Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Tackling The Restaurant Problem

If you've read my last two posts, you already know that I've severely cut back on salt, almost cut out butter, and completely cut out cheese from my diet. While this seemed daunting at first, it didn't seem impossible to achieve when cooking for myself at home, where I have 100% control over what goes into my mouth. But what do you do when you want to go out for a nice meal? Is this even possible when it's pretty common knowledge that restaurants often load their food with the very items you are trying to avoid?

Yes, it is.

However, in order to stay in control, you have to do three things: research, research, and research. You can take NOTHING for granted. Your server may be the most sincere and helpful person on the planet, but they aren't the ones prepping and cooking your food*. Managers are usually better (at least in chain restaurants), but you need to go into the situation as if you've prepped for battle. It's nice that the restaurant gives you a menu when you sit down at your table, but you have to already know what you can and can't have before you even walk through the front door.

(* I'm not saying that servers can't be helpful, I'm simply saying that you shouldn't necessarily rely on them for accurate information when it comes to what it is in the food.)

There are really three situations you're likely to encounter when you go out for a meal:
  1. National or local chain restaurants that have published nutritional information (usually on their website).
  2. Local chain restaurants that have not published nutritional information because they aren't yet big enough and not required to do so.
  3. Independently owned restaurants that have not published nutrition information because they are a single location and not required to do so.
Let's talk about each of these options in turn.


Restaurants that publish nutritional information are worth their weight in gold. After reviewing the information provided, you may discover that there is absolutely nothing that you can eat, but at least you know that before even stepping foot inside the front door. Here's the thing to remember about chain restaurants (be they local or national) ... the owner(s) want the experience to be the same regardless of which location you attend. Thus, they have put in place a series of suppliers and processes to reliably deliver the same food quality and nutrition across all of their locations.

In this blog's previous incarnation, I would've almost immediately turned down a request to review a national chain restaurant. They stand to offer little local character to the food scene and quite frankly, the food can be rather uninspiring. Now that things have changed for me and most chains publish their nutritional information, I find that chain restaurants offer me the opportunity to vet them on my computer at my own leisure without the pressure of having to make an uninformed choice when sitting at the restaurant. And I know that if I find something on the menu that I can actually have, all the locations will be able to provide it with the same nutritional content (in other words, one location won't be salting it more than the others).

Most restaurants' nutritional information is offered via a downloadable PDF file that is organized in a spreadsheet-like format. After figuring out which column represents sodium, scan through the list of offerings to find items that fit within your daily sodium budget. Occasionally, I've found websites where you had to essentially submit requests item by item in order to retrieve nutritional information (I'm looking at you, Outback Steakhouse). My rule of thumb is that if I can't easily scan through a list of items to find the information I need, you're out. Buh-bye.

If you're surprised that I would even consider Outback Steakhouse, know that I found a very low sodium meal that I can have at PF Chang's (gluten-free Buddha's Feast with steamed vegetables and brown rice -- 80 mg for the entire meal). Yes, this is the same PF Chang's that offers an item that has nearly 8000 mg of sodium for a single dish (a bowl of their Hot & Sour soup)! You just don't know until you start doing the research.


Next up, we have the local chain restaurants (some national ones, too, like Cracker Barrel) that haven't published any nutritional information. Honestly, I don't even bother with these. If they aren't willing to divulge, then I'm not willing to be used as a guinea pig.


Finally, we have the local independent restaurants. While they don't publish nutritional information, at these types of establishments, you have the opportunity to actually talk to the person/people who actually cook your food. That is all well and good, of course, but I've found that independent restaurants fall into two categories:
  1. Restaurants that season the food as it is being prepped and then do a final seasoning as it is cooked for service.
  2. Restaurants that don't season the food as it is being prepped and only do a final seasoning as it is cooked for service.
And, of course, know that most restaurants fall in between those two extremes. So, you may come across some items on a restaurant's menu that are seasoned during prep (such as house-made charcuterie or a confit duck or chicken) and others such as sauces that are only seasoned during final cooking for service. Once you manage to track down the person making the food, it pays to ask very specific questions. I would 100% never, ever, ever, ever walk into a restaurant which I haven't vetted, either by looking at published nutritional information or talking with the chef (or at least a manager) ahead of time. It's not fair to the restaurant and it's not fair to you. Even with my dietary restrictions, I still want my dining out experience to be pleasant and anything I can do to make it as smooth as possible is welcomed both by the restaurant and by me.

Here's the thing about eating a very low sodium diet (along with no butter and no cheese): expect that most restaurants that can accommodate you will pretty much be able to offer only one thing on the menu that you can eat. If you're lucky, two. If you're REALLY lucky, you'll come across a restaurant that can offer you four or five choices. When you find those restaurants, thank your lucky stars and give them patronage whenever you can. Opening a dialogue with the chef goes light years towards helping you achieve your nutritional goals and helps the restaurant understand exactly what you can and can't have. Once you've established that repertoire with a kitchen, it can be very easy, for instance, to find out if the daily special can be done within your dietary restrictions. "Chef says that the special is all salt-free except for the chicken, which is brined." Good to know!

So, this leads to the question of how to initiate that dialogue, especially if you don't know the chef or if you haven't ever been to the restaurant.

Go to the restaurant's website and/or Facebook page. If there is a contact email listed, use it. Leaving a public comment on a restaurant's Facebook page is kind of hit or miss; it'll depend on how actively the restaurant monitors their own page. I've also been known to send a Twitter message if a Twitter account is all that I can find. Explain your predicament and ask for advice in steering you towards menu items that would be appropriate. Here is a recent example of a message I sent to a restaurant:

"Sir/madam --

I have friends who have invited me to join them for dinner at your restaurant in a couple of weeks. I am writing to you ahead of time because I have several dietary restrictions (no salt, butter, cream, or cheese) and was hoping you might be able to suggest an item or two on your current dinner menu that would be easy for the kitchen to accommodate me during service. Oil (olive, canola, vegetable, etc.) is perfectly fine. Please direct any response or additional questions to my email address.

Thank you for your time."

You'll get one of three responses:
  1. Yes, we can accommodate you and here are your choices.
  2. No, I'm sorry, but we can't accommodate you.
  3. No response.
#1 happens pretty often. #2 happens, but more rarely. #3 happens more often than you'd like to think. To be honest, I'd rather hear back from a restaurant stating that they can't accommodate me than not hearing back at all. That being said, #3 just means that in the game of consumer choice, the restaurant simply loses by default.

So far, this has been my strategy for tackling the restaurant problem and I've had good results. If you're scared at the thought of talking to an honest-to-goodness chef (the Food Network does seem to put them on a pedestal), know that almost every chef I've interacted positively with absolutely wants you to enjoy your experience at their restaurant and as long as you are courteous and willing to work with them, they are happy to give you the information you need to make your visit a success.

Do you have any tips for successfully navigating the restaurant scene? I'd love to hear them in the comments.

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