Anyone who has a child with a food allergy, or has an allergy themselves, can tell you what a nerve-wracking experience dining out in a restaurant can be. Even if you have already reviewed the menu online before arriving at the restaurant, you still have to risk cross-contamination in the kitchen, errors on the menu, or server incompetence. When my youngest son was diagnosed with peanut and tree nut allergies about four months ago, our weekly indulgence of a Saturday night dinner out on the town became more of a chore than a carefree night off from the kitchen. After many hours of online research, calling around, and visiting restaurants I have put together a list of five of the restaurants we have dined at locally that have been the most accommodating to families who have food allergies. These are my personal experience and opinion and not an exhaustive list.
The restaurant we have been most impressed with since learning of my son’s food allergies has been California Pizza Kitchen. They have a comprehensive online menu that breaks all their food down into allergen categories. Although there are a few locations in the surrounding area, we generally frequent the Deer Park location because it is closest to our house. We were very impressed with the way our server and the restaurant manager attended to our needs during our visit. The manager personally came to our table both before and after our meal once she learned from our server that we had a food allergy within our party. She reassured us that the kitchen was aware of our food allergies and that all precautions were being taken to ensure no cross-contamination would occur. Aside from the special preparation needed to prevent allergy contamination, our food was delicious and the service was great!
Another place we love to go that is kid-friendly and food allergy-friendly is Red Robin. While Red Robin does have some limited allergen information listed as part of their online menu, I had to email their customer service department to request specific information for my son’s particular food allergy. Within 24 hours I received an email link with full food allergy information and was told that all their restaurants also have the same information available in a hard copy should we request to see it while we were visiting. I was also told to please check in with a manager upon arriving and notify him or her of our special food allergy needs, which we did. Again, we were met with awesome customer service from both the manager and server and felt like my son’s allergies were taken seriously and handled with care during our visit. Red Robin has several locations in the Chicago suburbs and we have had a great experience at multiple locations including Gurnee, Deer Park, and the Woodfield Mall location in Schaumburg.
One of our favorite go to places for a quick meal that makes everyone happy has always been Chili’s, so we were very pleased to find out we were still able to dine there despite our son’s food allergies. Like California Pizza Kitchen, Chili’s has a full allergen menu available for viewing online, and has the same menu available as a hard copy in restaurant if you request one. One thing I really like about Chili’s allergen menu is that there is a page for each of the top eight food allergens and it has all their menu items listed out by what is safe to order based on that particular food allergy. We didn’t get as much special attention from the manager as we did at Red Robin or California Pizza Kitchen, but have continued to be satisfied with our experience and the food while dining at Chili’s.
My husband’s favorite restaurant to visit on this list is probably Buffalo Wild Wings, which has an extensive food allergy menu similar to California Pizza Kitchen’s. Hard copies of the online allergen menu are also available on site. We have gone to the Round Lake Beach and Vernon Hills locations several times and have gotten great service each time. It helps to know ahead of time what you plan to order so that you don’t have to spend a lot of time studying the allergen menu once you get to the restaurant, especially at a bustling place like Buffalo Wild Wings.
Two quick options for dining out or bringing home food that are a step up from hitting the drive through are Chipotle and Qdoba. One of the nice things for us is that both Chipotle and Qdoba are both 100% nut free in their food preparation. However, I notice that both of their online menus appeal to all food allergies and not just peanut and tree nut allergies, which my son has. I have not asked to see a hard copy of the menu at either of these restaurants, however, the online files are small enough that you could easily print out your own copy and bring it with you. I would recommend checking with a manager once you arrive that the online menu information is still current and correct as many restaurants will tell you that the online menu information is only good for one month at a time because food and product suppliers may change frequently.
As you may have noticed after reading through this post, all the restaurants I have listed above are part of a chain franchise. Unfortunately, this has been an issue that has been unavoidable. Our allergist warned us at the onset of my son’s diagnosis that we would most likely need to stick with these types of chain restaurants because they were probably the only ones that would have food allergy information readily available. Sadly, there have even been a few popular restaurants that we are no longer able to dine at because they do not have any food allergy menu information available or they could not guarantee me that there was not any cross-contamination during food preparation.
We’re still new at this and are always looking for new “safe” places to dine out with our children and learning how to best accommodate our particular needs.
What about your family? Do you have any restaurants to add to our food-allergy-friendly list?
Editor’s Note: We are also a food allergy family (tree nuts, sesame, stone fruits) and we do eat at smaller local restaurants. Any restaurant worth eating at will allow you into the kitchen to talk to the chef and discuss ingredients and allergy concerns. We never order dessert and my husband does not eat out of a bread basket as those are the two most common places for cross contamination. Because of his sesame allergy we never eat at any Asian restaurants or open stir-fry or grill-type places because the oils will still be in the pans. We have found that Italian restaurants tend to be the easiest to navigate with nut allergies because there are generally less items on the menu that could contain nuts. While chain restaurants tend to be safer for allergy sufferers, it can still be worth the extra effort to be able to enjoy locally-owned mom and pop establishments.
Little Lake County would always caution you to put your child’s safety first. Make an educated decision when dining out anywhere, weigh the risks involved, and take into consideration your own family’s condition. ~ Melissa