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How do you deal with allergies at a restaurant?

I have food allergies. I am lucky in that most of my allergies are not severe. However, I do have one severe allergy (sesame seeds and oil) and wanted to hear how others have handled being a "chowhound" with allergies.

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  1. i've worked in restaurants all my adult life. if you call to make a reservation, tell them to make a note about your allergies. when you get your menus, engage your server and immediately let him know what foods are a problem for you. in any decent place, he should tell the kitchen and double-check with the chef. it's your responsibility to be proactive -- menus don't always list all the ingredients. i can't tell you how many times i've seen orders served, only then to have the guest say, "oh, i'm allergic to xxxx."

    1. Also, if it's a life-or-death allergy (peanut people, I'm looking at you), WEAR YOUR BRACELET. If, for some reason, your trigger food gets served to you and you eat it and start having problems, it will save the waitstaff and the EMTs a lot of time if it's in plain sight.

      1. I talk to the waiter/waitress. Stress that it's a food allergy and not a food preference. Sometimes they're really good about finding out, sometimes they're clueless. The biggest problem w/ a severe allergy is that, if they use that pan to make something with sesame seeds before making your dish, your dish could be fine but you'll get residual. For that reason, I never bring my daughter to Indian restaurants--she has severe cashew allergies and there are cashews in so many dishes. It would be smart to carry an epi-pen, too.

        3 Replies
        1. re: chowser

          I really like your comment: food allergy NOT food preference. Sometimes when I tell the waiter/waitress I feel like Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally. Recently after explaining my allergy I was asked by the manager to leave. They (from what I understand) had many, many things I could have but didn't want to "run the risk." I understand their point of view, but I believe that the risk is my to take. After all, a food allergy shouldn't keep you from exploring new foods!

          Has anyone called ahead and had luck?

          1. re: jennifer810

            I had a very similar experience when I went to Heaven on Seven. I have a strange allergy; green peppers. It's not an intolerance; it's an allergy. I know Cajun cooking so I asked what they have without green peppers. The waiter came back with a very long list from the kitchen and basically said "If you're allergic, why did you come here?". There entire menu was pretty much on the list, even though there were items that did NOT have peppers in them.

            I hunkered down with a Shrimp Po Boy and was sated.....but they kinda rubbed me the wrong way.

            1. re: Dee S

              I've mostly had nice experiences with calling ahead and mentioning allergies as we made the reservation. Some restaurants have offered outstanding service, even putting together dishes not on the menu as all the starter dishes contained something I am allergic to.

              I never frequent very cheap places. Nor sandwich places since I can't really handle sandwiches that have tomatoes in them or sandwiches that are cut with a knife that has had tomato cut with them on a cutting board with tomato previously on it. Almost all give me the reply well, just push the tomato to the side and eat it anyway! Well, if I could I would, dimwit. But it's just plain ignorance.

              With some severe allergies, like my friend depending totally on a peanut-free environment where not even trace amounts can be found on let's say a griddle, a plate, fork or a table, we don't put that kind of strain on a particular chef or restaurant. As Hilltowner said below, it IS asking too much, even is you bring an epi-pen, first you scare the living daylights out of the restaurant and their staff and customers, next yourself and your family and you'll spend an unhappy couple of days in the hospital to recuperate. Due judgement is required, both from the restaurant and from the visitor. An allergy shouldn't prevent you from having a zest for nice food, and it surely hasn't prevented me from becoming a foodie, but as far as handing out laminated folders and demanding a restaurant kitchen scrub down of cross-contamination mid-evening is really pushing it too far.

        2. My mom has a severe allergy to carrots, which she has developed in the past few years. It has landed her in the emergency room a few times, but now that she knows she has gotten very accustomed to mentioning it when she makes a reservation. She simply says, "would you please note that there is a severe food allergy at our table?" The reservationist almost always thanks her for bringing it to their attention ahead of time. A few outstanding restaurants have gone the extra mile to prepare standard sauces without carrots (mire poix or stock is in almost everything) because they had the heads up for service. At other restaurants, she is usually just very, VERY careful about what she orders.

          I will mention an interesting experience I had when working in a restaurant kitchen in NYC. The private dining room had been booked for dinner service and the hostess handed a laminated letter to the manager to take to the kitchen to be read aloud "for leagal purposes." It stated that she had a severe allergy to some food product and insisted that nothing with any possible trace of that food could be brought into the private dining room that evening. This created a terrible ordeal for the kitchen staff and for management--a headache that could have been avoided all together if the patron had simply made the allergy known as far ahead of time as possible.

          1. I have a fairly serious allergy to nuts, secondly comes an allergy to tomatoes. That is much less serious though and usually stops with rashes and itching. I usually call ahead and speak to staff. That way they are prepared and I have seldom encountered a problem. At upscale restaurants they usually work around allergies in a very professional manner.

            With the lady that handed the laminated letter to the hostess of the private dining room. That's asking an awful lot as an allergic person to at the time of ordering ask that not even trace amounts can be brought into the room "for legal reasons" (looking to sue?). In restaurant kitchens it is very difficult to keep the food THAT clean so that not even trace amounts of certain foods can cross-contaminate others. It is not anyones fault and even is the most well kept restaurant kitchen it's just that you can be very careful and things are still airborne so there's no guarantee unless you prepare food in a sterile environment. I have a friend that is that severely allergic to peanuts. We read menus ahead of time and if there's peanuts on the menu we simply cook dinner at home. It's asking too much to have all peanuts, even trace amounts washed out, and I mean rubbed off everything basically.