Today’s post brings my next gluten-free eating out guide, with some tips and recommendations for getting a coeliac-friendly snack when out and about on the UK high street! When I say ‘gluten-free chains’, I don’t mean coffee shops that are ENTIRELY gluten free, but rather chains that offer something for people eating a gluten-free diet. If there was an entirely gluten-free chain of cafés, I would be singing its praises, but it’s yet to be, I’m afraid.
I’ll tell you straight off the bat, the, ahem, ‘research’ for this article was rather fun to do. I am something of a cake‘n’coffee fiend, and essentially can’t wait to be at that point in my life where I can just retire and spend my days trundling down to local cafés with Greg while only doing 30mph in a 60 zone. I’m serious. That’s the dream. Consequently, the idea of doing a post about where I like to get gluten-free cake and coffee was just, yeah, thrilling. And I’m only being around… 5% sarcastic there. It’s very low-level sarcasm and mostly a completely accurate description of how I feel about cake and coffee, and its centrality to my world view.
For the purposes of general interest and also practicality, I’m limiting myself to high-street coffee-shop and café chains for this article (although I am planning on doing some local gluten-free eating out guides very soon!). While it’s always nice to track down that little local establishment that goes the extra mile, it’s not always or even often practical when you’re on the go or have a busy day, and I often find myself heading for a popular coffee shop chain just for ease and for the knowledge that I will definitely be able to get something to eat, should I need it! So these are the places that I’d recommend nipping for a cuppa and a slice of cake with a friend, or for grabbing a quick lunch when you’re out shopping or travelling, etc. There’s a mixture of coffee shops and cafés proper on this list; my criterion for inclusion is basically any establishment that appears regularly on the UK high street that will serve you a hot drink and a sandwich/cake without being a full-on restaurant.
I’ve noted the particular strengths of each (e.g., good sandwiches or dessert or hot chocolate, etc.) and written a little bit about why I love each one, both in terms of their gluten-free offerings and in the non-coeliac terms of their general atmosphere, etc.!
Boston Tea Party
This is a fun, casual establishment – maybe slightly hipster in tone, but in the friendliest possible way, and I like how every café you go to has its own distinct personality, despite it being a chain. It’s very popular with students and families alike, and it does get very crowded at busier times – something to bear in mind. In terms of the menu, they’re big on breakfast/brunchy foods – avocado served in every way imaginable, pancakes, eggs – and good coffee. Notably, it’s also the only café on this list to offer gluten-free bread; having said that, Patisserie Valerie is the only other café on the list where food is cooked to order and the others are more aptly described as being coffee shops or houses. So perhaps it’s an unfair point of comparison, but nevertheless there are many of them throughout the southwest and they’re a café making substantial efforts to get it right on gluten free, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t be top of this list and why other, bigger café chains couldn’t emulate them in getting a gluten-free roll or bread in to go with soup or to make up a sandwich.
Drinks: They do nice but unusual coffee – the picture below is their version of a cappuccino. It’s maybe an acquired taste, IMO. Their range of fruit smoothies is ah-mazing – I’ve had the raspberry and mango a couple of times, which is lovely, and they also once made it for me with banana when they were out of mango. Also top notch!
Savoury: An amazing breakfast menu. They stock Hobbs House gluten-free bread (a staple of my cupboard at home and really very tasty and wholesome) and do a dedicated gluten-free toasted sandwich (vegetarian, with goat’s cheese), but can do a lot on the menu gluten free, if you just ask. My favourite is the smashed avocado and hummus on toast with chipotle chilli and poached eggs. It’s actually a dream. I have it every time I go.
The first time I went I did have scrambled eggs with gluten-free toast, and that was also delicious – but since I’ve had the avocado, I’ve never looked back! Even if I convince myself it’s time to try something else, somehow whenever the waiter asks me for my order, I find the words ‘thesmashedavocadowithpoachedeggsongluten-freebreadplease’ just come tumbling out of my mouth regardless of what other sensible menu choice I might have made previously. No regrets!
Sweet treats: They almost always have a very yummy-looking, homemade chocolate brownie in (the way they lay their cakes out in those big slabs is absolutely amazing… it just looks so inviting, so much cake in one place) and sometimes a gluten-free orange and almond loaf. Their blog also states that they do gluten-free cheesecake, but I’ve never seen this advertised in store or enquired after it – so I’m not sure if this is still the case. They look delicious though!
One of the super mainstream chain cafés, of which you’ll find one (or maybe two, or three) in most town centres, Caffé Nero is solidly reliable in terms of their gluten-free offerings and a good all-rounder if you’re out shopping or at the train station/airport etc. While they’re perhaps not worth a gluten-free-oriented special trip or anything like that, they make the list on account of their coffee being excellent in terms of most high street offerings, their decent loyalty scheme on hot drinks (a stamp card – get your tenth hot drink for free – none of this points scheme malarkey) and the fact that they offer a truly delicious luxury hot chocolate with all the trimmings – entirely gluten free! The atmosphere is usually quite nice in a Nero, as well, with lots of cosy armchairs and sofas up for grabs and a slightly more up-market feel.
Drinks: You can pretty much take your pick of regular coffees and teas but, if you like a cappuccino, make sure that you don’t have the chocolate sprinkles, as they are currently not suitable for coeliacs due to cross-contamination.
Most of the fancier hot drinks are off the menu due to gluten in the recipe or cross-contamination issues, like most other coffee shops, but Caffé Nero does have one coeliac-friendly trick up its sleeve. The star of the show is the previously mentioned hot chocolate Milano, which is gluten free. This is a ludicrously indulgent confection, topped with whipped cream and Belgian chocolate – the drink itself is described by CN as being like ‘liquid chocolate’, which I have to say is delightfully accurate. However, beware – while the hot chocolate Milano is gluten free, their regular hot chocolate is not coeliac friendly and has warnings for cross-contamination. So make sure you specify that you’re after the hot chocolate Milano as it’s gluten free. It’s also just superior anyway. So.
Savoury: In terms of sandwiches, they do a gluten-free chicken one in what looks to be quite a reasonable bread roll. There are no vegetarian options for sandwiches at Nero, unfortunately.
The soups are more promising: all are clearly marked as gluten free, so long as you go without bread, and they offer vegetarian options in the form of carrot & coriander and sundried tomato & basil. You’d think, as they obviously must source gluten-free bread rolls to make their chicken sandwich, that they would offer them packaged on their own to go with their soups. Perhaps worth popping in their suggestion box!
Sweet treats: Caffé Nero offer the standard packaged gluten-free brownie, which is nice and perfectly acceptable, if uninspiring, coeliac fare. However, they also have a packaged coconut and raspberry slice – a little bit different from other high street offerings. It’s nice to have a choice, at least!
A chain of coffee shops that is mainly found in the south at the moment, but is gradually expanding its reach. The atmosphere is always really cosy, with rustic, old-fashioned furniture, wooden floors, and, sometimes, shelves of old, well-loved-looking books. It might be expanding as a chain, but, nevertheless, for now each coffee shop still retains that local café feel.
The same applies to their food. There are very few pre-packaged options, and the morsels on offer are laid out in rows of delicious-looking and generously sized baguettes, salads, pies, cakes, muffins and more. Gluten-free and vegetarian options are clearly marked on the chalkboards in front of each cake, sandwich or snack.
However, this is simultaneously the sticky bit – in the absence of cellophane protecting each cake or pie, you wonder what cross-contamination controls are in place. I emailed to ask, and was told that there is extensive training and a number of precautions in place to avoid cross-contamination when the products are being made, stored and served (staff are told to display gluten-free food at the top of counters to avoid crumbs from things above them, to use separate utensils, etc.), but that they are in the same environment as gluten and that they can’t 100% guarantee no gluten. I have never had any ill effects and the staff seemed very clued up, but it seems like it wouldn’t take much for them to go all the way and get Coeliac UK accreditation on their gluten-free products. They’ve clearly invested a lot of time and effort into their gluten-free range, and there’s such a variety on offer – so why not get it rubber stamped for coeliacs?
Drinks: Coffee #1 coffee is hands down my favourite coffee available on the high street. It’s rich, smooth and full of flavour. I rarely venture away from what always proves to be an excellent cappuccino, often very artfully presented too. We sometimes buy some of their house blend for the cafetiere at home, as well!
Savoury: You can partake in what, for the gluten-free dieter, is a pretty gratifying range of savoury options. They have recently introduced a selection of pies made with gluten-free pastry, including two vegetarian options: homity pie and one with a ricotta and roasted tomato filling with pesto polenta pastry (pictured below). For something lighter there are also salads.
Sweet treats: For sweets, you have a choice of an excellent hazelnut brownie (not at all just your standard packaged gluten-free affair – this one is really gooey, fresh and rich), a vanilla and almond dainty (sweet and delicate – I really liked it, Greg found it a bit bland) or a chocolate and strawberry slice (so far untested – doubt it will remain so).
I had slight qualms about including PV on this list – on the one hand, compared to most high-street cafes, their selection of gluten-free cakes is really very good. The fact that they’ve bothered to introduce their Gloriously Gluten-Free range is fab. And it would probably have gone down better were they any other high-street café. As it is, they’re Patisserie Valerie, known for their stunningly delicate and mouthwatering morsels of French patisserie, deliciously displayed in their rows in the shop window. In comparison, their packaged gluten-free cakes seem undeniably somewhat pedestrian. If you walked into Costa and were able to pick from gluten-free marble cake, a muffin, a ginger biscuit and more, that would be amazing. That would almost be on a par with their regular range of cakes. As it stands, in Patisserie Valerie, the coeliac is left eating their unadorned, pre-packaged GF snack while everyone else tucks into daintily arranged afternoon tea, indulgent chocolate slices, profiteroles, macarons, the works.
Nevertheless – if you’re able to stand the point of comparison, you can admire the aesthetics, at least, of all the prettily worked Parisian-style pastries around you while you tuck into a gluten-free slice of marble cake. Or, just know that if you’re peckish and on the go, you can grab a really excellent takeaway coffee and a delicious, if unexciting, gluten-free biscuit or slice of cake from Patisserie Valerie.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that you can order in advance a gluten-free chocolate celebration cake with fancy chocolate and all the works – not to eat in the café, as awesome as that would be (it would certainly turn the tables on everyone eating their little gluten cakes – who’s jealous now?!), but to take home for a birthday party or what have you. Certainly looks amazing – I just need an excuse to try it…!
Savoury: There is good news and bad news in this respect; Patisserie Valerie have a rather nice and full little breakfast/lunch menu, cooked to order in each café. The good news is that, at least in the case of my local Patisserie Valerie, they are very happy to accommodate you and your gluten-free dietary requirements, and can do the majority of their menu gluten free, including sandwiches, breakfast items and salads. However, they do ask that you call in advance of your visit so that they can make precautions to avoid cross-contamination and to make sure that they have gluten-free bread in. So, while you can get gluten-free lunch at Patisserie Valerie, you can’t just decide on the spur of the moment that you’d like to go; a visit must be planned. It’s great that the individual cafés seem happy to go the extra mile to accommodate you, however, even if a chain-wide policy on gluten-free savoury options doesn’t seem to be in place.
Sweet treats: Packaged gluten-free cakes, including marble cake (an absolute favourite of mine), a brownie, double chocolate chip muffin, ginger biscuit and a flapjack.
Pret a Manger
I am a new convert to Pret, having historically stuck mostly to Caffé Nero when wanting a coffee in town (or Coffee #1 when I can find it). However, I’ve recently discovered that Pret is one of the better high street cafés in terms of offering a variety of gluten-free options, particularly in relation to savoury things. They may not have much in the way of sweet treats – the packaged brownie on offer is actually not gluten free…! – but, if you scan the shelves, you’ll find a pleasing range of salads, soups and breakfast options in the form of granola and yogurt pots, all labeled ‘no gluten’. They do also do a no-gluten chocolate mousse, if you do want something dessert-like. There is no gluten-free sandwich or bread currently on offer, but what’s there offers something a bit lighter anyhow, and there’s certainly an interesting range of options.
The allergen information online is beautifully clear and easy to read, unlike that of some cafes, and so it’s easy to pick out what you can and can’t have, too. They also offer a substantial amount of information as to which ingredients go into which dish, so it’s all there online for you to check, if you’re so inclined. All their food is prepared on site by local chefs, which is rather refreshing and unusual for a high street café chain. Everything is presented in its own individual packaging as well, e.g., salad boxes, yogurt pots, soup cups, with no opportunities for sandwiches to drop crumbs!
Drinks: All the usual hot drinks, and cold options in the form of smoothies (I tried a bit of Greg’s strawberry & banana smoothie – very refreshing but rather sweet!).
Savoury: No sandwiches, but there’s usually a good selection of soups (including carrot & coriander, tomato, chicken & broccoli) and salad boxes, with decent veggie options. The falafel mezze always looks particularly good!
Sweet treats: Not much in the way of desserts – a chocolate mousse and fruit pots – but you can get sweet options that would make a great breakfast such as granola pot / yogurts / etc.
So, those were my top five chain cafés on the UK high street for gluten-free offerings! Clearly, there is much left to be desired in terms of catering for coeliacs and free-from diets, and no café seems to offer a perfect option, but, nevertheless, things have improved so much since I was first diagnosed. Nowadays, these are the ones I’ve found that offer the most, either in terms of choice or in terms of coeliac-friendly credentials. I’m also going to be doing my top five gluten-free chain restaurants soon, with much more of an emphasis on what options there are for the coeliac vegetarian, as well.
Which are your most-frequented high-street cafés and coffee shops when you’re looking for some gluten-free options?