When I was younger I would eat pretty much anything, in fact I think one of the most told stories from my childhood was when I was 3 and I went to China Town with my family for Chinese New Year. We sat in a restaurant watching the parade of dancing dragons and by the end of our lunch I had the staff at the restaurant gathered around me laughing and enthusiastic to see what I would eat next. I ate everything they put infront of me including Chickens’ feet, all washed down with 12 cups of jasmine tea. My mum thought it was really funny and has delighted in telling the story ever since.
When I hit my teenage years my adventurous side to food had not dwindled, although chickens’ feet never repeated themselves, and I was lucky to be a part of a family that enjoyed dining out, whether for a special occasion or just to have a get together. The main thing I loved about going out for dinner, apart from getting dressed up and having a good time, was the anticipation of what the night would bring. As a true foodie I loved the whole process of discussing what everyone was going to order. Indecisively selecting intricately described courses from a big menu, only to change my mind when someone orders another option that I know I will regret not ordering for myself once the meal is served! When the food arrived it was almost unheard of for us to not then pass forkfuls of our dish around so everyone could sample each other’s choice. As you can see I feel a night out at a restaurant should very much focus around the food, and the sense of togetherness that it brings.
My love for going out to restaurants is still with me but these days I have a slightly different experience, one which I think flags up a big gap in the restaurant market…I am now a vegetarian who cannot eat dairy (and is trying to not eat wheat)! Before I was always the sort of person to go online and check out the restaurant menu before actually going for dinner, it whet the appetite to see the options and it set the mood for the night ahead. Now I find it essential to check the menu just to see if I will be able to eat anything; I like to see if there is a backup plan which can be made in advance, such as a starter with a side order of chips that I could have as an alternative to a main course. This also means I can avoid looking awkward or fussy and asking too many questions on the day.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think the restaurant industry is very clued up on the vegetarian world and I have had some fantastic offerings (beetroot scotch egg, potato and truffle soup and endless Asian inspired vegan dishes to name a few). However more often than not I am finding that the one or two vegetarian options that are available have been dominated by the dairy factor! Pasta is laden with cream, veggie starters are pastry based and filled with cheese, risottos have the full whammy and there isn’t a soup in sight that escapes the dairy obsession that has found its way into the “vegetarian option”. I probably find it strange because I am so used to making meals for myself without the need for dairy products that it surprises me how often it is relied upon as a meat substitute.
I have a few ideas on what I would suggest as a solution to my dietary requirement conundrum. There is a huge variety of food related allergies suffered by people worldwide and I think one great idea would be to make menus more transparent, with symbols showing what the dish contains and small print with alternative options (some places do this already but I haven’t found it to be many!). I’ve often ordered something, such as a simple vegetable soup, and it is only once it has been put in front of me that I realise it has cream in it. You then have the embarrassing moment when you have to send it back and start from square one with your meal selection.
Small icons or logos would alert the individual straight away if they are unable to eat it and it will make the whole experience more relaxing, just as it should be. By putting them on the online menu as well it means people can plan ahead and make informed choices so as to enjoy their night fully. Many restaurants may think they are offering a wide variety of choices for different dietary requirements, however by including small symbols for vegetarian/ gluten free/ dairy free dishes the restaurants will instantly be able to see which symbol they are missing on their menu. They can then adjust the selection so that they are catering for everyone.
Another idea is to have a weekly “allergy free” special to celebrate local produce cooked simply without the need for additional ingredients. This could include vegan/ gluten free/ plant based or dairy free specials which focus on being exciting and interesting but aware of different health aspects. There is a Fish and Chips shop in the midlands that would time their monthly oil change with a gluten free day. The new oil would have no traces of the normal batter so they saw a business opportunity to start each fresh batch of oil with gluten free batter etc. Before long word of mouth got around and the restaurant was always packed full on that day with people finally being able to enjoy the classic British fish and chips which they normally couldn’t have.
I’m not saying let’s make every restaurant a vegan health zone because, let’s face it, for a lot of people going out for dinner is a time to let our hair down, loosen the belt and indulge without guilt! But I would encourage restaurants to at least consider the growing number of us who can’t just turn up and eat anything without consequences. By making the decision for allergy sufferers easier and more informed it will mean everyone can eat well and, most importantly, just focus on enjoying themselves.