How can you find the best gluten free restaurants and cafes? In London? In the rest of the UK? When visiting a new place? When travelling overseas?
There are many methods. Let me share with you my experience and recommendations for which work best. I have used all these methods during many years of being a coeliac foodie, Gluten Free Meetup club organiser and a judge for the Free From Eating Out Awards.
I absolutely love finding new places to eat where I can feel safe, enjoy great food, great service and feel comfortable. Being able to share recommendations for the benefit of others? Even better!
Coverage, Trust and What is it Best For . . . ?
For each method I give a rating for Coverage, Trust and describe what it is Best For. Be aware that I do not trust any of these methods 100%. Some are very reliable but I still always follow a personal safety protocol before eating out. If you are coeliac or you or a family member have an allergy to manage please practice safety first.
Many of the links are London centric but many of the sites with links are relevant for the rest of the UK and travelling abroad. London links are just examples.
If this guide helps you find the best gluten free restaurants and cafes I would love to hear from you. If you think I have missed something I would like to add it. Let me know and otherwise, happy searching!
Trust Level: Very High for coeliac bloggers
Best for: In-depth opinion from fellow coeliac foodies
My personal favourite method and one of the reasons I began blogging myself. With a coeliac blogger you get more information than is available from any other source. You get description about the experience, the perceived safety, and whether it is actually nice to eat there.
The best of all blogs for finding the best Gluten Free restaurants in the UK is surely the Coeliac Plate. Here you will find a regularly updated list of all the 100% Gluten Free venues organised by region within the UK. 100% Gluten Free is very rare and means that the entire menu and venue is Gluten Free and should also mean that the venue takes care to ensure their suppliers are managing the risk of gluten within their supply chain.
My personal top 4 favourite blogs for discovering new places in the UK.
Coeliac Plate – for regularly updated 100% Gluten-Free lists
Gluten Free in London – for great writing and London focus
GlutenFreeMrsD – summary of favourite London places plus worldwide discoveries
GlutenFreeCuppaTea – surely the UK’s most successful gluten-free blogger
Coverage: UK Nationwide with many participating venues
Trust Level: Very high
Best For: Combination of wide coverage, safety & quality
The big benefit of choosing to visit a Free From Eating Out Award winner is that you can be very confident that you are going to feel safe, enjoy delicious food and good service since these are all thoroughly evaluated by the Awards judging team.
2016 Winners List (plus links to prior years)
Venues that receive a Free From Food Eating Out Award have been through a judging process that critically looks at their approach to providing allergen free meals and also what it is like to actually eat there. The process begins with a detailed questionnaire covering safety factors like staff training, kitchen & front of house protocols, equipment and supply chain. However it is not about safety alone. The comfort and experience and quality of food offered and served are evaluated via incognito visits to shortlisted venues. Safety is a knock-out criteria but beyond that, service, menu and the food itself differentiate Gold from Silver and Bronze awards.
I am part of the judging team so have direct insight into the robustness of the process. I would happily go to eat at any venue that receives an award. Note that *Free From* does not *always* mean gluten-free. It usually at least includes gluten-free however so a quick check is the only thing needed.
Do be aware that ownership and management of venues may change and chain venues in particular have a big challenge with consistency. So always be mindful of your own personal responsibility for being safe.
Coverage: Varies by App
Trust Level: Depends on the App
Best For: None hit the mark . . . yet, change may be coming
To date there has been no App that I have found very useful. My personal must have features list for a killer app are not yet met by any one app:
- A ‘No Chain’ Restaurant filter i.e. don’t show me 101 branches of Dominos!
- Dairy Free and Vegan filter
- Map Based search
- Combination of curated content (for quality control) and user reviews for views & opinions
- Menu information available within the app or via a link to the restaurant
- Access across multiple devices i.e. mobile device and laptop
Eat Safe App (currently accepting sign-ups for beta)
I am eagerly looking forward to what might be a game-changer in the form of the Eat Safe app. I have seen Eat Safe people at literally every gluten-free event I have attended in the last couple of years giving away brightly coloured cupcakes and cookies. The Eat Safe App, currently in closed beta testing, has the unique killer feature that it will show how many dishes on a restaurant menu are free from any and every major allergen, gluten, milk, nuts, eggs, everything! On release this will be combined with Google Maps integration and accuracy achieved by the venues directly providing the information and keeping it updated. I expect that the Eat Safe app will become my firm favorite and one I will enthusiastically recommend.
Of the rest this is my current favorite. Map based search on a beautifully stylised version of Google Maps. Each venue listing provides a direct link to the restaurant and to Google Maps. Users can add new places, star ratings and reviews and there are some of both.
Caveats are that it is limited to gluten only and there is no way to distinguish between listings for 101+ Pizza Huts and other big chains and more interesting places. All appear as plain red markers until clicked. This combined with the lack of Android support means I do not use it but I would happily suggest it for someone visiting a place as the best and simplest search app available right now.
Does have ‘Chain Restaurant’, ‘Fine Dining’ and ‘Dairy Free’ filters, which is super. The lack of Android support and a reduction of update frequency since a great launch mean it is not something I use or suggest.
The app is free but the restaurant listing feature requires Coeliac UK membership. I have let my membership expire since I do not use any of the services offered by Coeliac UK. Some people do find the Coeliac Food & Drink directory extremely useful. I do not because almost none of the foods I buy are in it or need to be.
Restaurant search within the App does appear to enable users to suggest new additions and Coeliac UK check whether suggested venues want to be included before adding them. So there appears to be at least some quality control.
Can I Eat There? (website)
This used to offer the killer feature of listing all the Free From Eating Out Award winners, making it the easiest way to find them. As of July 2017 though the website has been down for several weeks. I hope it will return.
Some features are great – use of Google Maps and map markers with colour coding to indicate rating. However there are no filter options so the results include 101 branches of Pizza Hut et al. Users can contribute in-app reviews but there are very few venues, even in London, with anything but a scattering of star ratings and no words.
Coverage: London, UK and Worldwide
Trust Level: Moderate
Best For: Asking for suggestions and recommendations
There are several dedicated gluten free and coeliac groups on Facebook including Gluten Free in London, Coeliacs Eat out Too and Coeliacs Eat Abroad Too. I do recommend these as a great source of ideas especially when you are visiting a new place. Be aware that recommendations may be coming from an experienced safety conscious coeliac or may be coming from a newly diagnosed person or someone with a mild intolerance. I think the recommendations are often good ones but there are different levels of understanding on display so use them AND as always, conduct your own checks.
You do need to ‘join’ these Groups before getting access to all their content and being able to post. For the non-Facebooky folks, that simply means pressing a button to make a join request and if you are going to ask questions or contribute, following the simple rules.
Searching within these groups for a given location can hoover up a list of recent recommendations. Asking for recommendations often returns helpful suggestions. The two Coeliacs Eat Out groups also have a stickied ‘Recommendations’ section which uses the Facebook recommendations feature to good effect.
Coverage: UK Nationwide but covering only participating venues
Trust Level: Very high
Best For: Skipping any other pre-visit research
Coeliac UK certify a small but growing number of independents and chains that have successfully completed their certification programme. Certification indicates that venues have robust protocols in place for catering gluten-free.
Allergy UK offer something very similar but covering all allergens including but not limited to gluten.
Both schemes provide a great source of certainty about how safe it is to eat out at a place. Inevitably though the coverage is tiny.
Certification is a positive indication that venues have robust capability to consistently cater allergen free. However many venues without certification are just as good. Most restaurants that are 100% gluten free and others that have a great gluten free range do not have certification from Coeliac UK or Allergy UK. For restaurants and cafes already very capable of catering gluten free going for accreditation might simply not offer value for their money.
A caveat relevant to certified chain restaurants in particular is that even certified venues usually have some risk to manage. Safety depends on good communication and protocols being followed. Staff turnover and the ever present possibility of misunderstanding can occasionally result in bad experiences at even the best chains. I will happily go to any certified venue without any prior checks but always run through a safety checklist with my server before dining.
Coverage: Global and Local
Trust Level: Varies from Low to High, depending on information shared
Best For: Deciding whether to contact in advance
In my fantasy version of the future every restaurant makes absolutely clear what they can and cannot do in terms of allergen free meals. Here is my wishlist:
- Menu is available online. I want information *before* I decide to eat there!
- Menu clearly indicates which allergens are present within each dish
- It is easy to identify allergen free dishes and dishes that can be modified to be allergen free and the difference between these
- If there is cross-contamination risk there is also information provided about what is done to reduce the risk
- Nice but not essential is any kind of filter to show only dishes free from selected allergens
- Also nice but not essential is separate dedicated allergen free menus. If the allergen information is clear enough on a main menu I’m happy to use it
Excellent role models for most of the above are The Willow and Leggero. Ping Pong and Hummus Bros both have have superb menu allergen filters. There are fewer great examples for the cross-contamination risk info but bravo to Wahaca for the best I have seen.
These are examples of restaurants providing sufficiently useful information that I can decide whether to visit them based on their website alone. Upon arrival I would still run through my eating out safely checklist but would not not feel a need to contact them in advance. If this is not true I will email and or phone the venue.
Coverage: Excellent, the best of all sources
Trust Level: Very Low
Best for: Quickly finding lots of places worth investigating further
The real strength of these sites is in the user reviews. They are excellent for getting a sense of how enjoyable places are to eat at. However for ‘free from’ there is a big caveat. Reviews do include mentions of terms like “gluten-free” which can be useful but the term means different things to different people. A Lifestyle avoider of gluten and those with more tolerant sensitivities may not think at all about cross contamination risk. A coeliac needs to.
Sometimes there are reviews from people that mention they are coeliacs. These are terrific. I always mention I am a coeliac when leaving reviews and encourage others to so that we all benefit. Coeliacs united!
Because of this big caveat I treat these sites as a starting point only. Use them to build a list of venues to investigate further before visiting a new place.
TripAdvisor and Yelp both feature a dedicated ‘Gluten Free’ search filter option. All the sites mentioned have lists of Gluten Free restaurants for many cities and towns. However be aware that like the user reviews these are not validated lists. If you are coeliac or very sensitive you should take further action to confirm that a restaurant is safe for you to eat at before visiting.
Coverage: Minor, within special features only
Trust Level: Low
Best for: Checking whether your favourite has made the list
Major publications occasionally produce dedicate Gluten Free special features. Information within these is typically light and less detailed than that provided by foodie bloggers but do cover a good number of venues. However these articles rarely explain what if any quality control was applied to validate the free from credentials of venues featured. If the article is not specifically aimed at coeliacs the inclusion criteria are likely to be fairly loose. This is why these features are best treated as a great source of ideas rather than a verified list of safe places to eat.
Coverage: Very special
Trust Level: Fantastic
Best for: Making then sharing personal lists of places
Okay, one day, Google AI will replace all of the above. It is already rather good. Right now though there is already a little known feature that enables creation and sharing of customised lists of places. I have made three lists myself, all shared below. At present list making is only possible within App versions of Google Maps. They can be shared and viewed on Desktop Google Maps too.