Having paid my dues in the trenches of restaurant work, I confess to more than mild irritation when faced with diners with food allergies. “I can’t have soy,” says the old lady. “No peanuts!” yowls the red-haired boy. Now, as karmic retribution would have it, I have my very own resume of food allergies: wheat, soy, dairy, sulfites, and eggs. It ain’t easy bein’ me-I feel sorry for my dining companions and waitstaff alike. So, I offer this piece as a service, and to answer that nagging question: Well, where can you eat?
You’d be hard pressed to pick a more food-allergy-friendly city than Portland. Keeping the focus on simple and fresh ingredients gives the food-afflicted a better chance. Many servers can quickly answer questions about the ingredients of a dish. Servers and chefs are not only tolerant, but often more than accommodating. Some places have even developed special gluten-free menus for those with celiac disease (an intolerance to the protein in wheat, barley, and rye resulting in digestive problems or rash). One of my fondest memories after I got the celiac diagnosis was walking into Andina and having them hand me their special gluten-free menu; I could confidently eat anything listed on that beautiful sheet of paper, bless their gluten-free souls. However, while we do have places like Andina that are both safe and delicious, plenty of others aren’t. You’re better off picking a place and calling ahead to make sure they are amenable to and forewarned about your particular allergies. Don’t be afraid-these people want your business and your loyalty. I’ve had no problems with recent meals at Fife, Clyde Common, Rocket, and Tabla. I didn’t even have to ask for modifications to the dishes I ordered.
Of particular interest to the gluten-afflicted are baked goodies.
Show your allergic pals you care by treating them to John’s Landing gem Coffee Plant at 5901 SW Corbett (next door to the gluten-free Corbett Fish House). Alternatively, taking normies here, they wouldn’t know or care what the discrete “gf” means on the labels of the baked goods. If you are able to tolerate small amounts of egg and dairy, Coffee Plant’s extraordinarily tasty and dense pumpkin and lemon poppyseed muffins make you forget your food freakiness: sip that coffee, do your crossword, and bask in the glow of normalcy. The coffee cakes (in both apple and blueberry) have a certain j’ne sais quoi that is more airy than a typical coffee cake, but still just damn yummy. They also serve gluten-free sandwiches. (Coffee Plant’s sister location in downtown Portland has vegan, but not GF items).
Conversely, I’ve been more than a little disappointed with the vegan establishments around town due to their heavy reliance on soy and a seeming lack of understanding about food allergies. Recently at Chaos Cafe (2620 SE Powell Blvd.) I was told there was “debate” about whether spelt has gluten or not. For the record, there’s no debate. If you have celiac disease, you need to stay away from spelt. There was literally nothing I could eat at Chaos, despite the fact that I very much wanted to. It’s a cute and cozy place where they are clearly trying to offer tasty vegan fare.
With practice, eating in restaurants has gotten a lot easier. I suck it up and ask the pesky questions. I call ahead. I have the menu faxed over so I can examine it before I commit to a meal. There are seeming armies of food-allergic people now, and all of us-the afflicted, their dining companions, servers, and chefs-are going to have to get used to it.
A final word of advice: be generous with your tips. If you get a server who knows her stuff, rattles off the ingredients of a dish like she knows what she’s talking about-because she does-show your appreciation by padding her wallet. Our food safety is in numbers. The more we’re out there eating, educating, and tipping for a job well done, the more we can expect our menu options, and stomachs, to expand.
Food Allergy Tidbits:
- 90% of food allergies in the U.S. are caused by the “big eight”: milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts, shellfish, fish, and tree nuts. Other common allergens include corn, sulfites, the nightshades, and citrus. Food allergies can develop at any age. This should scare the living bejesus out of you.
- Celiac disease is an intolerance to the protein gluten found in wheat, barley, and rye. The Celiac Disease Foundation (http://www.celiac.org/) reports that about one in 133 people in the U.S. have celiac disease.
- Grain Damaged (http://graindamaged.blogspot.com) maintains a list of gluten-free friendly restaurants and gluten-free bakeries in the Portland metro area. Current favorites include: Andina, Caprial’s, Three Degrees, Carafe, Fife, and the Corbett and Hawthorne Fish Houses (where you can wash down your gluten-free clam chowder, fried calamari, and tartar sauce with gluten-free beer).
For baked goodies, you might want to give Piece of Cake on SE 17th a try. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but we had one of their gluten free cakes at out wedding and most people preferred it to the traditional cake.
Also – Corbett Fish House can’t be beat for GF fish & chips.
As to uninformed people at restaurants, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked if I can eat white bread after telling servers that I’m allergic to wheat. That being said, Portland is heaven compared to Dallas as far as allergy friendly restaurants are concerned.
It is fantastic to see an article smartly engaging the food-deprived reality thrust upon so many of us. Fellow celiacs, let us rise as an oppressed group and claim our seat at the dinner table! I am grateful to live in Portland with so many ready options for eating gluten-free, and you mention a number of my favorites. On the other hand, it is almost comical how some restaurants can’t even tell you what ingredients they use to cook their food.
For vegan fare, I recommend Nutshell as a fantastic eatery that celebrates the glory of vegetables rather than relying excessively on celiac-toxic grains and soy in their pursuit of animal-free cuisine. They offered me a marked-up menu showing many gluten-free options, and then expertly cooked the finest spinach I’ve ever eaten and my first delicious taste of burdock root.
I am fortunate in that I have don’t have any food allergies myself, but about ten years ago my sister developed a rather serious allergy to garlic. That’s right – garlic.
Personally, I didn’t even know it was possible to develop an allergy to garlic, but apparently it is. And apparently I’m not the only one who didn’t know this, because my sister has such a difficult time with servers that she has just about given up on eating out. Nearly every time she goes to a restaurant they attempt to serve her at least one thing with garlic, even though she has been crystal clear that she can’t eat it. I’ve personally witnessed a waitress look my sister right in the eyes as she explained her allergy to garlic, only to bring her garlic bread five minutes later. It’s incredible.
And she was lucky, quite frankly, that it was garlic bread. That’s easy. What is not easy is when the garlic is “hidden” in the food, and the server tells my sister that there isn’t any garlic in the dish even though there really is. Within about 30-60 minutes of this, my sister is outside the restaurant violently retching onto the curb. It takes her 24-48 hours to recover each time this happens.
When my sister came to visit me in Portland I thought for sure she would get better treatment, but we constantly struggled. One of the worst experiences we had was actually at Toro Bravo. I called ahead to make sure there was something for her to eat, and the woman who answered the phone assured me that with over 60 items on the menu there were “plenty” of non-garlic dishes to try. When we got there and started ordering however, it turned out that the total number of dishes without garlic was THREE. So my sister got to sit and watch the rest of us eat. Incredible.
Oddly, the best service we got in this regard was at McCormick & Schmick’s. The waitress there was SUPER friendly and understanding. She said she totally understood because she had some allergies too, and she not only told the line cooks about the garlic thing, but even double checked to make sure they weren’t using a pan that had had garlic in it!
My sister was only here for a few days, but with all of the great restaurants here McCormick & Schmicks was the only one that really went out of their way for us. Everyone else just sort of pointed at the few things on their menu that seemed to be made without garlic. NO ONE else offered to make something without garlic.
First of all, I am not doubting that your sister has this allergy, and I appreciate you relating this story for a couple of reasons.
It’s helpful because being “allergic to garlic” is one of the few dietary restrictions I found difficult to take too seriously when I was a server. Many people make this claim to express that they just don’t like it, expecting that couching their distaste in terms of an allergy will ensure no garlic in their food. For years I treated this as seriously as any dietary request, until I noticed many of these diners sneaking a few bites of Ceasar salad or ordering Bloody Marys despite my warning them of fresh garlic in our recipe (“oh, that’s okay, it’s a cocktail”). I noticed a high percentage of garlic allergies in first dates or groups heading to the theater. The cynic in me began to wonder if such a thing as a garlic allergy really existed.
If I ever do work as a server again I will make sure to treat no garlic requests with the same diligence as any others. For me that would mean beyond recommending garlic free dishes and informing the kitchen, insisting on garlic-free pans and follow-up questions to the line before delivering the food.
Anyway, thanks for the comment.
I can’t believe that you people actually want restaurants to have an entire gluten free menu – get real. The statistics above state that 1 in 133 have celiac disease – that means that if the restaurant does 500 dinners a week, only four people are affected, and how about the other four that are allergic to nuts, and so on, and so on. Do you expect them to have a separate menu for them as well? And as for garlic, it’s used in almost everything (stocks, sauces, etc…) because it tastes great and very few people are allergic to it. I happen to be vegetarian, and I don’t whine when I go somewhere that only has a few options for me – I just make do and enjoy the company of my friends.
“Let us rise as an oppressed group” – Get over yourselves. And the servers really do dislike you – it’s not just paranoia.
Easy for you to say, RJ. I didn’t choose to have Celiac Disease. I cannot eat wheat or gluten because it makes me very ill. If the gluten free diet is not followed religiously, it eventually lead to cancer, infertility and even death for Celiacs. If I had my way, I would NOT choose this diet. However, you CHOOSE to be a vegetarian. This is voluntary. I very much doubt that you will get ill or be at risk for dying because you eat something with meat in it. So there is a major difference between our eating issues, my friend. YOU better get over your arrogance and ignorance about Celiac Disease and other food allergies. It’s like telling a person who has diabetes “you should just get over it. It’s all in your head.”
Besides, gluten intolerance and Celiac Disease are becoming more and more common. I doubt you know that only 3% of Celiacs in the United States are actually even diagnosed? That means, 97% are not, and therefore there are many more people at a huge risk. Certainly raises the ratio higher than 1 in every 133 people.
You better watch who you’re complaining to. You have nothing to complain about, you have NO CLUE as to how much people with food allergies suffer. Especially when we get such cool and dismissive replies such as yours.
jami pedersen says
Yes! You go girl! My seven year old daughter has dairy, egg, nut, soy, coconut, gluten, and many fruit and spices allergies and it is pretty much impossible for her to enjoy eating out. People like the person above complaining are ridiculous humans.
Maybe if you are terribly allergic to food you shouldn’t go out to eat? Switching out all the spoons, plates, gloves, all the excess washing etc. drives up the cost of food for everyone else. Not to mention holds up the line for those behind you, and terrifies the owners of business that if you have some sort of weird reaction because of something out of their control they could be sued. Why not buy only gluten free foods and prepare meals at home? I know you don’t choose to have this but you can choose not to not let it affect everyone else. I know this is harsh, but I just watched someone with a gluten allergy hold up the whole line during the noon rush because of their food allergies.
As a mother with a daughter who has peanut and tree nut allergies, we do choose to stay at home and cook. It is simply the safest option for her. HOWEVER, this is not possible when traveling across country for family events, like weddings, etc. I found this blog when searching for safe options for my daughter in Portland when in town for my brother-in-laws wedding; where we have no family living (so we couldn’t even opt to cook at someone’s house). When traveling, we manage most of the time by requesting a fridge and getting fruits and such at local grocery stores but we still need to eat real meals.
We appreciate how friendly Portland restaurants have been and extremely helpful in explaining if their kitchens can support a food allergy customer. This is all we ask. Portland Lobster Co., for example, explained that their kitchen is extremely small and that they could be careful with some items but others are not labeled, etc. They gave us the names of two local restaurants and were happy to have us bring food in so we could dine with the rest of the party. To me, this is great service.
Other restaurants that can support us have even been careful enough to check labeling on packages – we didn’t ask them to do this. They wanted to be extra careful and the whole interaction took less than a minute.
Wow, you have no idea what it’s like to have allergies. Purely the *idea* of eating out is stressful for me. I am extremely allergic to gluten, dairy, and soy – even just crumbs of soy causes me to break out in painful, itchy hives and makes my body swell growing to mild anaphylactic shock. Do you know how many places use vegetable oil with soy? Or ingredients with “soy letchin” as an additive? You would do well to learn to understand our point of view, or you’re going to offend someone you care about a lot more than the people here on this website. The whole point here is, we like people who understand. We appreciate it those who care about our well being, because having severe allergies is stressful in itself. Restaurants that accommodate will receive our undying gratitude and repeat business (I have only 1 I trust now, and I go there 80% of the time I go out).
The thing is, that while there are many sophisticated, witty and bright vegetarian dining partners, not so much with other allergies. I, too, have had the mortifying experience of someone saying adamantly that they are allergic to sugar, nuts, dairy, wheat, only to have them nibble off of others plates containing those ingredients.
That said, if someone said they were allergic to garlic I wouldn’t suggest a Spanish place anymore than I would suggest a steak house to vegetarian. If I had made that error I wouldn’t dream of eating in front of someone who didn’t have anything from which to choose.
I had no idea!
Thank you, Universe, for letting me be free of food allergies. (So far.) And thank you, Melanie Jennings, for opening my eyes, and heart, to all those around me who ain’t so lucky. I especially appreciated the smart and funny and compassionate style and message of your article. Food Nazis are as bad as food allergies, methinks.
I don’t believe that ‘we people’ said restaurants should have an entire gluten-free menu, but aren’t we entitled to be happy when a restaurant does? As a vegetarian, have you never had to ask a server whether a particular menu item was meat-free or not? I bet you appreciated their willingness to tell you. And actually, the marked-up menu at Nutshell covered several common allergies besides gluten. As does the marked-up menu that Pok Pok makes available to their diners. It’s good business for restaurants to be forthcoming about the ingredients contained in their food. It sure is great if a restaurant will go out of their way to accommodate an allergy, but I don’t think most of us expect that. We just want to know what we can eat without getting ill, which seems pretty reasonable don’t you think?
It is also frustrating when a vegetarian or vegan dismisses a serious food allergy as not that big a deal because they have removed meat or animal products from their diet. One is a choice and the other is something that happens to you, and the consequences for being served food that unknowingly violates your diet is vastly different when for an allergy it can mean you find yourself violently retching shortly later and are put out of commission for a day or more. That’s just the beginning of the differences.
Get over ourselves? Have some compassion. Clearly I was making something of a joke by calling for my fellow food allergy sufferers to ‘rise as an oppressed group’. But your casual, armchair dismissal of the circumstances and needs of food allergy sufferers would turn on a dime once your body starts arbitrarily rejecting specific grains or vegetables that are used so commonly that eating out or even eating from the grocery store without hurting your body becomes a serious undertaking frought with bouts of sickness, regular deprivation, and rude dismissals from people like you who are ignorant of the ordeal that nourishing your body has become for you. If that fate should come your way though, we’ll still be happy to let you in on the discussion of which restaurants can serve you safe, delicious food.
Mostly: There are two reasons why my sister has difficulty being taken seriously in regard to her garlic allergy. The first is that so few people have even heard of this. The second is the obvious – as you and others have pointed out diners often flat-out lie about this, insisting that they have this (or some other) food allergy when they obviously do not. I cannot express enough how many problems this causes for people who REALLY have a food allergy. As far as I’m concerned, diners who claim to have food allergies when they do not are no better than drivers who park in handicapped spaces even though they are not handicapped. This is despicable behavior.
RJ: First of all, calm down. No one was “whining”. These are serious issues to people with allergies or other conditions. As has already been pointed out, your vegetarianism is a CHOICE. My sister’s severe allergy is NOT. Does that critical difference really need to be pointed out to you? If a server misinforms you about the presence of meat in one of your dishes you will probably never even know. If the same thing happens to my sister she will be violently ill for hours and then sick for days. If you had been dosed with the equivalent of food poisoning a half dozen times over the last several years because a server wasn’t willing to take you seriously I suspect your attitude would be a little less appalling. One can only hope.
Reflex: Spanish or otherwise, I called ahead to specifically ask about this issue. I did not just take her there and hope for the best. My complaint was exactly this, that the person taking the call completely misinformed me about this situation. If they didn’t actually know, they should have simply said so. I could then have easily picked another place to eat. And if it had only been the two of us then OF COURSE I would not have made her sit there and watch me eat. Give a guy some credit. As it was, there was a large group of us, we didn’t get seated until fairly late, and by the time we discovered the garlic situation numerous plates of food had already been ordered, and several had already arrived. My sister insisted we stay and finish the meal.
In any case I think that restaurants who do not wish to alter their menus to meet the needs of those with food allergies should just say so. Then those affected people would know where NOT to eat when going out. But if your establishment DOES make accommodations for people with food allergies, then you have to actually really do that. For people with these conditions, it’s actually FAR better for a restaurant to just say “no”, than to say “yes” but then not do it.
And to any servers reading this thread – I know that you deal with obnoxious people on a regular basis. And I know that you deal with liars who pretend to have allergies when they don’t. That all sucks, to be sure. But having seen what can happen when a mistake occurs, I ask you to look past this and try to take these requests seriously. If you do not, the consequences for your patrons with real allergies can be more severe than you might imagine. Really.
Went to Grolla up on Kill about a year ago with a group of six, had heard that they served prix fixe meals based around your specific likes/dislikes, we all had a pretty great five-course meal with a good mix of dishes, didn’t find out until afterwards that they are entirely gluten-free, none of us have celiac, none of us cared, the food (and wine) was great. I’d recommend it for anyone with celiac that want to go out for a nice intimate italian meal.
Incidentally, my grandfather back in NY has celiac and hates not being able to eat chocolate chip cookies, and I heard that a local PDX bakery, Angeline’s, makes great cookie dough. Bought a package at whole foods and shipped it out to him, haven’t heard the results, but hopefully it’s the real deal. Being someone who can and will eat everything and anything, I can only begin to imagine the frustration of having limited food options, and am grateful that Portland has so many seemingly good options for folks of every dietary persuasion.
Dchott and Pappy,
You both make some good points, and perhaps I was a bit harsh. But as others have stated, MANY people lie about allergies just because they don’t particularly like something or it gives them a little heartburn. And as a server – and not the “I once worked as a server in college 20 years ago” variety, but the “I’ll be waiting on people at 5:30 tonight” variety – it is very annoying to spend valuable time going back and forth to the kitchen to try to find out if a particular dish might have garlic, wheat products, etc., in them, only to see that person eating something off another’s plate that obviously contains the ingredient in question, as others have pointed out, happens. And to think that we should know every ingredient in every dish off the top of our heads is merely wishful thinking. And I know everyone likes to think that the head chef is always right there when their food is prepared, that is also wishful thinking. Which translates into servers trying to find out exactly what is in a particular dish from a guy making $10 – $12 an hour, that is very busy, and may not speak english fluently – and then the guest seems exasperated that we can’t give a definitive answer – all the while there are many other guests in this server’s station wondering where the hell you have been for the past ten minutes.
So I do understand where you are coming from – but it’s no picnic on the other side either. (and before you are forced to write again, I am not equating my annoyance with your being sick for 24 hours, or more – just trying to make a point).
I’m glad to see this piece has generated such lively discussion.
I have not been successful at Grolla. I spent a lot of money there for a very poor meal. Perhaps they have improved.
I will definitely check out Nutshell. Thanks for the tip, dchott.
As for chocolate chip cookies, I make my own. If I get a chance next week, I’ll post the recipe on my blog (www.mjennings26.wordpress.com). I believe it would freeze well for shipping out of state.
Fourteen years ago I was waiting tables at a nice Italian restaurant. I’ll never forget the two-top who greeted me with this challenge: “Hi. . .I am allergic to tomato and wheat. . .she is allergic to milk and garlic. And we want to split something. What do you suggest?”
Again, this was at an Italian restaurant.
Yep. True story.
“Hi. . .I am allergic to tomato and wheat. . .she is allergic to milk and garlic. And we want to split something. What do you suggest?”
That’s supposed to have been a stumper?
I’d think many entree-salad options would be workable, especially if dressing was served on the side. (Pastini’s tuna-and-white-bean salad doesn’t list any of the four items as an ingredient, for example.) Depending on the severity of the allergies, many antipasto plates might be suitable; one patron can eat any cheeses, the other can eat any tomatoes. I might also have suggested a pasta primavera — the vegetables could easily be sauteed in olive oil and wine (avoiding issues with butter), with pasta served on only one of the split plates.
Also, as a follow-up to Pappy’s comment about McCormick & Schmick’s: that doesn’t surprise me in the least.
What occurs to me is that when it comes to developing allergy-conscious menus and menu items, chains and restaurant groups such as M&S actually may be better positioned than many small restaurants to deal with these issues, precisely because they have the resources — and the economies of scale — that make it cost-effective for them to do this kind of recipe development at the corporate level. And if you then implement corporate-level training that drills allergy awareness into your kitchen and service staffs, you become well positioned to draw in customers who want reliability when it comes to dealing with those allergies or sensitivities.
Sorry for not being more precise in illustrating my point, djonn.
The “stumper” was not that it would be tough to figure out that the only obvious choices would be a dumb salad with the dressing on the side (boring) and/or a bland, butter-less, no garlic primavera (worthless).
“Tomato/garlic/cheese/wheat”. . .we all know that this is the cornerstone combo of an Italian menu. This is how we spell Italian food. This why we say, “Hey, honey, let’s do Italian tonight.” We can maybe avoid one, perhaps two, of those ingredients. But all four? Then why bother going to an Italian restaurant? And once there, why punish yourself and purposely limit your dining experience even further by splitting?
As someone who truly loves good & comfy Italian food I simply found the request a shocking blasphemy.
As one of those “annoying” people with a *real* (as in life-threatening) peanut allergy, I get annoyed at those diners who throw around the word “allergy” to mean a food intolerance or insensitivity. They might think it makes servers stand at attention, but it actually desensitizes them and pisses them off, as this thread shows. I hate being a “special needs” diner, but I have no choice. The field has become so crowded lately that I’m more embarrassed than ever to have to have a quiet conversation with my server.
Jody Hodges says
In 2002 I found out that I had an allergy to corn, a true allergy vs intolerance. It led me to write a book called Cornspiracy. The corn industry has found every way imaginable to hide corn in food, so if you know someone that is in and out of doctors offices
or who has been labeled as a Hypocondriac then they may want to have several allergy tests done to uncover it.
Here are some important facts
Go to any doctor and ask them about getting tested for Food allergies…and they will try and talk you out of it.
Take a look at the food labels…Everything has it in it, almost impossible to get away from it.
Restaurant Advice….stay away from Restaurants, somewhere betweent the table and the kitchen, someone will forget
and you will end up sick.
I work in the restaurant industry as well. Overall everybody is fine with a person with an allergy where we can easily modify a dish but one thing none of us can stand are those people who are allergic to pretty much everything and must carry a card with them. These people need to get a personal chef and just stay home.
Why is Portland chock-full of people with food allergies, both real and imagined?
it is a combination of the aforementioned “if you don’t want it, say you have an allergy” logic, and a town being pretty chock full of really self involved people.
as a person with a big stupid list of allergies, i most definitely prefer to stay home. As a person who works for a company, and has to travel sometimes, or escort travelers sometimes eating out is unavoidable. also, my family begs me to eat out sometimes. I hate it. I hate having to be that speshul diner and ask for help (and still wind up poisoned anyway). I hate when I tell them I am allergic to milk and soy, and they hand me the “gluten free” menu!!! I hate that I can only go certain places. I hate that 90% of the time my food is not special since everything yummy had to be removed and it would have been better if I had made it at home. I hate that I can never go to office parties, potlucks, etc. jeez people, have a heart!