5 Tips for Dining Out When You Have Food Allergies

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A server’s thoughts.

If you’re one of the millions of people who suffer from food allergies, you’re probably well aware of what a gamble it can be going out to eat.

Maybe you learned the hard way that the sauce on your steak was thickened with a little flour, or that the fish you ate touched the same cutting board as the scallops. And maybe you felt that the person taking your order didn’t seem knowledgeable or concerned enough to inspire your confidence.

As a server, I take your well being very seriously, and the chef where I work takes it even more seriously. The last thing he wants is for anybody to get sick eating his food. The first thing he wants is for everyone who comes through the door to enjoy their meal.

What you might not know is that there are some easy ways to make it easier for a restaurant staff to make your dining experience a good one. We do a lot to make sure you feel well fed and safe, and it really helps when you can do the following for us:

  • CALL AHEAD, especially if your allergy is severe or uncommon. Restaurants get busy, and it’s hard for the kitchen to cobble something together for you on the fly. On a busy night you’ll end up with a dish that merely omits the offending ingredients. But with a proper heads up, the chef may be able to plan something special. (And when you call, please do so during the slow times: 2pm-4pm is usually best.)
  • CARRY A “CHEF CARD”, a simple list of foods you don’t eat. Explain your situation and hand it to your server at the beginning of your meal, and they’ll bring it to the chef. This will save time and eliminate confusion.
  • BE CONSISTENT. Please avoid claiming an allergy or intolerance if you are merely going light on certain types of food. Many times I’ve had a diner tell me they’re allergic to dairy, only to have them order ice cream or custard for dessert. Crying wolf does a disservice to people with genuine allergies by creating a perception of insincerity. If you don’t want cheese on your salad, we’re happy to leave it off. There’s no need to embellish.
  • BE CONSIDERATE. This goes a long way. Chefs are dedicated, creative, hardworking people (which is probably why you want to try their food in the first place). Please take a moment to imagine the work and worry that goes into planning and executing an excellent menu. If the kitchen goes above and beyond for you, any expression of appreciation on your part means a lot.
  • BE CONFIDENT. If you follow any of the tips I’ve listed above, you’ve already made my job a hundred times easier. I won’t roll my eyes if you inform me that you can’t eat wheat, nuts, dairy, shellfish, or anything else. Ditto if you’re a vegan. I’ll do everything in my power to make your dinner memorable. I know it may be difficult being the one person at the table who has to explain, who has to ask for special consideration, but please don’t be shy. We want you to be happy. We want you to come back. We take your situation seriously. Any restaurant that doesn’t is not worth your patronage.

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