If you have had celiac disease or gluten intolerance for more than a handful of years, you probably remember a time when eating gluten-free at a national restaurant chain, or even an independently owned local restaurant, was simply impossible.
If you ate out at all, it usually involved asking the chef a million questions and still feeling nervous when eating even a basic salad or baked potato. Thankfully, the world of gluten-free dining has traveled light years away from that reality. In addition to a plethora of local restaurants offering gluten-free fare, many regional and national chain restaurants are offering gluten-free menus to their customers. Many are even training their staff to help decrease cross-contamination.
Here are six of the best national chains that cater to the gluten-free diner. Some of them are oldies, but others are relatively new…
- Subway: This famous sandwich chain is one of the newest and biggest chains to add gluten-free items to its menu in select locations. Although not available at all locations nationally, Subway is rolling out gluten-free rolls and brownies in select test markets. The gluten-free items appeared at stores in Dallas, then Portland, and are now slated to launch in 500 stores. All Oregon Subways will now be carrying gluten-free items due to their success in this market, and the next test markets are Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Unlike companies that launch gluten-free products in all locations at once, Subway is slowly testing each market and launching their products only when the quality is high and there is clear market demand.
- Chipotle: These Mexican restaurants have been increasingly accommodating of their gluten-free consumers, who can get their “burritos” in a bowl instead of a tortilla, or enjoy corn tortilla based specialties. Their website clearly lists which products contain gluten, and they suggest that gluten-free consumers request that staff change their gloves before they handle gluten-free food so as to reduce cross-contamination.
- P.F. Chang’s: This restaurant is still regarded as having one of the best gluten-free menus out, years after its launch. P.F. Chang’s trains their staff thoroughly in handling gluten-free customers, and offers a separate printed menu full of delicious Chinese and Asian-fusion items. Their Chang’s Chicken Lettuce Wraps and Mongolian Chicken are two favorites.
- Outback Steakhouse: This company was one of the first restaurant chains to launch a comprehensive gluten-free menu encompassing appetizers, main dishes and even desserts. From juicy steaks to the beloved Chocolate Thunder from Down Under brownie dessert, Outback trains its staff to cater to gluten-free consumers and offers special gluten-free printed menus at all of its more than 1200 locations. Many of them carry Redbridge gluten-free beer too!
- Melting Pot: These fondue restaurants are catering to the gluten-free market by making it clear on their menu which items to request and which to avoid. You can enjoy a gluten-free cheese fondue with fresh vegetables and apples rather than bread. Their gluten-free menu specifies to ask for certain items to be made with gluten-free Redbridge beer or with cornstarch instead of flour. Gluten-free chocolate fondue can be served with marshmallows and fruit for dipping. Entrees and salads are also available.
- Uno Chicago Grill: Uno Chicago Grill made headlines as the largest national pizza chain to offer gluten-free pizza to customers. In addition to salads, side dishes, and entrees that are gluten-free, their 150 restaurants offer three types of gluten-free pizza baked in a way that is intended to avoid cross-contamination.
Keep in mind that none of these restaurants are totally gluten-free, and even trained staff may make mistakes. Cross-contamination is always a possibility in a restaurant that serves both gluten and non-gluten foods, so check with your waiter or a chef to ensure that the food is being prepared on a gluten-free surface, with clean utensils, with clean gloves at all times.
Look at the online gluten-free menus before visiting to prepare yourself for what is available and take note of any changes in the list of items considered gluten-free. While these restaurants are known and respected for the major strides they’ve made in ensuring safe and delicious meals for gluten-free diners, your self-advocacy is still an important element of dining out safely. Bon appetit!