For most people, a meal out is an experience to be savored, free from the worry and stress of food preparation and cleanup. But dining out is not completely worry-free, especially for people who have food allergies.
"I'm a foodie and I can't eat half the stuff," said Sloane Miller, president of the advocacy group Allergic Girl Resources Inc. in New York. Miller has severe nut and salmon allergies as well as allergies to some fruits and vegetables.
Given her restraints, Miller may be one of the smartest diners in New York.
"As an allergic diner, when I find a restaurant that is happy to accommodate my needs, I go back again and again," said Miller, who dines out five to 10 times a week.
And restaurants must be listening. Miller is just one among 12 million Americans who have food allergies, according to the Virginia-based Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
Though many of the larger, chain restaurants already offer allergy-friendly dining, the practice is gaining a steadier foothold in higher-tier restaurants, industry observers say. Places such as Blue Ginger in Boston and Bistro 110 in Chicago -- leaders in allergy-friendly dining -- are setting the bar for how independent restaurants feed their allergic clientele.
Often, the chefs at these restaurants begin by setting the bar at home. Ming Tsai, executive chef and owner of Blue Ginger -- an Asian restaurant outside Boston -- has a son who is allergic to seven out of eight top allergy triggers.
"It's amazing that people don't realize how a molecule can kill," Tsai said.
Tsai takes pains to make sure there are no wayward molecules in his kitchen. The crux of his modus operandi is his "bible," a notebook detailing the ingredients in each component of each dish on the menu. Allergens are noted prominently and many dishes are modifiable for specific allergens.
"With this system in place, the degree of negligence and human error is reduced," Tsai said.
Combined with a high level of communication between customers, wait staff, managers and the kitchen, Tsai estimated that he and his team may have made three mistakes in 10 years of operation -- and Blue Ginger serves about 15 allergic customers each night.
"It is your absolute right to be able to eat anywhere you want safely," said Tsai, who takes issue with restaurants that decline to serve customers because they are unsure of what ingredients are in the food. "I don't buy it. ... You can't be like that in retail. You can't say, 'I don't know.'"
But some would apparently rather say that they are not able to serve you a certain dish rather than risk a customer having an allergy attack. Sheila Weiss, director of nutrition policy in the health and safety regulatory affairs department of the National Restaurant Association in Washington, D.C., pointed out that there may be a situation in which, for example, an item comes from a supplier and it is unclear whether the food contains an allergen or was cross contaminated with a potential allergen during preparation or packaging.
"We have to let [restaurants] know that it is okay to tell somebody, 'No, this is not a safe food for you and I don't know all the ingredients in it,'" Weiss said.
As a diner with allergies, Miller agreed.