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How to handle a reaction to food allergies at a restaurant?

Hello everyone. My date and I went to dinner this past Friday night at a really hot, new restaurant in Los Angeles. I had been looking forward to the meal for quite sometime, so I had high hopes for the meal.

Everything went well up to the dessert course. I am allergic to all nuts except for peanuts, so I tend to be particularly wary of desserts. That night I ordered a dessert that was listed as a dark chocolate and caramel cake with vanilla. There was no mention of any nuts being in the dessert whatsoever, although other menu items did mention the presence of such nuts as pistachios, hazelnuts, etc. Also, I fully admit that I did not ask beforehand whether or not the cake had nuts since I assumed that the cake contained no nuts since there was no mention of it.

After I received the cake, I enjoyed it until I started to feel a strange sensation on my tongue and in my throat. I immediately recognized that I was having an allergic reaction to something that I had eaten. When the server returned to our table, I asked her whether the dish contained any nuts. She replied, no, but that she would go to the kitchen and check. When she returned, she said that was surprised to learn that the cake contained hazelnuts in the garnish. I told the server know that I was having an allergic reaction and that the menu did not mention the presence of nuts in the dish. She apologized. After that, I asked for the check and left a 15% tip. Thankfully, I didn't need to go to the hospital afterwards, but I ended up cutting the evening short.

With all of that mind, what should I do now? My date suggested that I should call the restaurant and let them know what happened. I was thinking of sending an email to the management to voice my displeasure and to let them know that servers should mention that that particular item contains nuts. But on the other hand, I have to admit that I left the restaurant unhappy and have no desire to return. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated...

P.S.--The meal that we had was part of Restaurant Week, so the cost of the dessert was already included as part of the pre fixe meal. That evening, I thought to have the dessert comped, but I realized that the offending dessert was not paid for a la carte.

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  1. I have to say that tipping 15% during RW is particularly bad in form. The price of the meal is already discounted, therefore, tips are juts going to suck all week. I'm at a loss as to why you woud penalize the server when she/he is not a mind reader, nor responsble for your decision to order dessert (which to your admission, you are wary of) and not inquire as to whether it had nuts.
    The solution was a simple question, which you didn't ask.
    I do think, however, that nuts should be mentioned on the menu whenever they are used.

    1. I think that you should let them know that they should mention the fact that there are nuts used in the garnish for the safety of future customers that have nut allergies. Even when you purchase food in the grocery store there are disclaimers on the bags that say "was produced in a plant that also processes nuts" or something along those lines. A restaurant should be just as responsible. I do not think it is the servers fault, though. How could she have known? Oh, and you really need to get an Epi-Pen!

      1. It's your responsibility to manage your own allergy. I have a bad (not allergic) reaction to peppers, and I've learned to ask. If I forget to ask, I have been unpleasantly surprised when the food shows up even though no peppers were listed in the description. But I own that error since I didn't ask. I'd never have thought to penalize the server for my forgetting to ask. Especially during Restaurant Week, when the meal is already priced low and the server's tip is low.

        I'd suggest you send the correct tip to the restaurant and ask them to be sure it goes to your server.

        Other than that, I'm not sure what else the restaurant could have done to make you happy. We can't expect chefs to not use certain ingredients because of allergies. I wouldn't expect a server to always mention nuts every time every diner orders a dish with nuts. in fact, I'd be annoyed by that happening. Should the server also mention when a dish contains eggs, milk, wheat (also common allergens)? I'd find such a recitation a real distraction from the fine dining experience. While I can see an argument for asking restaurants to list all items in descriptions, it's usually not practical and again, are they going to mention every ingredient that goes into a dish? It would make for some really ugly menus, as well as giving away some of the chef's secrets.

        If you think it would make you feel better to call/email the management to let them know, then go for it, but I wouldn't feel a restaurant was under any obligation to you to make it up to you.

        14 Replies
        1. re: Chris VR

          All--thanks for the comments.

          And I know that I'm about to get flamed for this, but out of all of the things to take issue with from my post, the amount of my tip is most jarring? Moreover, I am surprised that someone would actually suggest that I send the restaurant an additional, what, 3-5% tip?...Really? Wow. But, hey, clearly YMMV.

          Lastly, I typically manage my allergy faithfully, so this type of experience has not happened to me in over 10 years. With that said, I recognize that I should asked the server about the presence of nuts in the dish (as I mentioned in my original post.) My disappointment with the server lies in the fact that she didn't offer any sort of solution to my situation beyond a simple apology. If I were in her shoes, I would have asked if there's anything that I could do, offer the customer to speak to the manager, etc. But again, YMMV...

          1. re: newtoLA06

            Not meaning to be snarky, but I'm curious as to know what "solution" would have appeased you. The waitress did apologize for what had happened. If she offered to have you speak with the manager, is there something that the manager could have done to make the situation better? Or did you just want to be asked?

            As someone with a life-threatening allergy, I do think the onus is on the customer to ask and notify the waitstaff. I'm sure it's probably a pain in the ass to do this all the time. But even if something looks like there won't be any nuts in it, there's possibility of cross-contamination, use of nut oils, an ingredient they use may be processed in a facility that processes nuts, etc. It's not always so obvious.

            And, lastly, I agree with the other posters who say to carry an Epi-Pen.

            1. re: newtoLA06

              Glad you are a conscientious diner most of the time. In defense of the server:
              1. She may have been new and never dealt with an allergic reaction before (perhaps she didn't know how best to handle a situation such as this. Its amazing what people are incapable of unless specifically trained in the skill.

              2. It sounds (reads) like your reaction was relatively minor. You make no mention of your face swelling up, hives, or use of any device to counteract the toxins you ingested. Because of this, the server may have taken this situation less seriously. Not that you would, but she may have even considered the fact that you were faking in an attempt to get a free dessert.

              3. You mention RW, perhaps she was overworked and underpaid that week and was simply too exhausted to think it through and respond accordingly (not an excuse, only a possible explanation).

              1. re: newtoLA06

                Actually, what I suggested is that you send the correct tip. And I understand that's a subjective issue that's been hashed to hell and back on this board, but if you take a look at this post http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5906..., that's what I personally believe the correct tip ought to have been. If you ate 2 meals that night that normally would be $40 pp (assuming $10 app, $20 main, $10 dessert) and you got it for $20pp because of a special promotion, and you tipped 15% of that, you're tipping $6. IMO the tip ought to have been $16. (20% of the $80) YMMV of course, but if you felt that 3-5% more isn't a big deal, why didn't you just tip it in the first place? I assumed because you raised the 15% number in your post that you were implying that was your way of showing your displeasure with the waitress, and you normally would have tipped higher, so I thought you were also soliciting input on your decision to penalize the waitress for this situation.

                I also wonder why people (and please don't take this personally because I see his a lot here) get upset because a restaurant employee didn't read their mind. If you felt the restaurant ought to have done more, and it wasn't offered, why not ask about that when the check came "Excuse me miss, I couldn't eat the dessert, as you know, because of my allergy. Is there a chance I could have a credit for the amount of the dessert?" Or even better, after she apologized when she found out it had nuts, why not say "Hey, these things happen... is there perhaps another dessert I could have in its place?"

                I do understand not wanting to make a scene at a restaurant, but either of those actions wouldn't have been out of place, and would have most likely led to you leaving the restaurant in a good mood instead of feeling the displeasure you feel now. Again, YMMV but I have a hard time understanding why some patrons don't take more of an active role in ensuring their happiness in a restaurant situation. It's certainly a recurring theme on this board, and it stumps me.

                1. re: Chris VR

                  Chris, thanks for your response. Just a quick point of clarification...

                  In terms of the Restaurant Week promotion at this restaurant, the cost of the meal was hardly a major discount. In particular, the cost of the meal was $44 per person, which is roughly equivalent to the a la carte cost at this restaurant. And, yes, I highlighted the 15% in my original post to signal my relative displeasure with the server. However, my point was that I still gave her a fair tip (IMO) instead of stiffing her with a 10% or lower tip (as some people may have done.) YMMV, of course...

                  In terms of your other point, I agree that a server is not a mind reader. However, I do feel that there are different levels of service that one can expect at a restaurant. As such, I expected the server's level of response at this establishment to be much more attentive than a server at, say, Denny's or IHOP. Furthermore, I was already on a date and suffering from the effects of an allergic reaction, so I wasn't really in a position to request another dessert. My top priority was getting home as soon as possible. But I understand and appreciate your perspective.

                  1. re: newtoLA06

                    Understood- you needed to get this night over with. I hope you do start to carry an EpiPen. From what I've been told about nut allergies, the more you're exposed to nuts, the more allergic you get, so the next time it could be worse. Don't take chances!

                  2. re: Chris VR

                    >>Actually, what I suggested is that you send the correct tip. And I understand that's a subjective issue that's been hashed to hell and back on this board, but if you take a look at this post http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/5906... that's what I personally believe the correct tip ought to have been. If you ate 2 meals that night that normally would be $40 pp (assuming $10 app, $20 main, $10 dessert) and you got it for $20pp because of a special promotion, and you tipped 15% of that, you're tipping $6. IMO the tip ought to have been $16. (20% of the $80) YMMV of course, but if you felt that 3-5% more isn't a big deal, why didn't you just tip it in the first place? I assumed because you raised the 15% number in your post that you were implying that was your way of showing your displeasure with the waitress, and you normally would have tipped higher, so I thought you were also soliciting input on your decision to penalize the waitress for this situation.>>

                    FInding the relevant point in that thread (which was started by an angry server who made all kinds of weird assumptions) was like looking for a needle in a haystack. So yeah, maybe one person said you should find out the usual cost of the meal and tip based on that? Thing is about restaurant week, the amount of the "discount" usually isn't that clear. It's not a two-for-one or something. The meal is usually different from the regular menu and so are the portions. Sure, it's nice to throw in a bit extra if you feel you got a good deal-- especially to offset some lousy tips they are bound to get that night-- but it is far from straighforward in such a way that you could arrive at the "correct" tip. Also, I am a 20% tipper but the idea that 15% is not right is silly; as you yourself say, it is subjective.

                    This is not to say the server deserved to be punished in this situation; it was totally not their fault.

                  3. re: newtoLA06

                    " I typically manage my allergy faithfully" and "she didn't offer any sort of solution to my situation beyond a simple apology".

                    What were you looking for? An ambulance, nope did not go to the hospital; a comped dessert (oops you already were looking for upside to YOUR mistake)?

                    And your allergic reaction was so insignificant that you do not mention that you ate some benedryl (jfood has taken 6 at one time when he screwed up and returned to the table for dessert), did not go to the hospital, or do anything else. Jfood to believes you were so upset you and your date went separate ways for the evening. Maybe that's what is bothering you the most of all.

                    You blamed the waitress for your mis-step as seen in the tip and now are totally glib about trying to correct it. And BTW, during restaurant week, normal people leave more that 15% of a discounted meal price, that's another thing you can learn from this thread.

                    1. re: newtoLA06

                      This is completely off-topic, but what does YMMV mean?

                        1. re: Chris VR

                          Thanks. Another way of saying, "To each his own," right?

                          1. re: Deenso

                            no -- it's more like saying "your experience in the matter may be different than what others have experienced".

                            1. re: karmalaw

                              Gotcha. Very subtle! Thanks. I'll be adding it to my vocabulary.

                    2. First of all, I am glad you are okay! I would have had to jam my epi-pen into my thigh. You're lucky, I am jealous :) Regardless of your personal feelings towards the restaurant, on behalf of allergy suffers *everywhere* I implore you to contact the restaurant so they can modify all food items on their menu accordingly. Again, while I am delighted your health in intact, I cannot believe you don't ask about just about everything you put into your mouth. Perhaps this is a function of your actual sensitivity. I have simply made it a habit to ask about everything I do not see from origin to fruition. While your salad may not contain nuts, you can never be sure the tongs used to toss it didn't previously remove the macadamia nut encrusted halibut from the skillet. And your SO's fries just may have been cooked in peanut oil. You can never be too cautious! Once again, I'm glad you are okay, but must stress that the best practice is, indeed to always ask...always!

                      1. It's unreasonable to expect a menu to be a fully-disclosed ingredient list -- and as you said "I fully admit that I did not ask beforehand whether or not the cake had nuts since I assumed that the cake contained no nuts since there was no mention of it.". Assumptions almost always bring trouble or problems and this scenario is no exception.

                        I have to maintain a gluten-free diet -- and it's my job to make sure that there are no gluten-free ingredients in something I order -- not the chef's job during a busy service to go read the bottles on anything that might have been used in preparation (i.e. I make it clear that I can't have soy sauce because it contains wheat). If I'm not specific and I get food with gluten - then it's my fault -- I wish, but do not expect a menu to divulge that flour was used in a roux that was used in preparation of a dish -- what I do expect is, if I ask, to get an answer of whether a roux was used.

                        The garnish isn't a hidden item - and presumably you should know to look at the garnish closely and not assume something isn't nuts if it looks like it might be nuts.

                        While I'm sorry it happened to you, I do not believe the restaurant owes you anything because of your failure to disclose your very specific needs.