Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Vetting the Gluten-Free Restaurant
I had one of those disheartening GF dining experiences this weekend while in Las Vegas with Randy and our friends Paula and Bob. We planned to meet them in Vegas early this summer, to treat Bob in celebration of his graduation from law school. It was also their 30th wedding anniversary, so we had a lot to celebrate. The room was on me, and the celebration dinner was on Randy. We were so excited to see them.
But we got sidetracked on the topic of a gluten-free menu at the party restaurant of choice.
It leads me to this question: What criteria do you use when you "clear" a restaurant for dining? In political party convention terms, how do you vet a restaurant?
I use a three-tier process to make my decisions. First, and always, I consult others on the gluten-free diet for suggestions. I was just in Las Vegas, where I'd been before. I already had some names and some good suggestions from our last trip.
Second, I look for the TNT -- tried and true -- gluten free places. I know there's a dedicated GF menu at PF Changs, Outback, Maggiano's, Bone Fish, Chick Fil A, even to some extent at McDonalds.
But sometimes, in the case of special occasion or curiosity, I try to find safe food other places. Here is how I "vet" a restaurant before I make a reservation.
I am a member of a restaurant reservation system called Open Table, where I log in and make online reservations. Open Table doesn't always list GF menus, but it is a convenient place to find restaurants and their information -- it makes it easy to look at menus quickly and make decisions.
I always make phone calls to restaurants that I plan to dine at out of town. ALWAYS. I ask to speak to a manager and ask if the restaurant can accommodate someone with food allergies, specifically gluten intolerance.
I am not an inconsiderate diner, folks. I am if anything kind and generous to places that work things out for me. So if they say no, then I thank them politely and take my business elsewhere. Take Bobby Flay, for instance -- love him as a chef, but he has no desire to accommodate anyone with a food allergy. On his web page he takes questions, and it's clear from his answers he's pretty clueless about GF meals. I don't get mad, I just don't go.
But I had a first experience Saturday at a place called rumjungle at Mandalay Bay that left me angry and defensive.
If you're gluten free, don't waste your time. They really don't want you there.
Here's my saga:
Last Tuesday, I called rumJungle, which I'd found on Open Table, and asked my usual questions. The manager on call (whoever it was -- I wish I'd written down her name -- said, "Sure. We can handle anything." I asked more pointedly if that included their fire-pit dinners (it's a Brazilian steak house with the swords and fire and all). She said, "Absolutely."
So far, so good. I was excited. Randy was even going to make a rare exception and go off his diet for this! (And trust me, he stuck to it the rest of the trip!)
When we checked in at rumjungle, the hostess greeted us and said the server would bring us my gluten free menu suggestions. They were sweet, warm, and welcoming at the desk. And the place, it looked incredibly fun.
A young, grossly inexperienced server came to the table and admitted she didn't really know what gluten was, but she announced there was no GF menu, that she'd talked to the chef, and he suggested I get a plain steak or salmon. I should not order any of the toppings or butters for the meats, and the fire pit was out of the question, except for salmon and turkey.
But, I protested, I was told there was "no problem." Well, she said, there's not, as long as I didn't want to participate in the specialties of the house.
Nope. No menu. Only suggestion? Plain steak or salmon. Plain sides. I'm sorry, but I was told I could participate in the Fire Pit meals. I wanted the fun to begin as promised by the manager I spoke to on the phone!
Bob and Paula, being the friends they are, said, "Let's leave." Randy said so too. But it was 8 p.m. on a Saturday night in Las Freaking Vegas, and I wasn't giving up. I asked for the manager. This had to be a mistake.
I proceeded to have a discussion (almost an argument) with one of the most patronizing, arrogant managers ("one of them, he said") I've ever met. He kept saying there was nothing safe. I was trying to point out that I understood that, but because of one of his staff's comments, I planned an entire celebration around a menu of food that I could not eat. He basically repeated what Sally Server said. Plain steak. Salmon. None of the sides were safe. The meat in the fire pit -- not safe. The worst part was he kept trying to tell me WHY it wasn't safe. I wanted him to explain why I'd been told it WAS safe. We were fighting at cross purposes.
I implored him one more time...are you sure? I mean, the person I talked to on the phone was so certain. He asked me if I had her name. Well, that to me implied that he thought I was making this all up. At least, that was what I inferred from his tone.
I was livid. I gave in to my friends, and we got up and left. Before I left, I told the manager he should train his staff better. We were misled, and that person basically RUINED plans that had been in the works for a long time. And I said one more thing:
I don't want to force my allergies on you, but you should not lead people to believe that you can work with them when in fact, you cannot. I would have preferred you tell me to go elsewhere than get my hopes up and embarrass me in front of my friends and family. That is just rude.
And he said, I swear to you, he said NOTHING. He just walked away.
Someone was looking out for us (add that to the fact that business is down in Vegas right now). I called Nobhill,Michael Mina's exquisite restaurant at the MGM Grand, where we dined last year. They had a table for us. We had a delicious meal, and I was treated like the gluten-free queen. At no point was I excluded from the meal. I was treated politely and with great care. It was amazing. I have always recommended them on the Celiac Listserv, and they continue to have my admiration and support.
Wish we'd gone there first. Glad we went there in the end.
So perhaps this is a warning for you GF diners out there. When you phone a place to see if it can accommodate your GF needs,
check twice. But don't get your hopes up.
It's a jungle out there.
Some places I can add to the good list in Las Vegas:
The restaurant at Ellis Island (prime rib)
The buffet at the Monte Carlo (the chef accompanied me around and even had them cook me a steak on the clean grill).