Do you know what gluten free precautions to look for when you dine out in a restaurant? I thought I did until I decided to call around and see how much the restaurants knew. Some were great; others were downright scary!

A waiter handing a menu to a customer in a restaurant.

Dining Safely Gluten Free to Avoid Cross-Contamination

I have been both stunned and amazed at what restaurants say they know about gluten cross-contamination.

Please don’t get me wrong. Many restaurants understand how important it is to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen. I love talking to those restaurants. They make me feel like we are speaking the same language. Other ones scare me.

If you are new to gluten free, I have a great introduction to gluten free living article to help get you started. There are lots of gluten free resources on my blog as well.

Drum roll, please……I will start with the #10 most scary thing and work my way to the worst, #1.

10. “How long are you going to be on this gluten free diet?”

Wow, where do I start? How about for the rest of my life?? As much as I am thankful for the gluten free diet “fad” for helping get companies to put out more gluten free products, it set back those who need to eat gluten free for medical reasons.

Restaurants don’t know how to differentiate between gluten free for a diet vs. gluten free for medical reasons. Have you been asked how allergic are you? Or even better, #9.

9. “Are you allergic or just trying to lose weight?”

I kid you not. Someone asked me that over the phone. When I replied, “Yes, I really am allergic,” the staff told me I should tell my wait person when I come in that I have a real allergy so they can take precautions.

Really? So, if I interpret that correctly, this restaurant only takes safe gluten-handling practices seriously when you tell them you have a real gluten allergy. What if a gluten free diner in this restaurant doesn’t know what to specify?

8. “Our kitchen is too small to use separate pans and utensils.”

This is a common problem for restaurants in the Bay Area. I am not sure I fully understand why a restaurant would make an effort to accommodate gluten free diners if they can’t do it safely. I am trying to visualize a cook line. It would surprise me if a cook didn’t switch pans and utensils as they cooked each order.

No restaurant would use a pan to make chicken marsala, then use the same pan to make a scampi order, so I don’t understand why it is hard to switch to sterilized pans and utensils for gluten free orders. You have to switch to clean pans after each order anyway.

7. “Flour is in the air, so nothing on our gluten free menu is really gluten free.”

I understand this completely. Flour can stay in the air for up to 24 hours. Unless you make the gluten free items in a separate area, it is impossible to keep things perfect. I also appreciate the restaurant’s honesty in telling me this.

My main question is, why have a separate gluten-free menu? Wouldn’t it be better to state that you can modify menu items and have the server explain potential cross-contamination to diners? This dialog could be a valuable tool to help the diner understand the risks and make an educated choice.

6. Restaurant: “Our restaurant makes gluten free pizzas in a separate area in our kitchen, away from our regular pizzas. We have separate pans, cutters, and paddles for gluten free pizzas.”

Me: “Wow, it sounds like you know what you are doing to keep gluten free customers safe. Do your chefs change their gloves before they start to make a gluten free pizza?”

Restaurant: “Oh, I never thought of that. I should let my District Manager know.”

Well, kudos to the manager who saw value in my question. I hope this information about changing gloves makes it to all of the pizza restaurants in this chain.

Check out all of my gluten free safe dining tips, so you know what to look for when dining out.

5. “I had a friend eat it, and they seemed okay.”

Seemed okay? What does okay look like? Many reactions happen internally hours or even days after ingesting gluten.

4. Restaurant: “We prep and cook our gluten free pizzas on a separate sterilized mesh.”

Me: “So you put the gluten free pizza dough on a sterilized mesh, and then you take that gluten free pizza on the mesh and put it down on the same counter where you put the meshes that had wheat pizzas on? Can’t wheat flour go up through the holes in the mesh?”

Restaurant: “That is why we don’t guarantee our gluten free pizzas are gluten free.”

Am I the only one who thinks this is strange? Why have gluten free pizza if you are going to contaminate it? It seems like a wasted effort on the restaurant’s part. Maybe they should put a sign on their menu next to their gluten free pizza listing and refer to #9 above. It could say only eat our gluten free pizza if you are on the gluten free diet as a fad diet.

3. “You should be safe. It is made out of wheat, not gluten.”

I will never eat at this place. They have not taken the time to educate their staff.

And now the top two scary things restaurants have said to me:

2. Restaurant: “We pre-cook gluten free pasta in freshwater. When someone orders a gluten free pasta dish, we warm the pasta back up in the boiling water on the stove.”

Me: “Is this boiling water on the stove fresh or designated only for gluten free pasta?”

Restaurant: “No, it is the same water we use for all pasta.”

Me: “You do realize you contaminate the gluten free pasta when you warm it up in the same water you warm up wheat pasta, right?”

Restaurant: “Wow, come to think of it, you are right.”

Me: “You need to change that policy. You could make someone really sick.”

I was speechless after this conversation. At least this restaurant manager thanked me. I hope this is corrected ASAP.

1. “As careful as we are, if my kids had a problem with gluten, I wouldn’t let them eat out knowing what restaurants do.”

Wow! As a parent of gluten-intolerant kids, this one scared me the most. What am I supposed to think? His comment left a LOT out there. What do restaurants do? Which restaurants was he thinking about when he said that? I need to find out so I can avoid those places.

So there you have my list of The Top Ten Scary Things Restaurants Have Said To Me. As you can see, gluten-free is misunderstood in the restaurant world.

This subject is near and dear to my heart. It is why I started this blog in the first place. Please visit my restaurant database and click on restaurants in your area. You can see what their safe gluten-handling policies are.

Use this blog as a guideline to ask the right questions when you go out to eat. And lastly, please help me get the word out. Restaurants don’t understand that misleading statements can make a gluten-intolerant person sick.

 I would love to hear what restaurants have said to you! I also have 100s of easy gluten free recipes to check out!

This post was updated from an old November 2013 post with a lot more information.

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84 Comments

  1. I had a server at an Italian restaurant tell me that they did reheat the pasta in the same water that was for all of the pastas. I knew to ask that question. His added comment was “but that’s only a little bit of gluten so that’s better”. Sigh….

  2. I got so sick at Chili’s I thought I would die! I ordered a salad off the gluten free menu. I live in a small town and have so few options I have pretty much just stopped eating out. I do have a go to restaurant where the manager is excellent. She is educated about food allergies and Celiac. She is a blessing. I’ve heard all of these things and it just doesn’t seem to get any better.

  3. My contribution to the (can you believe what they said) list was “What does gluten look like?” I got up and left.

    1. Seriously? I haven’t heard this one yet. That must have shocked you to hear this :-(. Thanks for writing in Tina, I am glad you didn’t eat there!

  4. Wow, so many scary comments. A positive comment to share with you about a trip to a Culver’s restaurant in Superor, WI. My husband has a sensitivity to many allergens and asked for their GF bun, the cashier asked is it a preference or allergy and we answered, “allergy”. I thought that was a little strange but then he did go on to warn us about cross contamination in the fries we had also ordered which was pleasantly surprising. The bun came in a wrapped unopened package, separate from the rest of the food on the tray and we had a fast food meal that had in big red letters Allergy Alert on the receipt. How the burger and other things were handled I am not sure but I was really pleased to see the effort to accommodate GF needs. Nice to know for when we are traveling and just want a quick hot meal but generally we do not go to restaurants at all.

    1. I love hearing the positive stories too. I wrote this post several years ago, before gluten free was more mainstream. Thank you so much for sharing Tammy!

  5. Some of the “great” comments I have gotten from servers and restaurant managers include: “there’s no cheese on that”; ” I can just take that off of the bread and bring it back” and of course “well, what is gluten?” (at least she asked). I used to have a small card that listed the items/flour that included gluten (it is not only wheat as we know) and handed them out to those who were interested in learning. I love it when they ask if I could take it apart or should they remake it for me.Duuh. Some friends and I were at a local restaurant and the owner had put toast on top of my food. Five people said loudly “She can’t eat that!”. I have been able to eat safely there ever since.

  6. I was eating at a friend’s favorite breakfast place, and explained to the waitress that I was on a gluten-free diet, I could not have anything made with wheat. She replied, “Well, honey, you can have our pancakes, they’re made with white flour”.

  7. My worst experience was at an Italian restaurant. They offered gluten free tube pasta. It was the only shape they had that was gluten free. After asking my usual questions about cross contamination, I ordered. When it came to my table and I started eating it, I noticed little pieces of spaghetti noodles mixed in with the tube pasta. Too late–I had already eaten several bites. I complained to the manager since I had been assured by the server that they used separate pans, water and utensils for gluten free and he actually got mad at me! That’s okay–I was mad at him for the whole 2 weeks of misery I had. Eating out just isn’t worth it.

    1. Oh my gosh Lyn, that is scary. I found if I take Glutenese, it will reduce the pain and misery by a day or two. I wish you all the best :-).

  8. I has a waitress tell me that a gf bun put through a toaster with everything else would be safe because “the heat kills the gluten”… my response was that if that was true all bread would be safe because it was cooked… The poor girl just looked at me with a stunned expression on her face. The sheer absurdity of her statement had never occurred to her before. She was back snd forth between the kitchen and my table half a dozen times checking on things, my meal went back twice and I still got glutened… I almost never eat out. It’s just not worth it ?

  9. I think saying that people ordering GF because they are on GF diet without a sever allergy ruins it for people with an allergy is a bit ridiculous. If a customer makes a request to omit something be it gluten, cheese, salt etc for any reason then it should be taken seriously, allergy are not. If im paying for the meal and for my sever’s “service” then any request I make should be taken seriously. As for the ruining everything by eating their boyfriend’s crouton, for a lot of people, including those with an allergic reaction (like myself) struggle with the life style change. It took me forever to adjust and there were so many times it was just plain frustrating trying to eat out and knowing l was going to get sick anyway (because of all the reasons people have listed here) that id just say “screw it” and eat the crouton. So stop judging! Now I’ve adjusted and I know it’s best to just eat at home for the most part. My most current experience is with a restaurant that has a seperate gluten free menu yet still serves all thise items eith sauces that contain gluten. I know that eating at any restaurant that isnt entirely gluten free is high riak and i almost always have a reaction that lasts around 2 weeks. :/

  10. The most insufferable thing I keep hearing at restaurants is: ” Oh there’s no wheat in it, just flour.”
    I literally want to scream at how many times I’ve been told some version of this.
    Im south of Denver, CO…I dont think people are more stupid…but I guess ya just never know!

    1. That is awful Holly!! I have heard it too many times too, though I do feel like it has improved a bit since I wrote this article a few years ago. Hang in there ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. It’s so frustrating to try to find restaurants who actually educate themselves on what it means to be GF. I was calling around the other day to pizza places about GF crusts and got the same answer as you’ve gotten – “no, but we have whole wheat so come on in and request that”. Seriously? What I love though is how places try to take advantage of people who NEED GF and aren’t just doing it as the new diet and charge more for a GF dish. Culver’s charges $1 extra for a bun. A local to me pizza place charges $5 extra for a GF crust. So frustrating!

    1. Hi Michele, I hear you ๐Ÿ™‚ It is super frustrating. Worse, when you find a pizza place you deem safe… and then after eating there several times you get sick. I wish you all the best, Sandi

    2. You’ll need to be careful at Culver’s, too. The beef or chicken patty may be gluten free, but they fry all their normal burger buns on the grill where they cook the meats – so your patty will be contaminated, even if you go for the gluten-free bun on the side.

  12. would you be able to share any recommendations of restaurants in Berkeley,/ San Francisco/Oakland that have been safe for you to eat in? I am a silent celiac who likes to eat out with friends. I never know which restaurants are truly safe for me because I do not have a reaction to go by. It is only when I get my lab results that I then see that I am being gluten by the restaurant(s) I am eating in.

    1. Hi Maggie, I can definitely help. If you look on my blog on the right hand side, mid-way down, you will see a green button that says Restaurant Database. I have the safe gluten handling procedures of over 650 Bay Area restaurants. You should always do due diligence and ask the restaurant a lot of questions. I interviewed the restaurants over a year ago and staff/chefs change. I do love Revival in Berkeley. The owner is gluten free and she is super nice. I also like Saturn (vegan), and there is a new paleo restaurant, Mission Heirloom, that is also delicious.

  13. Restaurants have made some progress since you wrote this, but hospital dietary departments are terrifying.

    I had one lady deliver my grilled chicken on a bun. When I protested, she said, “Take it off the bun.”

    If you have additional food allergies, they really think you’re crazy.

    I was in the hospital in January of 2016 and was starving to death!

    Because of the so-called gluten free Cheerios, I now have advanced autoimmune Cirrhosis of the liver. The doctors are astonished! The University of Tennessee liver transplant team is advising me to get on the liver transplant ist, but knowing I would be unable to always protect myself after such extensive surgery, I think my chances are better working to encourage my liver to regenerate as much as possible!

    1. Oh wow, I didn’t even think of hospitals Robyn, that is scary. Cheerios is doing a horrible job keeping this product safe. We won’t eat them after reading about how they are inconsistent. I am so sorry to hear about your liver and the trouble. Autoimmune disease is such a scary thing. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.

    2. I agree hospitals are the worse. Every time my daughter has been in the hospital I have had to make her food and bring it which required someone to stay with her while I did it because she also has Autism on top of autoimmune, celiac and allergy to dairy. If I could show you pictures of what they have brought her with the paper sitting on the tray that had the allergies written in red you would be shocked. The place people are suppose to be safe and get well in is a joke.

  14. “What on this plate contains gluten?”

    This was said by the manager while holding a hamburger on a bun! Then she wanted to make me another meal. NO THANK YOU,

    1. Oh wow Cheryl. I am so glad you didn’t eat there! These things can be so scary. One mistake by the restaurant and we get so sick. Take care and thank you for writing in ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. When I called Pizza Hut to find out if they had gluten-free pizzas, the worker on the phone said, “What’s gluten? I worked in a restaurant for 20 years, so I wouldn’t put much faith in not getting cross-contamination. I rarely eat out.

  16. My daughter and I are gf and dairy free. We had been eating at PF Changs from their gf menu for a few years, but as my daughter and I grew more and more sensitive to foods we noticed that we weren’t feeling well after eating there. Finally after the last time we ate their my daughter was very sick and I called them and grilled them about their menu. Turns out they marinate all of their meats in milk. We no longer eat there.

    1. I am so sorry to hear that Rachel…but it is coincidental. I just got glutened big time at their Sacramento, CA location. I was sick for two days. I will never eat there again either.

    2. At a highly health-conscious Chinese restaurant, I kept getting sick even though I ordered only GF items. I learned the afternoon crew was prepping every dish with soy sauce before the restaurant opened for dinner.They meant well.

      1. I am so sorry to hear to hear this experience. I haven’t been to a Chinese restaurant (except for E&O Kitchen in SF) in years.