Chicago is a true melting pot, with tempting food contributed by the city’s many ethnicities. I love the range of restaurants — from cutting-edge restaurants with celebrity chefs to corner cafes with tasty fare. Fortunately, there are an increasing number of gluten-free dining options in Chicago, with more restaurants offering gluten-free menus or otherwise accommodating gluten-free diners.
Everyone has to make their own choices about how safe they feel eating out gluten-free. Personally, I favor restaurants that offer gluten-free menus, as I feel that means the establishment has put thought into its gluten-free options and training its staff on safe handling of gluten-free food. Some restaurants (Maggiano’s comes to mind) don’t offer gluten-free menus but still are very careful about preparing meals that are gluten-free and allergy-free.
Some safe gluten-free and allergy-free dining-out tips:
- When dining out on a special diet, try to avoid peak times. Dine earlier in the evening, when you can more easily get the attention of restaurant staff.
- Before you dine, call the restaurant and ask to speak to a chef or a manager about your gluten-free or allergy-free requests. Review the menu online and ask questions about one or two dishes that you are likely to order.
- At the restaurant, be sure to speak to the chef or manager again, not just your server. Ask questions about menu ingredients, preparation and dedicated equipment to be certain a dish is safe for you.
- If you feel that the staff doesn’t understand your special diet concerns, or if you are served food that looks questionable, don’t hesitate to leave. Pick another restaurant.
- If you’ve had a great experience, make sure to thank the restaurant staff and tip accordingly. It requires a lot of extra work to prepare meals for diners on special diets, so please be sure to thank the staff so they will continue to offer safe gluten-free or allergy-free meals.
I have put together a list of gluten-free restaurants on the “Restaurants” tab on the top of this site. I would love to add your suggestions too. Please feel free to email me at email@example.com or leave a comment with your gluten-free restaurant suggestions.
Foie Gras at Senza
New updates to my Chicago gluten-free dining list:
— Senza, a gourmet gluten-free restaurant that offers truly sensational food, is offering a gluten-free six-course New Year’s Eve dinner for $100 per person, or $175 with wine, including parsnip and apple soup, barramundi, tagliatelle with duck confit, foie gras with caramel corn brulee, lamb loin and coconut pound cake.
— Cassava, which offers gluten-free empanadas and rolls, let me know that they offer free delivery of their frozen empanadas and mini rolls in the Chicago metro area, so they can be baked fresh at home.
Kim & Scott's gluten-free soft pretzel
I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a city where the soft pretzel is a source of civic pride. In Philadelphia, soft pretzels are sold by street vendors. In the rest of the country, pretzels are sold in shopping malls. In Philadelphia, soft pretzels are the shape of a fat figure 8 smushed in at the sides; in the rest of the country, they’re shaped like tidy bows. In Philadelphia, they come in one flavor — plain — and the customer squirts on yellow mustard from a plastic bottle. Elsewhere, pretzels are an abomination in flavors like asiago cheese and cinnamon sugar.
As you might sense, I have strong feelings about soft pretzels. When I go back to Philly, I often try to sneak one. I hold the warm pretzel in a brown paper sleeve and discreetly pull off pieces and put them in my mouth, so my daughter won’t see. That’s because she has celiac and can’t eat Philly pretzels, since they’re not gluten-free.
I was happy to introduce her to a new option: gluten-free soft pretzels from Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels. The Chicago-based company is allergy-aware; they bake all their products in a nut-free facility. Now they’ve added gluten-free pretzels too, made with an ancient-grain gluten-free flour mix. While they are not Philly-style soft pretzels, they’re as close as my daughter is going to get for now. She loved them. Her gluten-eating sister liked them but wasn’t as enthusiastic.
The gluten-free pretzels are available in Kim and Scott’s Cafe Twist in Chicago, plus they are sold frozen in area Whole Foods and other stores. While the pretzels are made in a facility that processes wheat, they say they take precautions to avoid cross-contamination.
I wanted to share some good gluten-free experiences we’ve had recently, with a Harry & David gluten-free gift box, King Arthur gluten-free cake mix, and four restaurants in Chicago: Hub 51, Wilde, Lula Cafe and Nano Sushi.
Harry & David Gluten-Free Goodies
- Harry & David Gluten-Free Hat Box
— The good folks at MB Limited, who help us out with our computers, sent us a Harry & David Gluten-Free Hat Box. It’s always exciting to open a Harry & David gift tower, so it was fun to unwrap the two hat boxes. Imagine our delight when we discovered that the hat boxes were filled with gluten-free brownies and cookies.
The brownies were some of the most scrumptious brownies I’ve ever had — gluten-free or regular. I looked at the ingredients and was surprised to see that they used black bean powder instead of flour. I was also surprised to see the high amount of fat, but let’s not go there (on the positive side, they had high protein). The gluten-free brownies — two fudge brownies, two walnut brownies and two chocolate chunk brownies — were rich and thick and chocolate.
The gluten-free cookie assortment included two macaroons, two chocolate chip cookies, two peanut butter cookies and two mint chocolate cookies. They were quite good, but the brownies were definitely our favorite. I sent Harry & David an email, asking if their gluten-free goodies were made in a dedicated gluten-free area etc., but I did not hear back.
UPDATE 10/29/11: I just found out that Harry & David has discontinued their gluten-free brownies and cookies. Unfortunately, there’s no explanation from them. I’m sad, those brownies were really delicious.
King Arthur gluten-free birthday cake
- Birthday cake made with King Arthur gluten-free chocolate cake mix
— Speaking of rich desserts, it was recently my older daughter’s birthday. Although she does not have celiac and usually orders a bakery cake, she requested that I bake her cake this year. I told her it would have to be a gluten-free cake, as I don’t bake with regular flour any more since flour can remain airborne for a few hours and settle on kitchen appliances and counters.
We had two great gluten-free dining experiences recently. I only wish I had brought my camera.
Last week, relatives were visiting from out of town, and we met them at Mon Ami Gabi, a French bistro in Chicago. We chose Mon Ami Gabi because it’s not far from our home and, since it’s a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant, I felt reasonably confident they could handle a gluten-free request.
Little did I know that Mon Ami Gabi has a full gluten-free menu, with steaks, chicken, salmon and more. The real surprise came when the waiter brought out a gluten-free baguette nestled inside a long paper sleeve. My daughter quickly gobbled up the fresh, warm bread. Though it didn’t have the crispy crust or chewy interior of a real French baguette, my husband declared it the best gluten-free bread he’s ever had.