For those of us who have been dealt a life sentence of gluten-free eating, the demand for more GF options at everyday restaurants is a godsend. The problem? Not all gluten-free options are created equal. For those with a gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease, eating out is almost always a risk. It’s nearly impossible to get a truly, 100% gluten-free meal at a standard restaurant. Because of that harsh reality, it’s important that we know where a restaurant stands on cross-contamination, staff education, and that items labeled as gluten-free will meet a certain standard.
If you read our review of GF options at top fast food chains, you know that it can be a desert out there for GF folks looking for a quick-fix meal for the family. While most of the popular fast food chains (Wendy’s, you get a pass!) failed to deliver, we turned our attention to some of the top family-friendly restaurant chains around the country. We did some digging and rounded up the GF-lowdown for popular restaurant chains around the country. We’re looking for restaurants that aim to do more than simply accommodate your GF diet. We’re highlighting restaurants that demonstrate a genuine commitment to providing those avoiding gluten with great service. Read on to find out which restaurant chains we’re giving a gold star for being gluten-free friendly.
Disclaimer: None of the restaurants listed below can guarantee that your food will be 100% gluten-free. Cross-contamination is a serious risk in any shared kitchen. Always talk to your server first and alert them of your dietary restrictions.
5. Outback Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse
What You Need To Know: A little friendly competition never hurt anyone. Both of these popular steakhouses have dedicated pages on their company websites informing guests about their approach to gluten-free dining. Visit their sites to prep for your visit and expect a well-informed, friendly response to your dietary restrictions while dining.
Outback Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse may be fierce competitors in the market, but they’re in perfect harmony when it comes to GF options. Both assert that they take allergies seriously and offer modifications to menu staples for GF visitors. Expect to have solid GF options across the menu, from appetizers to dessert. It’s worth noting that Outback Steakhouse has a deeper menu when it comes to GF options and they do not limit your seasoning and butter options for your steak entrée. Touché, Outback.
4. Red Lobster
What You Need To Know: Red Lobster takes allergens seriously. The crown jewel of Red Lobster’s response to allergens is their online Allergy Wizard and Interactive Menu. This feature allows you to plan ahead and enjoy your dining experience anxiety-free.
About three years ago, Red Lobster did a major brand overhaul. They redesigned their stores, reimagined their menus, and even experimented with upscale plating and presentation. Along with that revamp came a new investment in serving customers with allergies. What does that mean for you? It means that jumbo shrimp cocktail, bacon-wrapped shrimp, and king crab legs could be for dinner tonight.
3. P.F. Changs
What You Need To Know: P.F. Chang’s has long been committed to providing guests with GF options and modifying their menu to create delicious GF alternatives. They also take care to prevent cross-contamination in their kitchens during prep. P.F. Chang’s is one of the very few restaurants where a GF-eater can enjoy Asian cuisine worry-free.
One of the first things that a GF newbie has to kiss goodbye is Chinese food. Thanks to P.F. Chang’s, mainstream Asian cuisine is once again on the menu. P.F. Chang’s offers reasonably safe, reasonably authentic options for the person craving Egg Drop Soup, fried rice, or street noodles. They go the extra mile by ensuring that their prep process in the kitchen reduces the risk of cross-contamination. We’re grateful to P.F. Chang’s for going the extra mile to give GF folks an answer to that Chinese food craving we all get from time to time.
2. Red Robin
What You Need To Know: Red Robin has earned their stripes by providing gluten-free guests with a separate, GF-only menu (not a corporate binder thick with allergen info!) and a dedicated gluten-free fryer. Bonus: they also carry GF hamburger buns! We know your kids will appreciate that.
We love Red Robin for joining the GF movement before it was cool. For years now, Red Robin has demonstrated true compassion for GF folks by providing clear, informed allergen information and making an effort to modify their menu to create more options than many chain restaurants do. Their gluten-free menu is fairly extensive and thanks to their dedicated GF fryer, you can enjoy bottomless steak fries and their signature seasoning with confidence. Nothing beats ordering a hamburger and fries (with a bun!) among family and friends without blinking an eye.
What You Need To Know: All Chipotle team members are trained on exactly how to respond to a gluten sensitivity. They will change their gloves, get clean utensils, and pull from uncontaminated ingredient containers. They can also point out which options contain gluten and which ones are a safe bet.
We’ve been waiting for the right moment to write our love letter to Chipotle. Over the last few years, Chipotle has invested in training their staff to know all the right moves when a GF person walks in: they wash their hands, change their gloves, and pull ingredients from fresh containers. For a GF family, there’s nothing better than walking into an establishment that knows exactly how to proceed when you say you’re on a strict gluten-free diet. Sit back, relax, and devour that gigantic burrito bowl.
We can’t all take home the gold. Here are the runner-ups in the race to gluten freedom. These chains have made an effort to accommodate gluten-free guests, but still have plenty of room to grow.
Panera Bread. Panera Bread outright discourages those with Celiac Disease from dining at their restaurants. While there are GF options, cross-contamination appears to be inevitable.
Olive Garden. Olive Garden has a small but impressive GF menu and they carry GF pasta. With a kitchen full of bread and noodles, proceed cautiously.
Denny’s. Three cheers for Denny’s in-restaurant menu, which clearly labels items that are gluten-free. But beware: there’s very little information available on cross-contamination during food prep and most equipment is shared.
Applebee’s. Applebee’s publishes a comprehensive list of all allergens on their site and a hard copy is available upon request in restaurants. Expect a lot of modifications that may take some of the fun (and flavor) out of your dish.
Culver’s. Culver’s made news by adding a gluten-free bun to their menu that is warmed and served separately to prevent cross-contamination. That’s a first in the world of fast food burgers, and we hope other companies follow suit.
Noodles & Company. We commend Noodles & Company for their commitment to GF options at the corporate level. They offer gluten-free fusilli noodles and rice noodles, and they have an easy to understand allergen menu. On a store-by-store basis, there’s only so much GF you can do in a kitchen full of noodles.
What’s your favorite restaurant chain for a GF-friendly meal? Want to shout out a great experience with a restaurant we featured? Share your stories and expertise with us in the comments below!