Lynn Signorelli's daughter Arabelle was just fourteen months old when she discovered her life-threatening allergy to nuts. Initially, Signorelli stopped taking her daughter to restaurants for fear of contamination. But ten years later, things have changed. "There's definitely been a shift in the awareness," said the Berkeley mom, who was recently diagnosed with a pistachio allergy herself. Luckily, Arabelle, who also has a less-severe allergy to wheat, has never had a problem.
For folks with food allergies and sensitivities, eating can be the ultimate double-edged sword: Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Eating out is especially difficult, since even traces of the allergen can trigger a reaction which might range from mild eczema or asthma to fatal anaphylactic shock.
By all accounts, it's an issue for a growing number of people. Researchers estimate that food allergies affect about twelve million Americans, nearly one in five of them school-aged kids. The majority are allergic to eight foods: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Another large segment of the population has celiac, an autoimmune disease in which the body cannot tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. Research has not determined the causes of these conditions, only that strict avoidance is the only sure way to prevent a reaction.
Thankfully, many people with allergies and sensitivities can now leave the safety of their kitchens. As their numbers increase, so, too, has the awareness among restaurateurs that some of their customers have special requirements. "If someone tells us they have a nut allergy, we take that really seriously," says Daphne Knowles, one of the owners of À Côté in Oakland. She says dishes can be made without nuts, but that customers should steer clear of fried items since the restaurant uses peanut oil. Pizza Rustica Cafe in Oakland offers a gluten-free crust if customers call ahead. Rick & Ann's offers gluten-free orange rice-flour pancakes, while their tofu scramble is dairy-free and vegetarian. Several of their other dishes are egg-free as well.
Advance notice and the ability to customize dishes are key when dealing with restaurants, Signorelli says. When trying a new eatery, she calls ahead at a convenient time to suss out which menu items are least likely to be contaminated by nuts. "People are fairly wonderful about it," she says.
For example, Berkeley's Caffe Venezia lets Signorelli bring her own rice pasta for her daughter. Cactus Taqueria is virtually nut-free, save for its mole sauce and for celiac customers, the corn tortillas are a safe alternative to the wheat. Berkeley's Naio Gelato uses a different scoop for each flavor.
Surprisingly, though, no restaurant in the hyper-food-conscious Bay Area specifically caters to people with food allergies. The closest is the organic, vegan, raw-foods Berkeley restaurant Cafe Gratitude, where all the food happens to be gluten-free, wheat-free, and dairy-free, while soy is used minimally in the desserts. Unfortunately, those with severe nut allergies should avoid the food and stick to fruit juices, says district manager Chandra Gilbert.
For those with a sweet tooth, there's the newly opened Mariposa Bakery in Oakland, which carries scrumptious desserts for the wheat-free, gluten-free crowd, plus daily pizza specials. Its tasty biscotti are also dairy-free. However, the nut-allergic are again not so lucky.
Family-oriented chain restaurants actually seem the most conscious of providing allergen-free foods and the market for doing so. Outback Steakhouse has a gluten-free menu guide, while KFC, Chili's, and Romano's Macaroni Grill provide menus with information for all eight allergens. San Francisco Soup Company has gluten-free and dairy-free options. P.F. Chang's designed a specific gluten-free menu and also has guides for the other allergens. Chevy's and Fresh Choice are virtually nut-free, except for some desserts. However, making sure their large staffs are properly trained can be more challenging than at mom-and-pop eateries. Pasta Pomodoro started offering gluten-free pasta two years ago but stopped recently after receiving at least three complaints of contamination. Marketing vice president Matthew Cross said the move was out of conscientiousness: "We had the best intentions."
Indeed, with the chaotic nature of restaurant kitchens, it's nearly impossible for managers to guarantee that people with food intolerances won't have any problem. Which is why most of them don't. Restaurant owners typically give disclaimers. Still, Signorelli says increased awareness has given her daughter more food options. "The Bay Area is a pretty special place," she said.
FOOD ALLERGY RESOURCES
A Bay Area Yahoo support group for
parents of children with food allergies.
Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network
Aims to clarify understanding of food allergy issues and offer resources.
Food Allergy Initiative
Raises money for treatment
and curative research.
Food Allergy Survivors Together
Provides support for people with food allergies in the family chat, mailing list, recipes, and more.
Magazine with articles on food allergy research, treatments, traveling, socializing, and food prep.
For more gluten-free resources, see this week's cover story on celiac disease.
1730 Shattuck Ave.,
Raw-food vegan menu is completely gluten-free, egg-free, milk-free, fish-free, shellfish-free, and mostly soy-free
2625 Durant Ave., Berkeley.
Raw-food menu with vegetarian,
Menu info on eight food allergens
Menu info on eight food allergens.
Cafe Mariposa & Bakeshop
5427 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.
Gluten-free desserts, biscotti also dairy-free
Gluten-free menu and menu info
on eight allergens
Gluten-free menu guide
Pizza Rustica Cafe
5422 College Ave., Oakland.
Call ahead for gluten-free pizza crust
Rick & Ann's
2922 Domingo Ave., Berkeley.
Gluten-free orange rice-flour pancakes, with dairy-free and egg-free options
Romano's Macaroni Grill
Menu info on eight food allergens
San Francisco Soup Company
Oakland City Center, 1300 Clay St.,
Oakland. 510-763-7687 SFSoupCo.com