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Oct 8, 2009 09:43 PM

Hounds with allergies, question for you...

Have you ever been refused a meal at a restaurant because you have a food allergy? I had an interesting experience this evening. My mom made a res at a restaurant for my birthday. We had a lovely meal, but noticed the service was a little odd from the get go. She told me that when she'd initially called she told them I had a peanut allergy. They were reluctant to serve me, and cited insurance reasons. She talked with the chef who said the only peanut in the restaurant at the time was peanut oil, and she assured him that my allergist approved foods fried in peanut oil. So, he allowed the reservation.

I was a little surprised at how gingerly or nervously everyone from the hostess to the chef and our server treated us, and when we left, I realized why. There was a message on Mom's voice mail, left a couple hours before the 6 pm res from someone other than the chef at the restaurant. I'm not sure what relation she is to the chef and owner, to be honest. Basically, she was trying to cancel the res at the last minute, saying they wouldn't serve me for liability reasons.

Does anyone with allergies have thoughts on this experience? I was taken aback. We had a great meal despite the awkward, nervous moments, but I don't think I'd go back after this. I don't want to scare anyone off this place, so I won't name it. I just want to discuss the more general topic, rather than dissecting the finer points of liability law or whether allergies are real. I know it's a difficult subject for chefs, but this last minute attempt at cancellation did take me by surprise. I'm a little glad she didn't check the voice mail earlier! Have you ever been treated like you were made of explosive material because of a food allergy? Lost a res last minute or when you asked questions about the menu?

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  1. Short answer - no. Wife cannot do bi-valves, and I always call, especially if we plan on a chef's tasting, or similar. I'm also beginning to believe that restaurants around the globe might not share info, as we can walk into a place in the UK, that we've never dined before, and they'll say, "we understand that you cannot do bi-valves. We've told chef, and he's/she's got a treat for you." Just flat blows me away sometimes.

    I have yet to encounter any restaurant that would not accommodate her food allergies, especially with some sort of notice.

    Sorry to hear about your experinces.


    1. Well, the peanut allergy has gotten a lot of press, and I can understand why some might shy away. There have been instances of folk wishing to sue restaurants that served peanuts, because their child walked past the al fresco seating, but across the street, and suffered. It seems to be rich fodder for law suits, however far the stretch. Living in a law suit-happy society, I cannot say that I blame a restauranteur.

      Still, as per my other post, we've never had an issue, and I always try to confide the one issue (with us) for the meal. They always make good and she usually gets a much larger portion of some courses, than do I.

      In a heavily litigious society, one has to be on their toes, all of the time.


      2 Replies
      1. re: Bill Hunt

        Yeah, Hunt, this is part of why I've decided not to go back. I didn't want to make my post any longer, but this is a locally/chef owned place and if he's that nervous, I just don't want to freak him and his staff out again! I'm not a litigious person, and I take responsibility for my health, but he doesn't know me from Eve, to coin a phrase. I just felt so yucky, it being my birthday, wanting to really enjoy the meal, and discovering after that Uh, oh, even though we checked beforehand, they were still having a problem with my special need! I don't want him to lose his restaurant, either, but he seemed so anxious I just wouldn't put him (or my dining companions) through that again, even for his wonderful food.

        1. re: amyzan

          Sorry that it came down to this, especially on your birthday - bummer!

          We just got back from London, and I had forgotten to mention my wife's bi-valve thing, especially at one restaurant, where we intended to do the chef's tasting. My bad! In both cases, they had her in their dossier, and knew. They had made arrangements, especially with the chef's tasting spot. Now, we had dined there before, and I had done my preliminary work better on those instances. There were no problems and the sommelier was ready at both to change gears a bit, to accommodate her different courses, from mine. [BTW - I got to taste here "non-scallop" dishes, but she could not taste mine... ]

          I'm sorry for your cited incident. On one hand, I guess that I can understand the fear of a restauranteur, regarding food allergies. Still, it can cramp an otherwise lovely evening.


      2. Jfood with a nut allergy. When he makes a reservation on OpenTable he always places this in the comments section. ANd when the server arrives he also reminds him/her. Yet it is frightening to see how absolutely inattentive or just plain stupid certain restaurants are. Jfood has received butternut squash soup that has pistachios on top, cake with nuts as a garnishment, as well as an amuse bouche surrounded by cashews. And he wishes he had $1 for every time the server has said, "Oh it is just a garnishment." Newsflash, noone told the histimines in jfood's bloodstream.

        On the positive side >90% of the time the server is aware of it, or they will say, "let me check with the chef," or some other comforting words. And a few times they have told jfood that there may be a trace and they recommend something else.

        Bottom line is that each person with an allergy needs to have their own diligence.

        And by the way, as jfood has stated before, grabbing an epi-pen and shoving it in his leg as his face starts turning red is not good for the jfood, other patrons and the bill/tip.

        17 Replies
        1. re: jfood

          Yeah, I would love it if servers might view my specialness as a potential for a bigger tip, but no, most of the time I'm just a PITA. I reward good service, but I suppose there are diners who don't after asking for a little extra help.

          1. re: amyzan

            So are you saying this is a common experience for you?

            1. re: c oliver

              No, many servers are gracious despite my special needs, and I tip accordingly. But there are umpteen little ways servers communicate (mostly with body language) that I'm a PITA. I'd bet you know what I'm talking about, c oliver.

                1. re: c oliver

                  Sighing, looking away or above my head instead of continuing eye contact, shrugging shoulders, talking to other diners about me instead of talking to me, those are the behaviors, c oliver, since you press the point.

                  1. re: amyzan

                    *I* never pressed any such point. And, in my 62 years, have never had such treatment. When I've had any issues to deal with, I've always been dealt with appropriately.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      Okay, I see that you live in NorCal, so I shouldn't have made the assumption we have similar experiences. I live in the Midwest, and people here have less formal norms of behavior, excepting in fine dining where there is more training and/or experience. I generally find that when I'm polite about special needs, the server follows suit. There have been notable exceptions, however, and we don't usually return to those restaurants unless we find another server with whom we are simpatico.

                      1. re: amyzan

                        I spent my first 30 years in Atlanta with a VERY proper mother :) I've also enjoyed reading some of Bill Hunt's ways of dealing with slipups on the part of servers. Wine-related but universal. Dealing with issues as quickly as they arise and in a quiet and polite way is the gist of it.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          Yeah, I think part of my problem is higher expectations than the usual diner has here. I grew up in central Kentucky, where there was more emphasis on manners. I'm just not as accustomed to the Midwestern informality, which has its charms unless there are conflicts to resolve. Its humiliating to have servers sigh, raise their voices, stalk off, or treat our table in otherwise conspicuous ways, just because we asked for a little extra service or communication with the kitchen.

                          I'll look up Bill Hunt; thanks!

                          1. re: amyzan

                            I've lived in the midwest for 30 years, and have only once encountered the boorish behavior you describe on the part of a server. I reported to the MOD and never saw that server again.

                            1. re: pikawicca

                              I believe that if you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem.

                          2. re: c oliver

                            With the fewest of exceptions, a sign and a whisper goes a very long way. If it does not, then the ladies and gentlemen should leave the table and discuss the issue in private, out of earhshot of the guests, and of other diners. I have never had to escalate things beyond this point, and hope that I never do.


            2. re: jfood

              Honestly tho, jfood, has jfood considered himself lucky it's only 10% that he encounters the stupidity? It also might be a simple case of ignorance where the staff has not been trained to deal with these situations correctly. It's kind of hard for the point to hit home when you are oblivious to what could happen if a highly allergic person comes in contact with a nut. I have an in-law who weillneed the stick, and then have to be rushed to an emergency room if they come in contact with any tree nuts in their food. Some servers might think that "ok, so if there's no nuts sprinkled on top of the salad, or cake, or whathaveyou, then everything's ok" Until walnut oil is used as a flavoring, or almond extract is used, or an Indian dish with ground nuts is not revealed." I'd sugeest, when going to a new joint (not to jfood, but to anyone with a nut allergy) to speak with the server about what will happen to your body if you encounter a nut, even if it is not overtly displayed on top of the food. The server can then relay this to the cooks pretty quickly, just to make sure that anything you order doesn't have any hidden nuts in any of the sauces, etc. I've seen it happen a few times where this in law will non-chalantly ask the server to make sure there are no nuts in any of the food they order, and then 5 minutes after the salad, we're on our way to the hospital because of undiscolsed walnut oil in the vinaigrette, or almond flavoring in a cake that you'd never expect. Until I actually SAW it firsthand, I had no idea it could be so bad. Just a thought. REALLY stress this issue with the restaurant.

              1. re: gordeaux

                Thanks G. Fortunately for jfood the nut allergy is not life threatening. In fact he is halfway through some tests that may eliminate some of the nuts from his allergy list.

                1. re: gordeaux

                  Unfortunately, if this person's allergies are so severe that a slip-up proves life threatening, restaurants are probably not for him/her. I grew up with a brother who couldn't eat eggs, chicken, milk, chocolate, spinach, nuts, wheat -- the list goes on. He would get a severe asthma attack within a few minutes of swallowing the offending food. We used to bring food with us when we couldn't be sure of controlling the exposure, just for him. Yes, it sucks to have these allergies, but you can't control what goes on in a restaurant kitchen, so you either have to learn to order plainly prepared food with all dressings on the side, or risk getting really, really sick. The responsibility is yours, not the restaurant's. If I sound unsympathetic, it is because I have a hard time comprehending your surprise that the restaurant employees don't understand your needs. It is a miracle that they understand anything.

                  If your child were diabetic, you would be in the habit of bringing your own condiments, etc. to a restaurant. This is really no different if your allergies are so severe that you will find yourself in a hospital because someone put walnut oil in the salad dressing. You need to carry those little packets that are labeled. Life is not fair, but you can't really expect servers to comprehend this. Maybe the chef, but that's about it.

                2. re: jfood

                  My husband has a cheese allergy, and we always inform the restaurant at the time of the reservation. Unfortunately, we often have the "it's just a garnish" problem, even though I have made it clear that this isn't a lactose intolerance, but a swell up/stop breathing problem. A little garnish of parmesan is enough to send him to the ER after using his epipen. Unlike Amyzan's expertience, we've had more problems with servers and chefs being not cautious enough. Sometimes I think the problem is that a lot of people have pseudo allergies (ie "my nose gets stuffy if I drink milk") which then makes servers not take the life threatening allergies as seriously.

                3. i have an nut allergy similar to jfood, and have never had a problem like this. A couple times I've had some clueless or inattentive server bring me something with a nut "garnish" but they are generally very nice about taking it back and replacing with one w/o the garnish. I would not go back either, if it made them that nervous. what a bummer for your birthday!

                  1. While not an allergy, my wife is restricted from any kind of alcohol. She has non-alcoholic liver disease. We've gotten some very strange looks, mostly from young servers, when we asked if a dish is cooked with wine. If we have the opportunity to speak with the chef, there's never a problem. The other issue with this is, since we're always trying new recipes, finding a way to eliminate the alcohol without destroying the taste of a new dish.

                    4 Replies
                    1. re: bucksguy14

                      Juju -- with respect to getting a replacement dish -- I would have them leave the "garnished" dish and bring another. non-garnished one, to be sure that the replacement isn't just the original dish with the garnish removed. I've seen this happen and was shocked. The near "victim" was my nephew with a serious tree-nut allergy and his mother spotted the same piece of pie when it came back out of the kitchen.

                      1. re: Cheflambo

                        i never thought of that! thanks for the tip.

                          1. re: jfood

                            clearly not enough people are familiar with the concept of cross contamination! ugh!