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Etiquette and Tips for Dining with Special Diets

This is part of a series of posts and tools around dining out. Nima has developed infographics on dos and don’ts for dining out with Nima from both the restaurant and the patron point of view, as well as questions people can ask when they dine out with special diets. This post is about our responsibilities and etiquette as patrons when we dine out. We previously shared our hopes & dreams for how we would like to be treated when dining out with a special diet.
  Patron Responsibilities: chefs cooking in a kitchen with tons of blue and orange
When you dine out, there’s a set of accommodations you’d love to have met by restaurant staff. This week, we share a few things you can be doing as part of the experience. You can’t expect any food provider to do all the heavy lifting – you have to do your research, be prepared and do your part, too.

Before you go: be prepared

Research takes time

A word to the wise – when possible, give yourself time for planning ahead. There are definitely times where it just isn’t feasible – work trips, someone else invites you out, or you’re stuck someplace unexpected, but if you have more time and you’re avoiding hangry emotions, you’ll be able to make much better decisions. If you’re going on vacation, start planning a few weeks in advance, providing you with the ability to do research across multiple sources, and giving you an idea of how many snack pack items you’ll need to bring. Even going to a part of town I frequent, I still spent 20 minutes reviewing menus before making a selection.

Research the restaurant or venue

There’s a lot of information out there for different restaurants. Some may have just a simple website without a menu, some may link to a Facebook or Twitter page for ever-changing menu items. As you’re looking for information about a particular venue, make certain to visit the restaurant’s website. Read the menu carefully online. Are there any special labels for gluten-free or other items? How friendly does it feel to you? A website I visited recently said, “We will gladly make anything not listed on the menu provided we have the ingredients.” Maybe it explains carefully that there are no substitutions. Think about the words you worry about — for gluten-free folks it may be words like “crispy” or “fried” on a menu that also contains battered items; for dairy-free folks, words like creamy or rich may raise your curiosity. Does it look like there are other items on the menu that might work? Is there nothing? The menu gives a lot of information up front that can let you know if it will be worth it to step in the door.

See what other people say

We look everywhere to see what reviewers say: the Nima app, blogger travel guides, Yelp, Foursquare, Google, TripAdvisor, HappyCow, local restaurant guides – basically anywhere that might have information on gluten-free, free-from or vegan options. We’ll search through those reviews for better context about what the experience is like. Sometimes places will show up under gluten-free or vegan in Yelp or TripAdvisor, only to read someone saying “there’s no vegan options” or “don’t go here if you’re gluten-free.” It’s important to dig in a little. For more specialized apps, like Happy Cow, the reviews may be more specific.

Contact the restaurant if you have questions

If the menu doesn’t explicitly meet your needs (for example, it’s not 100 percent dedicated gluten-free) or doesn’t expressly say it can accommodate on the menu, but you think they may be able to do so, it’s worth reaching out to the restaurant before you go. Don’t assume that just because you see brussels sprouts on the menu that they aren’t coated or fried in a shared fryer. Review the menu and put together all of your questions. If you have a few days, it can help to email the restaurant (you can often contact restaurants via their Facebook page, which provides an indication of how soon they often respond to people). If you have less time, it’s better to call. In some ways, if you can email, it may be the better way to ensure you can be clear about your dining needs, especially if they are complex. Then there is also a paper trail you can bring with to the restaurant to better explain your previous conversations. You can still follow up with a telephone call as needed. If you do call, try to call earlier in the evening or during an off-time. Don’t expect an immediate answer, especially if you’re asking about menu changes, substitutions or other accommodations. Restaurants who are open to providing services to people with various dietary needs may want a little bit of extra time to research. As always, thank the staff for helping you. By contrast, if you don’t get a great answer or feel uncomfortable after the call, make certain to incorporate this into your overall decisions you make while dining there.

Making a reservation

Not all places need a reservation, and some may just be informal. If they do take reservations, you can also add your dietary needs and those of your fellow guests (for reinforcement) into the reservation form. Based on our experiences, the best restaurants will use this information when they confirm your reservation or when you arrive. You should also think about when you go. It’s much easier for staff to accommodate special diets when it’s not packed on a Friday night. Consider dining out on less popular evenings or at times when the kitchen isn’t quite as busy and they can provide more attention. It isn’t always possible, but when you have the chance, this can help make things run more smoothly.

Pack Nima, snacks & set your expectations

If you’re heading out and may not be a 100 percent certain you’ll be able to eat, pack a snack! Set your expectations to have fun no matter what happens. If you’re meeting friends or spending time with family, focus on enjoying time with them.

At the restaurant: be thorough

When you arrive

Once you arrive, if it is counter service or casual, make certain to ask for any special menus or accommodations you need. If you’re going someplace with a host where you’ve made a reservation, remind them of your special needs when you check in. Ask if there are separate menus for gluten-free or allergen-friendly dining. If you’ve had a phone or email conversation with staff, remind them who you are and what you need.

Ordering

If you’ve already made special arrangements, you should just recap those with the server. If you are planning to order off of the menu, review any dietary needs before placing the order with your server. Always remind staff of your dietary needs. Recently at a dinner, I went to order the green beans when the server let me know that they were covered in a butter sauce, which was not listed on the menu. He was able to alter the dish, but because he knew what I had to avoid, he was able to provide some sound advice. By contrast, recently I didn’t ask about a tomato soup when I was out, only to discover it arrived of mushrooms (to which I’m allergic). My fault for assuming and not asking! For times when you’re not in control, such as a work dinner where you didn’t get the chance to provide any input on venue selection, or last minute decision to eat, you may have to do some digging into the menu. It helps to have a really good food and cooking vocabulary. You’ll need to know that if it’s a soup, it may have started with a roux (flour and butter). The same goes for mac & cheese (chefs may be making a gluten-free mac & cheese with GF pasta but forget their cheese sauce starts with a roux or is topped with a bechamel). If it’s a house-made aioli and you avoid egg, you need to ask for it, no aioli on a plate. Basic knowledge of how dishes are made can provide some extra insight as you order. Either way, clarify and ask questions. For gluten-free specific questions, take a look at Nima’s conversation starters. For people who have to avoid dairy, there are others to consider around what oils foods are fried in, if milk or cheese are in things like salad dressings or if butter is dripping on everything. For people who have to avoid shellfish and fish, shared fryers where fried fish and french fries are prepared may mean some risk. (We love Raglan Road at Disney Springs, which has multiple separate fryers for gluten-free and shellfish-free patrons.) You have to listen, too – if a server explains that it isn’t possible to have a dish prepared to your needs, don’t push it. If a server points you in a different direction, ask them why. In Philadelphia earlier this year, a server took the time to explain why a dish couldn’t be prepared without a specific ingredient, making it easier to make other decisions. Great servers talk to the kitchen and have a good sense of what’s possible. If they don’t think they can pull it off, believe them. Don’t be too intimidated if the chef offers to come out and speak to you. She is likely focused on doing her job well and making certain you are entirely satisfied. You can also ask (politely) to speak to the chef. You may have to be patient and wait a short while, especially on a busy night, but it may help to convey your needs better.

Before the first bite

How confident did you feel based on your conversation? Did you ask when they brought your dish out if this was the gluten-free/dairy-free/nut-free version? Some restaurants will indicate with a flag or popsicle stick that it’s an “allergy-free” meal. If you feel uncomfortable at any time, it’s best to trust your gut. If you’re testing with Nima, be prepared to wait a few minutes so you can confirm your gluten-free (and later this year, peanut-free) meal. It is your responsibility to follow up with staff, too. If you get a gluten-found result with Nima, talk to staff. We’ve put together some conversational guidelines, and you’re helping everyone when you share your experiences. If you feel uncomfortable eating, then don’t eat. If you can’t eat, then bring out your snack pack.

After the meal

Share your experience

If the staff did a great job, don’t just tip well, but also let them know. Better yet, ask to speak with a manager about the experience and let them know how good it was. If the experience was lacking and you felt that it could have been improved, have some specific examples and ask to speak to a manager. Be polite, but explain the situation so that the manager understands what you expected and what happened. You can also contact the restaurant via email if the staff in-house aren’t gracious with feedback. We’ve had good conversations with regional managers (if it’s a chain) via email and phone after dining experiences to get into the nitty gritty of good or bad experiences. If you have Nima, please sync and share your results in the app, so that others can benefit from your experience, too! Every review adds to the Nima score for a restaurant, making a more representative picture of a restaurant, and tips in your reviews can help guide future ordering by others like you.
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