arrangements to meet friends, heading for the airport, getting stuck on a long drive in traffic or doing any of the other normal and random things in life that involve food, extra plans must be made to accommodate. You can’t just stop anywhere and find safe and healthy things to eat.

I used to wonder about, even lament, the fact that the “world doesn’t care” about making itself safe for celiacs. Then one day I went to a restaurant asking for a gluten free menu, and the host pulled up a menu with about 10 different possible allergies. I realized how hard it is for everyone who is not affected by something not only to care but even to understand it. That said, it is still hard sometimes to bear the pain of exclusion. Public and semi-public places should make more of an effort to be available to the public, including providing a safe eating environment. The problem is always cost and who will “police” the process. It is a public policy issue that I haven’t yet cracked the nut on how to fix. If one day I do, maybe I’ll make greater moves to get us there….

In the meantime, I keep blogging from time to time, adding my voice to the strong community of celiac bloggers. If you are local to my area (Stamford and Fairfield County, Connecticut), I have just updated my local restaurant list (click here). A few places have closed and others have opened to take their place. Exciting highlights include Cask Republic, which has the best kale salad I have eaten in my life and a kitchen that can address cross-contamination. They don’t yet have a gluten free menu, but I have asked them to make one. Also Trader Joe’s is now offering cupcakes (thanks to friends Galit and Melanie for letting me know this). For kids, this is an incredible find, because I can now send other moms to a regular grocery store instead of a specialty shop when they want to accommodate my daughter at birthday parties.

Also new on my list is the Elm Street Oyster House. I was not sure about this restaurant, since it didn’t show up on any of my usual lists as gluten free. But a friend and colleague loved the place and requested it for a business lunch, so I called up to check and took a chance. Indeed my culinary horizons in Greenwich have been opened a bit wider!

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Belated Happy New Year

After you have been away from a blog for a while, it is hard to know the best way to come back into the rhythm of posting. What should be the first thing to say? Hello?

Today being gluten free was especially hard. On Friday night, my daughter accidentally dropped a bottle of Tabasco sauce onto our induction cooktop and the glass cracked (bottle unscathed, imagine). After searching for a replacement and many, many dollars later, we will not have a new one installed until Tuesday. Since breads and gluten free carbs have also been tough on me lately, as well as large portions of rice – they also bring fatigue – and we don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars eating out in the meantime, it is hard to come up with lunches that are appealing to me without a cooktop (unless I heated up the entire oven). I made quinoa in the microwave, which was kind of a disaster but I ate it anyway. Makes you appreciate what you do have, even as you know what is missing. At least we have a grill, so we were able to make a tasty dinner. I always worry about a true emergency, but I guess a can opener and tuna fish will need to be my salvation.

So, I’ll be back again with more tales about great food and the whole (corn) enchilada, now that I have said hello.

Be well.

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Gluten Free Menus, etc. – An Intractable Problem?

I haven’t been blogging lately because I am in a funk again about being stuck on a gluten free diet. That doesn’t seem particularly helpful to anyone to write about. Or rather, it doesn’t seem particularly helpful to me. I find that wallowing in self-pity gets me nowhere, and complaining about the problem may only make it worse.

Here’s the issue: gluten free menus and gluten free restaurant eating in general. In the past week, I have eaten out a bunch of times, including five trips to restaurants on my vacation in Southwest Florida. In three of those five restaurant visits I had problems with eating gluten free. Not because I chose a restaurant that wasn’t on the “good” list for being supportive of gluten free diners. Because of a glitch or process item that wasn’t properly addressed. Here are three screw ups I can count in that week.

1) We ate lunch at _____ in Fort Myers, FL. They have a gluten free menu online, and I had luck at their restaurant in Bonita Springs a few years back. Seemed like a good choice. When I arrived, I was presented with an “allergen” menu that had just about everything X’ed out as off limits except grits. The hostess said it is because everything is served with bread. When I told her that was particularly unhelpful, she shrugged and said, “I know.” I swore I had seen a gluten free menu online, but the hostess didn’t know anything about it. My 88-year-old grandmother was already heading for a table as I discovered this, and it was 1 pm (kind of late to eat), so I steadied myself for a soda and no food. The waiter then said, “Oh yes, we have a gluten free menu but it is only online.” Are you kidding me? So if I don’t have a Smart Phone I don’t know what to order? That was about right. He assured me that the kitchen knew what to do. I took a chance, since I was starving, ordering only scrambled eggs and bacon with no condiments or toppings. Not surprisingly, I got sick after lunch.

2) We ate at ________, Fort Myers, for the second time in a week, preferring to return to a known quantity after the experience above. Upon arrival, we were told that “somebody from corporate” had destroyed all the gluten free menus and new ones hadn’t been printed yet, but I could ask questions and get the answers I wanted. Huh? Something clearly must have happened to precipitate the change, but like the weather you sometimes have no idea what caused it. I ordered from memory the same thing I had the previous time. Not sick, thankfully.

3) Upon returning to our hometown in Stamford, CT, we ate at an old standby _____ during yesterday’s Columbus (no school) Day. It’s somewhere my kids and I can agree on eating. This time, there was not only cross-contamination, but they actually brought my daughter a flour tortilla even though she wrote clearly on her order (you order by writing with pencil on a menu), in seven-year-old but very legible handwriting, “Gluten Free Corn Tortia [tortilla].” The manager and waitress profusely apologized, and the waitress said her note of “corn only” must have been misinterpreted. (I guess she did not also write “gluten free”.) This restaurant has been good to me in the past, and it is usually one of the places that actually cares about gluten free diners, making efforts to cater to our needs. Clearly there was a new chef in the kitchen or some other snafu. Today I am feeling sick again, and it just may be from the same restaurant (the only place I have eaten out, where I can’t have control over my food prep, in the past 48 hours).

So here’s the intractable problem. If I fill in the blanks above and blast these three restaurants, will I only drive them away from serving folks with allergies? Blogging and other social media has made us all watch dogs, giving a voice to the voiceless and greater voice to those with social sway. Should I post on Yelp and everywhere else not to frequent these places if someone is gluten free?

On the other hand, it is easier for a restaurant to just say “we don’t cater to people with allergies”. Those folks never get their feet held to the fire for screwing up. They go along their merry way, making money hand over fist (or failing or whatever, but not because of failing to live up to allergy-free hard or soft promises). Maybe the restaurants who don’t even try are the real ones we should be blasting???

I had a huge problem last summer when I launched by own business and needed to go out and network. Everyone wants to do lunch, and no one wants to hear about how only a handful of restaurants are “safe”. When you network, point #1 is not to make it all about you. Should I start a cause for gluten free folks getting some government protection or equal rights in restaurants? How could that possibly be policed, and would it do more harm than good? Even though it affects me personally, and I miss more than enough days of happiness feeling sick working off the effects of “gluten poison” in my system or staying home (occasionally) from social events revolving around food, is it really a pressing enough social problem I should try to solve? And is it an intractable problem, one that has no good solution?

What do you think?

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Camp Nah Jee Wah – Gluten Free!

Busy summers turn into busy Septembers…. Sorry I’ve been away.

Some exciting news: My daughter chose a gluten free summer camp for next summer, Camp Nah Jee Wah.

Today is the last day for their Early Bird Discount, so check it out. Camp Nah Jee Wah is an awesome camp in Milford, Pennsylvania that specializes in (among many, many other things) gluten free campers! It’s part of the NJY summer camp family. It also has famous instructors like Ron Blomberg, but we didn’t even choose it for that.

Here are some great photos from our tour of the camp earlier this year. My seven-year-old daughter is super excited about going and already calling it “her” camp!

My son is off to another camp in Connecticut with his best friend, but maybe he’ll choose Nah Jee Wah the following summer? It’s all about choice, and I am so glad my gluten free daughter has such an excellent choice. See you next July, Camp Nah Jee Wah!

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(Above – one of the cabins; water activities; the smiling and helpful gluten free servers with a SEPARATE lunch line!; a sample GF lunch; hands-on head of camp; camp welcome sign)

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Happy 1st Anniversary, That Awesome (Gluten Free) Deli in Stamford, CT

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Happy Anniversary to Eric and That Awesome Deli & The Gluten Free Food Factory!

I am stuck in Mount Kisco, NY today, while my kids are at a weeklong computer camp and anxiously awaiting the first day of school. Not that Mount Kisco is a bad place to be stuck, all things considered, but it would not have been my first choice. I would rather be having lunch at That Awesome (Gluten Free) Deli in Stamford, CT helping Eric Screnock celebrate the one year anniversary of his deli and restaurant.

And not simply because of the free coffee, drink or bag of chips he is offering with any breakfast, lunch, frozen entree or catering order, as he emailed to his list of loyal customers today. That would have been nice, but it’s not the reason I’d be there. It’s because Eric is a good guy, a mensch (if you know the word) and an awesome chef (worthy of the restaurant’s awesome name). His food is great and he’s always there to welcome customers with a smile, whether or not you eat gluten free.

My husband, Mario, favors the chicken cutlet. My favorite is a grilled chicken sandwich with onions, and I love that they serve traditional deli food as well. I also enjoy the days Eric serves burgers (on yummy gluten free bread) and fries, a special indulgence for me. As you may know, since many restaurants don’t have dedicated fryers, a celiac is out of luck getting fried food at just about any restaurant except the most devoted to the gluten free cause.

If you are gluten free…

Eric started his restaurant after  his wife was diagnosed with celiac disease. He has a separate counter in the restaurant – in full view of diners – devoted to the preparation of gluten free sandwiches. He also has separate utensils of different colors, so none of his staff can get confused and accidentally cross-contaminate you. All of his menu can be served gluten free, not just a choice of 3-4 items as is common in many restaurants. In addition, he has gluten free frozen meals that you can take home and heat up at your convenience as well as bread (order 2 days in advance). Yep, Eric’s one of the big boys on the gluten free scene, really getting it right and tasty for his diners, gluten free or (as he calls it) traditional. He understands that to make a truly gluten free restaurant, you need to offer something for everyone, including the celiacs and their gluten-eating family members.

So yes, I’m unabashedly a cheerleader for this restaurant. That Awesome Deli and Gluten Free Food Factory is clearly an important addition to the Stamford and Fairfield County gluten free dining community, and it’s something you truly don’t want to miss. Keep going back to Eric’s and other top-notch and devoted restaurants to support our gluten free food choices, or we’ll all be eating at home!

I will be back here on Glutenfreelandia – on another day when I am not stuck in Mount Kisco! – with more about Eric’s story and how he decided to launch a gluten free restaurant. In the meantime, you can visit his website (click here) and hear about his eighteen years of gluten free cooking experience, as told by his wife.

Image above © That Awesome Deli and Gluten Free Food Factory.

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