Our family recently returned from a week in Los Angeles and Orange County, California. We have family out there and therefore are fortunate to visit every so often. As with any trip, we look forward to the chance to discover new "gluten-free friendly" restaurants we haven't tried -- including chain restaurants with Gluten Free Menus that don't have locations on the East Coast where we live.
It's a funny thing about Los Angeles...one would think (and I also hear from many people living there) that it's rare to find a restaurant that can't prepare a gluten free meal. However, as you and I both know, catering to the "trend" of gluten free dining choices is very different from being properly trained in providing safe gluten free meals for those with Celiac or gluten sensitivity.
So it's almost more of a challenge dining in this land of celebrities and health-conscious folks, since so many are opting to eat gluten free...by choice, not out of necessity. So the onus is on us to find the truly safe restaurants.
Before every trip, I do a fair amount of research on restaurants. Before this trip, as with past trips to Southern California, I found that there weren't very many restaurants that had actually put forth the time or effort (much less completed any training) to offer a printed Gluten Free Menu for their gluten free patrons.
This always makes me a bit nervous. If they don't have a gluten free menu, how well-versed are they, really? And therefore, since they are not actively courting gluten free diners, how many gluten free meals do they serve in a typical day?
Say what you will about chain restaurants, but I feel more comfortable (especially since I'm advocating for my 11-year old Celiac son) dining in a chain restaurant that puts forth a Gluten Free Menu, no matter how abbreviated. Ideally they've also gone through some form of training (from the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the Gluten Intolerance Group, or from a nutritionist or dietician). Of course, some executive chefs are more than capable of learning the gluten free ropes and know every ingredient that goes into their menu items, so I don't automatically fault restaurants that haven't gone through a formal training program. You typically can tell how well-trained the restaurant is by speaking directly with the chef or manager.
But suffice it to say I take it as a good sign when a restaurant has a printed Gluten Free Menu. It tells me they welcome gluten free guests and have a decent amount of knowledge of gluten free food preparation. The next step, of course, is to ask all the requisite questions to get a better feel for just how safe it is to eat there. Ideally, you call ahead of time, when making a reservation.
But back to our new restaurant discoveries -- and our old favorite haunts....
The "best of" gluten free dining in Los Angeles award (at least on this trip) would have to go to Hugo's restaurant, with three locations in the L.A. area (West Hollywood, Studio City, and Agoura Hills). We dined at the West Hollywood location after a 2-hour Movie Star Homes tour with Starline Tours on the first afternoon of our arrival in town. The tour, in an "open-air" van was loads of fun, for us adults as well as the kids, and we had worked up an appetite for dinner, since our "meals" on the cross-country flight consisted mainly of snacks.
Hugo's has by far one of the most extensive menus I've seen, and most of the menu is gluten-free. Yes, all the entrees -- as well as most desserts, appetizers, and sandwiches are -- or can be made -- gluten free. They even make their own gluten free bread for sandwiches and burgers. In fact, most everything at this restaurant is made from scratch.
It took a while to make our way through the menu, and we all had a hard time deciding among all the wonderful options, many of which aren't typically available gluten free. To begin my meal, I ordered a quinoa and beet salad (on a bed of organic field greens with other tasty toppings). It was the best salad I've ever had, dressed with wonderful homemade dressing. It's a restaurant that takes great care in choosing their ingredients (many things are non-GMO, too), and they clearly aim to please their gluten free diners. You never know who you might spot here, either, as we saw two recognizable actors when dining (and it's a pretty small restaurant). You can read my full review of our dinner here on GlutenFreeTravelSite.
The next day, after a full day at Universal Studios Hollywood, we had the pleasure of dining at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant along City Walk (an area with restaurants, shops, and entertainment right outside the park). This was our first experience at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, and we were eager to try it. While it was the opposite of Hugo's in terms of the variety of offerings (a very abbreviated Gluten Free Menu), the food was delicious, and even the limited number of menu options will likely appeal to most diners (entrees include flat iron steak, pesto rotisserie chicken, and salmon). There was also a heavenly-sounding gluten free chocolate ganache for dessert, but we didn't have room! (Read my review of our full dinner experience on GlutenFreeTravelSite.)
Throughout the rest of our week, we did various sightseeing around the L.A. area and down in Orange County. Favorite restaurants we visited were Tommy Bahama in Newport Beach (a good Gluten Free Menu and always a stop in our travels), Benihana (a hit with the kids, and they have gluten free Kikkoman soy sauce on hand to offer a totally gluten free tepanyaki experience), Bandera in Corona del Mar (very limited but good gluten free options), and California Pizza Kitchen (great gluten free pizzas and many salads that are GF, too). But again, with the exception of CPK, these restaurants don't post their gluten free offerings on their website, which is frustrating.
We also had a chance to try a new restaurant (for us)...Wildfish Seafood Grille in Newport Beach. It's quite pricey, but it's a nice choice for a special occasion dinner if you're in the mood for seafood (they had many, many varieties of fish on the menu, in addition to shellfish and steaks). Their Gluten Free Menu is a decent size but, again, only available in the restaurant, not online.
Other places we've visited on past trips -- or have been recommended (and on our list for future visits) -- include places with Gluten Free Menus (or completely GF): Rosa Mexicano (I love the one here in Washington DC), Blue Plate Taco in Santa Monica, Leo and Lilly in Woodland Hills, Stonefire Grill, Sweet Beverly bakery (turns out we passed right by this one on our Movie Stars tour), and Breakaway Bakery. Gulfstream, Mastro's, and Fleming's -- all in Newport Beach -- also offer Gluten Free Menus.
Chains in Southern California that are good bets for gluten free diners include Fresh Brothers (locations all over and trained by NFCA), Burger Lounge (many locations), BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse, Z Pizza, Red Brick Pizza, and Crust Gourmet Pizza Bar.
You can find reviews for many of the places mentioned above on our website by searching broadly by state (i.e. choose California on the United States pull-down menu) or more narrowly by town/zip (enter a town into the search box on this page to see all the places that have been mapped and reviewed). If you're planning a trip to Southern California, you may also find the article I wrote for Simply Gluten Free magazine last year to be helpful, too.
I'd be VERY interested in knowing where you've had luck dining in Los Angeles...or elsewhere in Southern California. Please submit your own review of a favorite spot to our website, GlutenFreeTravelSite -- or share a comment below.