As you will probably be aware by now, this week it’s coeliac awareness week, and Coeliac UK’s big focus is eating out! I already posted my review of Ed’s Diner, an American-diner-style restaurant who are Coeliac UK accredited, pointing out how a few simple things can make eating out for coeliacs or the gluten intolerant so much easier, safer and more relaxing.
Thinking about what was good and what was less so at Ed’s prompted me to zero in on what makes a truly topnotch meal when you’re eating out as a coeliac. I came up with three ‘C’s – the criteria by which I would judge a restaurant’s gluten-free offering.
The three ‘C’s: Criteria when Catering for Coeliacs
- Clarity: By this, I mean that restaurants that cater well for coeliacs and other dietary requirements are those who are clear about what is on offer and who have well-informed staff, who when asked about gluten-free options don’t um and ah and tell you different things. A dedicated gluten-free menu is the ideal, but otherwise clear mark-up on the menu as to what is and isn’t gluten free is essential, and staff should be able to tell you with confidence about any specials, too. Simply having a vague note on the menu telling you to ask your server about allergens or gluten-free options always sets alarm bells ringing a little – it’s best to have what’s on offer fixed and in writing, as it removes any doubts.
- Choice: Secondly, that there is a decent amount of choice. Eating out should be a treat for everyone, but the attitude historically, although this has improved greatly in recent years, has often been that, as a coeliac, you are lucky to be able to eat out at all. The restaurant who goes the extra mile to provide a variety of gluten-free options, or who makes sure that there’s a dedicated and uncontaminated fryer for the chips, or who has bothered to source truly decent gluten-free bread – these things are instantly noticeable, and always appreciated.
- Controls: Thirdly, the big thing is controls and cross-contamination, especially if you are coeliac and not just intolerant – a very small amount of gluten can trigger an autoimmune response, so it’s imperative that this is avoided. This is often where the worry creeps in when you’re eating out gluten free – that grey area of cross-contamination where you’re just not quite sure whether the restaurant is clued up or not. Are they using different utensils for gluten and gluten-free meals? Are they toasting gluten-free bread separately? Being able to talk to the customer confidently and with real knowledge about cross-contamination is the final marker of a good coeliac-friendly restaurant – and a brief note on the menu that covers it is always vastly reassuring. It is absolutely pointless to offer gluten-free bread and then to toast it in the same toaster as regular bread. This immediately makes it not gluten free.
Having laid all that out, today I’m going on to offer up my top 5 UK restaurant chains for gluten-free food. I have found all the restaurants on this list to be good in terms of these criteria, and some are even Coeliac UK accredited. They also provide absolutely delicious food, which is the important thing too!
1. Handmade Burger Co.
Handmade Burger was always going to be top of this list. It’s something of a hallowed institution for Greg and me, one that dates back to our student days, when we used to go down to the Birmingham Bullring and eat there on Monday afternoons (which is when they used to do 30% off for students – bargain, and topnotch food, too).
When I was diagnosed coeliac back in early 2014, one of the things I mourned most were our trips to the Handmade Burger Co. Affordable, friendly, and purveyors of a truly delicious burger, creamy milkshake and chunky cajun-spiced chips. I did go a couple of times after being diagnosed; they were always eager to accommodate me, and could adjust the burger recipe to make me a gluten-free one, served without the bun. They even went so far as to serve me chips that had only been blanched and not fried with the gluten-containing onion rings. So they’ve always been clued up, at the very least, and I think it shows how great their attitude has always been in trying to cater for everybody. Nevertheless, it just wasn’t the same!
However, since then, they’ve achieved full Coeliac UK accreditation and (almost) nothing is off the table there if you have coeliac disease! Happy, happy day! If you’re veggie, you can also choose from not one but six different kinds of gluten-free vegetarian burger. My favourite is the falafel burger. 😀 The burger bun hold up well and are nice and soft – plus, they come separately wrapped. You might have to assemble your burger yourself, but it does assure you that no gluten has touched that bun! 🙂
Plus, you can also choose from eight kinds of chips (Greg and I absolutely go mad for the cajun chips).
They’ve expanded their locations considerably from when I first started eating there in 2012, when they were mainly based in the Birmingham area, and you can now find them in various locations across the country. We still need more, however!
I only discovered Leon in the last year or so, but they immediately became one of my favourite places to eat. They do healthier, more ‘natural’ fast food – but really, the only thing that’s ‘fast’ about it is the efficiency with which it’s served in the restaurants. It’s a completely different cup of tea to your regular McDonald’s burger or KFC.
It’s an absolute godsend if you’re vegetarian and coeliac, with a range of delicious veggie and vegan options, e.g. black bean chillis or a topnotch sweet potato and okra stew. My favourite thing to get there is the sweet potato falafel box, which comes with whole grain rice, yogurt, fresh lemon, red peppers and salad. Filling, delicious, and wholesome. Oh, and by the way – you can have the chips, which are adorable, delicious and waffle shaped.
Much like Handmade Burger, I just wish there were more of them around! Here in Devon, we’re a little Leon deprived. 🙁
Pho is another restaurant where I struggle to use my words to convey how much I enjoy their food. They do Vietnamese street food – Pho noodle soups, amazing curries, spicy salads, summer rolls – and lots of veggie options, plus dessert!
Pho is also the only restaurant I’ve been to where so much of their food is gluten free that it’s easier for them to mark what’s not gluten free on the menus. Seriously.
My favourite thing to get there is actually not the pho noodle soup for which it’s named, but actually the tofu ca-ri. It’s also inadvertently just about the most calorific thing on the menu (and you don’t want to know how much saturated fat is in one serving.) (But I’ll tell you anyway. It’s 37.5g. No joke.). Oh well. It’s freaking delicious, I just can’t even tell you.
The Pho soup is similarly good, and much less calorific, too, while still being deliciously filling. I snapped a picture of Greg’s last time we were there, which is why it has meat in it.
Finally, do try the homemade lemonade. It’s so fresh and tangy.
It might seem counter-intuitive that Italian restaurants should be some of the best places to eat gluten free in the UK, considering that their primary cuisine consists of bread, pizza and pasta – all of which would normally be pinging a coeliac’s gluten-detecting klaxon. Nevertheless, it’s true; you often find the most variety for gluten-free options in pizza and pasta restaurants. I suppose this is because they have to: a coeliac just wouldn’t be able to eat anything at all if they didn’t go out of their way to provide a gluten-free alternative to their usual fare.
Zizzi, in my opinion, is one of the best options on the high street for coeliacs in the UK. They have a very extensive no-gluten menu and, moreover, the waiter last time I was there also had the nouse to ask whether I was fully coeliac, and explained that, as I was, they wouldn’t recommend the fried potatoes, as they were cooked in the same environment as gluten-containing options on the menu. It’s always reassuring to go in and feel like the place you’re eating is clued up and has competent answers ready for your gluten-related questions; even better when they’re proactive enough to tell you before you’ve even asked!
They also do a non-dairy/vegan friendly margherita pizza, to which you can add that same variety of delicious vegetarian toppings! There’s the lentil ragu, too, which does not contain dairy and is suitable for vegans, or the green goddess broccoli salad. Last time I was there I had a delicious butternut squash pizza, which was packed with flavour and utterly delightful and crispy, served on one of the better gluten-free pizza bases I’ve tried so far.
I was so perfectly happy and full after eating my pizza (yes, I ate the entire thing) that I didn’t go for a pudding, but there was plenty on the menu to tempt there, as well – three chocolate puddings, or a variety of different ice creams or sorbets. Next time!
NB: Pizza Express are also very good, and are Coeliac UK accredited to boot, but I think I just prefer the pizza at Zizzi’s. They’re another great option, though.
5. Cote Brasserie
Cote Brasserie are a little more upmarket than the other options on this menu, perhaps, and they offer French-inspired cuisine. They are Coeliac UK accredited, and extremely clued up – plus, everything you order from the gluten free menu comes with a little flag in it to indicate that it’s gluten free! Very cute, and reassuring, too. The food is really very good, and the service in our local restaurant in Exeter is always on point – very friendly, courteous and well informed about the gluten-free options on the menu.
Eating there has become a little trickier since going vegetarian, as the bulk of their menu is very meaty. However, whenever I’ve been there, they’ve always had a veggie soup, seasonal risotto and salad on offer – what’s missing is the choice. Nevertheless, everything I’ve had there has been undeniably delicious, so no complaints from me!
Here we have a butternut squash risotto that I had from their menu late last year (it’s not on offer currently):
And then there was the Risotto Vert with lots of fresh spring greens (absolutely stunning!), which I had a month or so ago:
I don’t usually eat dessert out, but last time we went to Cote, we both went for desserts off the gluten-free menu. While everything else we’ve had there has been great, Greg’s dessert was a bit of a head scratcher. To be fair to Cote, it’s described as ‘Frozen berries with white chocolate sauce’, but nevertheless we were somehow expecting it to be a little bit more jazzy than literally frozen berries with a bit of white chocolate sauce. Some coulis or something, I don’t know. As it was, it was nice, but not really £5’s worth of dessert all on its own!
The chocolate mousse, however, I can’t recommend enough. Oh-so-indulgent, but rich and delicious and well worth the calories. I couldn’t eat a whole pot on my own, but luckily Greg (my hero) swooped in to help me out. It’s also pretty nice when eaten in combination with the summer berries above, haha.
If you’re ever in Exeter, the Cote there is particularly great. It’s situated on the Cathedral Green and has beautiful views, especially when the weather is on it. The atmosphere and service are always very good in there, even when compared to other Cotes.
And those are my five favourites! They’re also great for vegetarian food, aside from Cote Brasserie, where the choices are a little bit limited – but what’s on offer is so nice that I put them in anyway. I would have included Carluccio’s, as they used to do a great range of gluten-free veggie pastas and a delicious chocolate pudding with ice cream, but they’ve changed their menu and taken away the pudding and a lot of the pastas 🙁
Which are your favourite places to eat out gluten free?