We are now well over a decade into the gluten free awakening in our country. By "awakening" I mean when "gluten free" became part of our lexicon, and more people became aware of gluten's affects on individuals with Celiac and gluten sensitivity. Whether you were one of those getting a diagnosis -- or if it was a family member or friend -- "gluten free" was something that was now on your radar. And of course, there have also been plenty of people who have chosen to adopt a gluten free diet, for various other reasons.
The point is, the demand for gluten free meals has really taken off over the past decade, and many restaurants have worked hard to help those with Celiac and gluten sensitivity enjoy a safe and thoughtfully prepared meal. Of course, we all know that other restaurants have simply "hopped on the bandwagon" for business reasons, slapping "GF" notations on menu items without much regard for the proper training of "front of house" staff (servers, managers) and "back of house" staff (kitchen). That is a continual challenge for those of us dining out. The more research you can do about a restaurant before setting foot in the door, the more you will know if it's a place you can safely dine.
I've written much in the past about the questions to ask restaurants and how to do your research ahead of time (for one, read reviews on our website GlutenFreeTravelSite or our free companion app Dine Gluten Free). Today, I want to focus on easy steps restaurants (be they independent restaurants or larger chains) can take to open up more of their menu to gluten free diners. Perhaps you can do your small part to lobby your favorite GF-friendly restaurants, in an effort to help make them even better. Here are some things to consider.
10 Easy Things Restaurants Can Do To Make Their Menus More Gluten-Free Friendly...
1.) Offer gluten free bread: I'm sure you agree with this one...after all, how many times have you dined at even the most GF-savvy restaurants, only to find they bring a basket of fresh focaccia or ciabatta to the table without having any option for the gluten free diners? There are so many different types of high-quality gluten free bread and rolls available now. Restaurants don't have to make their own gluten free bread from scratch. They can taste-test various gluten free store-bought options -- and ask their gluten free patrons for feedback. They can even source gluten free bread from a local gluten free bakery. Most of these products can easily be kept in the freezer to defrost or warm when needed. So there shouldn't be a lot of extra expense or waste associated with adding this to the menu. (Just be sure the restaurant brings a separate plate of dipping oil for the GF folks!)
2.) Offer gluten free rolls for burgers: Same as above. Encourage your local establishments to buy some burger buns to test out -- you can even request they purchase your favorite brand. Help them out by giving them tips on how best to warm or (safely) toast it for optimal taste. Unless restaurants hear what their gluten free patrons want, they won't make these kind of changes on their own. They may think offering a burger without a bun is acceptable. While that may be fine for some folks trying to cut excess carbs from their diet, I can tell you that my 16 year-old son doesn't want to eat his burger with a fork and knife! He prefers burgers like the one below from Glory Days Grill!
3.) Offer gluten free sandwich bread: Are you seeing a theme here? There are so many great sandwich breads available at local stores or online. Encourage your favorite restaurants to keep some on hand.
4.) Use corn starch instead of flour to thicken sauces: Cornstarch has twice the thickening power of flour, so you don't need as much, and using corn starch opens up menu items containing sauces to a lot more diners. Gluten free patrons will no longer have to settle for a plan chicken breast when their dining companions enjoy a moist and flavorful chicken piccata.
5.) If you offer pizza, consider buying gluten free pizza crusts to keep on hand: Again, there are many great ones on the market, and they can be kept in the freezer until needed. Providing restaurants train their staff well and make every effort to avoid cross contamination in preparing and cooking the pizza, this can be a great addition to any gluten free menu. Who doesn't love pizza? I enjoyed this one below at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano.
6.) If you offer pasta, stock a good gluten free variety: And, of course, cook it in a separate pot of fresh water that hasn't been used for regular pasta, use a separate colander, separate utensils, etc. Most importantly, learn exactly how long to cook it for perfect al dente (non-mushy) consistency. This is usually 1-3 minutes less than the package says!
7.) Use gluten free breadcrumbs for anything breaded: These can be purchased or made from the dried gluten free bread or rolls the restaurant keeps on hand. Mix with a bit of parmesan cheese and herbs and spices, and viola! you now can enjoy gluten free Chicken Parmesan (like that offered at Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano below)! In fact, restaurants can use gluten free breading for all their breaded items; if done right, their non-GF diners won't know the difference.
8.) Have a separate fryer for gluten free items: This allows restaurants to offer their gluten free diners french fries that are safe, along with other fried foods coated in a gluten free batter (like calamari, fried shrimp, and chicken nuggets). This fryer must only be used for GF items. We love the gluten free fried calamari at Burtons Grill.
9.) Buy a good gluten free all-purpose flour blend: These can be substituted cup-for-cup for regular flour to easily make any baked specialty gluten free. This allows restaurants to offer gluten free muffins, cake, cupcakes, brownies, cookies and more. If they want to make it even easier, they can buy some of the great gluten free dessert mixes available on store shelves. There's no shame in that! Diners aren't going to fault restaurants for this easy "hack," especially when so many of the gluten free mixes for cookies and cakes are amazing (and indistinguishable from non-GF desserts). There are even gluten free pie crusts and gluten free graham crackers that can be used for a Key Lime Pie crust, for example.
Which brings me to my final tip...
10.) Offer more -- and more original -- gluten free desserts: Please, as much as many of us like creme brûlée, ice cream, and sorbet, encourage restaurants to offer gluten free diners more exciting and original options. It's not hard if they use a bit of creativity and the suggestions mentioned above in #9. Here is a favorite...the gluten free (and oh-so-decadent) Macadamia Nut Brownie at Bonefish.
So what are some of our family's favorite gluten free restaurants? In addition to unique places like One Dish Cuisine (which is 100% gluten free and also caters to diners with a wide range of allergens), we like chains such as Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano, Burtons Grill, Bonefish Grill, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Cooper's Hawk, Glory Days Grill, Legal Seafood, Not Your Average Joe's, Outback, P.F. Chang's, Travinia Italian Kitchen, and Wildfire. They all offer a really wide range of choices on their gluten free menus and are careful in the preparation of gluten free orders. If you're lucky enough to live in or travel to Arizona, you must make a point of trying Picazzo's Organic Italian Kitchen, which is almost completely gluten free and offers a range of GF options that will make your head spin.
Do you have a favorite restaurant that deserves a shout-out for going above and beyond with their gluten free offerings? By all means, share a comment below...or better yet, submit a quick review to our website so anyone living in OR visiting your area and doing a search on our site can read your feedback!