How to dine out in Baltimore with food allergies

Anyone with a serious food allergy—as well as the people who love and take care of them—knows all too well the perils of dining anywhere other than home. Trying a new restaurant, or even a new menu item at a familiar eatery, can quickly turn a pleasant meal into a trip to the ER.

But restaurant managers and chefs are increasingly aware of—and responsive to—food allergy issues. And not just from the goodness of their hearts: An estimated 15 million Americans, including one out of every 13 children, are affected by food allergies, so being allergy-friendly is  good business. As a result, menus providing helpful allergen alerts, staff training in allergy-safe food handling, and a friendly server response to dietary accommodations are becoming the new dining norm. Here are some tips for enjoying a delicious and anaphylaxis-free meal out.

Be prepared. Accidents will happen, inevitably, no matter how well informed the diner and how concerned and responsive the restaurant. Carry your Epipen or other medication, an allergy alert card to present to restaurant staff when ordering, and whatever other information or equipment you need on hand if you are exposed to trigger foods. The nonprofit organization Food Allergy Research & Education has templates for emergency response plan and food allergy alert cards (in 10 different languages!) and other helpful resources at foodallergy.org.

Be informed. Call restaurants ahead of time to ask questions about their menu and ingredients—it’s best to speak directly to the chef who will be preparing your meal whenever possible. (Be sure to call during non-peak hours when they will have time to speak with you in depth; for many restaurants, this is between 2-4 p.m.) There are also online resources for finding allergy-friendly dining. For example, Allergy Eats (allergyeats.com) boasts a database of more than 750,000 restaurants searchable by city, cuisine, and allergen sensitivity along with feedback from people who’ve dined there.

What’s even better is when the restaurant asks you about potential food allergies. Last fall my family visited Miss Shirley’s for brunch, having heard about its super delicious gluten-free pancakes. Our server greeted us at the table with “Are there any food allergies I should know about?”—amazing. My own most severe food reactivity is to casein, a protein found in milk that unfortunately also shows up as an additive in all kinds of other food products that have nothing to do with dairy. The server was extremely knowledgeable about this phenomenon and was able to steer me to casein-safe menu items. It turns out that Miss Shirley’s staff is so wonderfully aware thanks to frequent staff training sessions dedicated to food allergy safety.

Ask questions. Lots of questions. It’s not always enough to know the ingredients going into a dish. It’s equally important to ask how the food is handled, where, and by whom. If you are severely reactive to, say, peanuts or shellfish and the slightest exposure results in anaphylaxis (a severe, potentially fatal allergic reaction), ingredients on a plate carried next to yours by a server could potentially trigger you. And: Servers should not be preparing your food. Waitstaff often dish up soups and salads from a station outside the kitchen, and ladles and tongs can become inadvertently cross-contaminated in a busy service bar. This could cause your otherwise safe meal to come in drive-by contact with other foods you may be allergic to.

Don’t be embarrassed. It’s OK to ask for what you need in order to dine safely: You are the customer. It is the restaurant’s job to serve you correctly. If a server does not seem to grasp the seriousness of your questions or is unable to answer them, don’t be shy. Ask to speak to the manager or, better yet, the chef.

Get down with chains. Having a food allergy means switching restaurant priorities. Suddenly, the joy of finding that secret, unexpectedly excellent hole-in-the-wall Thai joint now takes second place to safety. Chain restaurants offer uniform menus, recipes, and kitchen protocols, as well as consistent cross-company supply chains to ensure safe dining. Some of the best, like Red Robin, P.F. Chang’s (there’s one downtown), and Legal Seafood, have allergy-specific menus, “clean” prep areas with color-coded utensils and cutting boards for avoiding cross-contamination, and frequent staff training.

That’s not to say you can’t eat local, though. Restaurants are popping up all over Baltimore that cater to gluten-free, dairy-free, and other allergy-driven diets. For those with gluten allergies, Harmony Bakery in Hampden is entirely gluten-free, as is Sweet 27, which also says it can accommodate soy or dairy-free diets. One Dish Cuisine, in Ellicott City, is an especially propitious dining choice for anyone with serious allergies to any—or even all—ingredients such as dairy, soy, eggs, gluten, fish/shellfish, and nuts.

Keep it simple. The more complex your food issues, the more simple your order ought to be. If you have to ask a lot of complicated questions about ingredients, ordering more basic fare—like broiled meats or steamed vegetables—may be the safest way to go. Because grills and frying oil hold high cross-contact potential, it’s best to avoid fried foods unless you know for sure that they are prepared safely. Unfortunately, skipping dessert may also be wise. Many restaurants do not make their own desserts in house, and so may not be able to provide a complete list of ingredients.

Walk away if you must. When in doubt, just don’t eat it. Yes, this sucks, but nowhere near as bad as getting sick from the wrong food. This is exactly what I wish I’d done a few months back when eating at a pho restaurant I’d visited—safely and successfully—several times before. The “rice” noodles in the soup, normally transparent, looked suspiciously opaque, indicating that they might have been swapped out for a glutenous variety. I asked the server, then the cook, about the noodles, but our mutual language barrier prevented me from getting a clear answer. I was hungry, in a rush, and had always been fine there before, so I took a chance—and got to be pretty sick for a few days as a result. Fortunately my food allergies are not life-or-death dire, just deeply unpleasant, but still—why eat something that’s going to make you sick when there are many, many other things to eat that will not? Sometimes the safest choice is to forgo the food, enjoy the company, and then eat something else afterward.

Make with the appreciation. If you have a good experience at a restaurant, tell the staff about it. Thank the chef. Tell your friends and family. Go back again, build a relationship, and enjoy knowing there is yet another place you can dine deliciously and safely.

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