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'Gluten-Free' Restaurants: A Cautionary Tale

It all made sense after that second conversation -- why I had been so sick a few days following that first brunch. I had initially chalked it up to just not feeling well and moved on, but now I knew that I had been glutened.
07/16/2015 11:51am ET | Updated July 16, 2016
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Gluten-free is on the rise! Living in New York, it seems like a new gluten-free restaurant is opening every day. While this is amazing news for gluten-free foodies, very few of these establishments are 100 percent gluten-free. Even though I have celiac disease, this never gave me much pause since many of them maybe offer one or two items that aren't gluten free, and these selections are often made in a separate kitchen or facility. Either way, the staff at many restaurants appear knowledgeable about the risks for diners with celiac disease, and that's a really reassuring thing. The only problem is when you are glutened by a restaurant that claims to be gluten-free. It sounds crazy, but it happened to me.

This restaurant, like so many others, prides itself on its gluten free-offerings. They actually have two locations in New York, one in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan. What made me feel really safe here was how much the staff knew about celiac disease. If you have celiac you know how important this is; it indicates a level of understanding and education that not many restaurants have, and it certainly gave me confidence in their ability to provide safe food without the risk of cross contamination.

The restaurant quickly became a favorite of mine, offering the best gluten-free brunch I've had in the city in the (almost!) three years that I've been gluten-free.

Every time I ate there I was assured the kitchen was safe from cross contamination as their only non-gluten-free menu item, the ravioli, was made in a separate kitchen. I thought I had found an oasis among restaurants! Both of the locations are rustic and quirky, with a charm that is difficult to describe. The first time I had brunch there I was with my boyfriend and two of his friends. It was great to be able to go to a cool restaurant that was still gluten-free. And when it came time to order, the choice was easy: eggs benedict all the way!

When our food arrived, I went and asked the waitress two more times if my dish was gluten-free (a little overzealous I know, but when you have celiac disease it's just something you've got to do). Anyway, she kindly laughed and assured me it was safe, reminding me that the ravioli pasta was the only item I couldn't safely enjoy. After taking a bite of the English muffin I couldn't believe how much it tasted like a "real" English muffin; it was amazing!

But you know what they say: If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

A few months later I ordered the same dish. The waitress, who knew I had celiac disease, said with concern, "The eggs benedict actually isn't gluten-free. I can swap out the muffins for gluten free toast if you want. You haven't had these English muffins here, right?" Much to my dismay I informed her that yes in fact I had. I insisted that they must have been gluten-free at some point, that they must've just recently changed that; I couldn't believe that I would've been deceived about something like that. Much to my disappointment and frustration she replied, "No, these English muffins have never been gluten free."

I couldn't believe it. How could that happen? I had asked the waitress not once but twice if the dish was gluten-free. My health depends on having gluten-free food, and this space was supposed to be safe, they assured me they were safe. It makes me wonder how many other restaurants I can trust, and if they are telling the truth. Of course it could've been an honest mistake, I have worked in a restaurant and I know how busy it gets, but when someone's health is on the line restaurants simply must have the right answer especially if they are going to identify as "gluten-free."

It all made sense after that second conversation -- why I had been so sick a few days following that first brunch. I had initially chalked it up to just not feeling well and moved on, but now I knew that I had been glutened.

While this was certainly not a positive experience, it shaped how I view restaurants that advertise themselves as gluten-free. Thanks to this situation I decided to do something about the lack of gluten-free education in many restaurants and I have founded my own consulting group, focusing on restaurants and grocery stores.

It's important to share this story so that fellow celiacs fully understand the risks. When we dine out we put our health in someone else's hands, and we have to be sure the restaurant is safe. If you have ever had an experience like this, please feel free to share it with me at hannah.crane@nyu.edu. Your experience is important and can help educate the world. Knowledge is power.