By Evan Koenig
It was a normal restaurant, not a chain or a high-priced one. She was an average waitress, the kind who writes your orders down carefully in her ticket pad. It was a regular night out for us, the type we enjoy once or twice a month.
Dining Out, Hit or Miss.
My wife had learned to be outspoken over the years, and so when it came around for her to order she said, “I’m celiac.”
“What’s that mean, ma’am?” the waitress asked in her charming Southern accent.
“I have a gluten allergy,” my wife explained, and then added, “I’m allergic to wheat.”
Realization dawned on the young waitress’s face as her expression erupted into a broad smile. “No problem, ma’am, we have white bread!”
Months later, elsewhere, we ordered meals at another, similar restaurant. My wife, after explaining her allergy, ordered the pork chops and was dismayed when they arrived at the table next to a heaping portion of bread-based stuffing.
“I can’t eat stuffing,” she said.
The waitress looked hurt as she replied, “I thought you said you were allergic to bread.”
A dear friend of ours is extremely diabetic, and I’ve watched him order his tea unsweetened only to be handed a glass of the beverage that had been upscaled by addition of fruit-flavored syrup.
My heart goes out to everyone who has special dietary considerations when they leave the house to seek repast. Many, I know, have given up entirely on the occasion; my wife and I nearly did. Whether your body is diabetic, celiac, lactose-intolerant, or plays host to any one of several other food allergies, a mistake by the preparation or serving crew can easily turn your dining-out treat into a dangerous experience, one that could potentially end in a trip to the hospital.
All the suspense aside, my wife and I have been successful in turning the dining experience from misery into pleasure. In the process, we’ve learned some important lessons.
First, do your research.
Many restaurants now have web sites that can easily be located through a search engine, and on their site most of them describe nutrition information and special diet availability if it exists. Some chains choose not to cater to people with dietary restrictions; once upon a time that irritated me, but I’ve come to understand that it really is their business decision to make. Instead of getting angry, it takes less energy to find a restaurant in your area that concerns itself with your needs.
When you arrive for dinner, don’t be silent.
There’s no need to shout, of course, but a quiet word to the host can go a long way. We’ve actually been seated at a different table before in order to place us with a waitress who shares my wife’s allergy. Often the host will have special pre-printed menus for various situations. Sometimes the host will even go so far as to bring the chef to your table to discuss your needs and how best to meet them. It’s rare, because the chef is usually the busiest person in the building, but it happens. When it does, make a point of thanking him for his effort.
Whether you are granted special table-side chef consultation service or not, you should politely but firmly explain your condition or allergy to the waiter or waitress.
They’re the ones who are most likely to toss croutons onto your salad if you’re celiac, or to add sugar-laden sauces or dressing to your meal or salad if you’re diabetic. Don’t just tell them; try to educate them. It might be the only opportunity for this type of education that they’ll have since most food service establishment training rituals focus on preparations and pairings rather than ingredients.
If the server’s responses make you nervous at all, ask to speak to a manager or chef.
Those two people are well aware of what can happen in a restaurant if a guest is made ill, and as a result I’ve never run into one who was unwilling to at least speak with us.
When you receive your food, ask questions.
This can be the toughest part. A waiter is evaluated in part on how efficiently he can move food from the prep line to the table—and it’s not just your food that he’s worried about. If you let him, he’ll toss the plates down with great alacrity, ask if he can get you anything else, and be spun around delivering his next tray of food before you can say a word. Don’t let him. It’s his job to answer your questions, and so now is your opportunity to make sure he used the right sauce, or that he didn’t put a piece of bread on your plate. Be polite, but be firm. It’s your health that is in the balance, after all.
The most important thing to remember is that you’re not just there to eat a meal.
As someone with dietary concerns, you should also be trying to build a relationship. Restaurants, and the managers and staff who run them, like to see repeat customers. Those of us who need special dietary consideration, in turn, like to have a place to dine where we can do so safely. By learning their names, being both open and forthright, and communicating pleasantly and thoroughly, my wife and I have managed to educate the staff at several local restaurants to the point that we feel very safe eating there. Some even recognize us when we walk in; I’ve seen a local manager lean over and tell her line worker about our needs before we said a word.
Eating, in any event, has always been about the sharing and the relationships, hasn’t it? Go, share the knowledge of your dietary needs as you know them best, build a relationship, and enjoy.
Evan Koenig lives with his celiac wife and daughter and two perfectly healthy Chihuahuas in Richmond, Virginia. A Dean of a local college by day, he writes fantasy and science fiction by night. Find out more at www.evankoenig.com.