How To Eat Out (When You Are Surrounded by Things You Can’t Eat)

Don’t you just love eating out? I do. Nothing compares to someone else doing all the preparation and slog. Then all you have to do is select your supper, and chit-chat your way through a glorious feast of delicacies you’d never normally cook at home. Except when you’ve got special food needs, that is, when eating out can be a bit less fun.

The reality is that when you ask a restaurant to remove the cream, milk, sugar, flour, or soy sauce, fish sauce, Worcestershire sauce, noodles – and of course, the bun and chips – from a dish, what you are left with is often a wizened piece of chicken or fish with a slightly mean portion of veg on the side. So, for years after I started this diet, I associated eating out with feeling hungry, and always absolutely certain that I could have cooked something so much better (not to mention for a fraction of the price) at home, which is a bit sad.

And – although I wish it were not so – it’s all even harder to bear when whoever you are with is tucking into a princely feast and you have to sit there and keep your feelings of extreme-hard-done-by-ness to yourself (never easy, if you are me). But you know what? It’s even sadder to stay at home on your own feeling sorry for yourself. And I, for one, will NOT be that person! And so, I have hatched some strategies over the years that I would like to share with you.

The truth is, I’ll probably never again enjoy the spontaneity of just being able to say, “Oh I’ll go with the flow” if people ask if I have an opinion about where we eat. But on the massive upside, there has been a real sea-change since I started doing this diet. Restaurants and chefs are more tuned into provenance and ingredients than ever, making it far more acceptable to insist on a 13-and-a-half-minute conversation with your waiter about what exactly is in the tartare sauce. Also, we are living in an era where both Pizza Express and Carluccio’s have a gluten free menu. Enough said.

So, here are my tips for eating out when you are surrounded by things you can’t eat:

1. Check the menu in advance

I now accept that I have to spend about 20 minutes scrutinising a menu to work out what I can eat. But since I’m usually eating out with someone I either want or need to talk to, I don’t want to waste 20 minutes looking at the menu, feeling slightly panic stricken that I won’t be able to order properly. Most restaurants put their menu online so it’s really worth having a look before you go, and even phoning in advance to talk to the chef if you need to. I know it sounds high maintenance, but it really is worth it.

2. Be brave and forget you are British

I always try to get in touch with my inner New Yorker when I am eating out. Reassure yourself that it really is fine to be specific and slightly interrogate the waiter. And if they – clearly – don’t know or don’t care whether there is crème fraiche in the horseradish sauce or flour on the fish, then ask to speak to someone else. Trust that your dinner companions aren’t rolling their eyes or judging you and, if they are, then say to yourself, “So what?”.

3. Don’t forget you can always cobble

There’s often a delicious meal to be created by ordering a selection of side dishes and starters. Also, depending on the establishment and whether you feel like pushing your luck, it’s also worth enquiring whether you might substitute the potato in a starter for halloumi, or chorizo, or some other ingredient that you can see on the menu (but in a dish you can’t eat). I always offer to pay extra if need be, which is fair enough, I’d say.

4. Accept that some places are no-go zones

I will probably never be able to go for an Indian meal again (sob!): too much hidden sugar, chickpeas and cream. Fish and chip restaurants, Vietnamese and Chinese are also a bit tricky for me. I tend to look for restaurants that have at least one dish on the menu that is easy to take apart, modify and still be delicious (ideally without offending the chef). I went to Hubbard & Bell in Holburn the other night, which is probably the ideal menu for me: lots of grilled meat and fish with sauces that could be either eaten or not, plus side dishes that sang songs in their own right. I ate grilled spatchcocked chicken with tomato aioli (no sugar – I know; why would you? But so many people do!) with purple sprouting broccoli on the side and it was so delicious I had a tear in my eye.

5. If in doubt, eat before you go

I know this sounds counterintuitive, but sometimes when you go out to eat – particularly if you are not choosing the venue – then you just have to accept that there might not be much, if anything, there for you. While this is obviously far from ideal, what is even worse is turning up starving, only to be able to eat nothing – which only serves to feeds the martyr complex. And, just because there are a few things you can’t eat, does not mean you want to be a martyr. OK? That is all.