Last updated: March 5, 2016
If there's one thing I've learned from over a year of doing AIP, it's that maintaining your social life is crucial for long term success.
Unfortunately, eating out with friends is a key component of my social life. When I first started AIP, I'd find myself failing every time I ate out. It seemed like every restaurant was conspiring against me with hidden paprika, processed vegetable oils and other undisclosed ingredients.
Although I abandoned eating out for almost a year, I ultimately decided to treat it as a personal challenge. Could I learn how to find the ideal restaurants in my city?
Thankfully, the answer was yes, and below is my guide for how you can too.
This guide tackles the four majors challenges you must overcome to successfully eat AIP at restaurants:
- Conducting restaurant research
- Awareness of common traps and pitfalls
- Communication with the restaurant
- Traveling on short notice
Step 1: Research
If you're lucky, someone will have published an AIP guide for restaurants in your city (usually the city where the author happens to live). For example:
However, most people reading this won't have that luxury. Therefore, your first step is to compile a list of candidate restaurants in your area.
It's not a perfect tool, but I've found that Yelp is often the best place to get started with your research. Searching for basic keywords like:
- nightshades / nightshade
- gluten free
- allergens / allergies
- grass fed
...can give you a starting point for good candidates.
One thing I've noticed about Yelp is that it loves to filter your results in unhelpful ways. For example, when I search AIP in Yelp, here's what I initially get: no results with a message that they've filtered out "less relevant categories."
But if you click on "Show all results", you'll be given the unfiltered data set. Yes, some of it won't be applicable, but that's for you to decide, not Yelp. In my case, I found lots of good results by turning off the filters, including Mission Heirloom and Little Gem.
Once you're presented with a list of restaurants based on the keywords above, open each of them in a new tab in your browser (clicking each link while holding down Ctrl/Cmd will help you do this quickly).
Yelp allows you to search the comments of a particular restaurant, so on each restaurant's Yelp page, do a comments search for the keyword you used to learn more about why this restaurant matched it.
For example, I used "gluten" and "nightshade" as my search keywords on Yelp, so I also searched for those in the comments, hoping to find helpful reviews from people with gluten and/or nightshade allergies.
Here's an example of a review that convinced me to add Roam Artisan Burgers to my candidates list.
If the keywords above aren't yielding enough candidates, you could also start with restaurant categories that are more likely to be AIP-friendly. Here are a few categories that I've found work well:
- Shabu-shabu. (Japanese hot pot) For Shabu-shabu, you're looking for a simple, soy-free broth, such as kombu broth that you can cook raw meat and veggies in.
- American grill. Many restaurants in this category are open to modifications. For example, unseasoned meat cooked in an AIP friendly oil, with a side of steamed veggies. Bonus points if the restaurant also sources local and/or pastured meats.
- Seafood. You'll often find steamed seafood options, which you can ask for with sauce on the side.
The research process took me a few hours, and I must've gone through over a hundred restaurants. The result? A list of 15 candidate restaurants that I would contact about my dietary needs.
Here's a screenshot showing part of the list. (It has way more information in it now, but imagine that it was just a list of restaurants during step 1.)
Before we reach out to these restaurants, let's take a second to discuss common pitfalls I wish I had known about sooner...
Step 2: Common traps and pitfalls
In my earlier dining out experiments while traveling, I've accidentally glutened myself by failing to ask about ingredients (e.g. soy sauce in broths), exposed myself to hidden nightshades in Thai food, and more.
Here are my three biggest lessons from these failures:
In many cases, you'll need to explain what nightshades are, as the person you talk to may not be familiar. It's helpful to explicitly mention the sneaky, hidden nightshades such as paprika and chili oil.
For cuisines that are typically non-AIP compatible, find one restaurant you can build trust with. For example, Ellen, an AIP adherent based in Seattle, invested time in identifying a Thai restaurant she could trust to provide a nightshade-free tom kha gai soup. She writes: "I don’t like drawing attention to myself or asking them to change the dish. But it’s worth it to me to be able to eat thai food. I’ve also found it helpful to find a restaurant I trust that I know has a low risk for cross-contamination."
Don't forget about the oil! If you're getting anything cooked, be explicit in asking whether they can cook the dish in olive oil or another AIP-friendly oil. Many restaurants that are otherwise very healthy and AIP-friendly will cook with soybean oil. I've asked them about this – supposedly Americans prefer the neutral flavor of these vegetable oils.
With these pitfalls out of the way, it's time to reach out to these businesses!
Step 3: Communication
In the past, I found it difficult to speak to my server at restaurants about my dietary needs, so I would just avoid going out altogether.
Especially in loud, busy restaurants, where you've been waiting forever to put your order in, the last thing you want to do is ask a hundred questions about what's in every single dish.
The secret to avoiding all of this nonsense? Reach out to the restaurant well in advance.
Even then, I found calling over the phone to be difficult, especially with background noise and the occasional language barrier.
This is where Yelp and email come in handy. But first, you need to draft your message.
Since AIP is so restrictive, I've found it helps to specifically include what you're looking for. So instead of just pointing out all of your restrictions, also guide them to what you expect to be eating.
In most cases, you'll be asking for meat, fish and/or veggies (without nightshades), either steamed, raw or in an AIP-friendly oil.
Here's an example message I used, slightly modified for clarity:
I'm interested in eating at Limon with a few friends next week. However, I have food sensitivities to grains, legumes, dairy, nightshades (peppers, paprika, tomatoes, etc.), nuts and seeds.
I'm just curious if there are any items I can order that would meet my dietary requirements?
Essentially, I'm looking for an unseasoned meat/fish dish with a vegetable side, ideally either steamed or cooked in olive oil. Is this something that the kitchen could accommodate?
Any guidance would be greatly appreciated.
By using Yelp's Message This Business feature, I was able to copy and paste this same message about my dietary restrictions to each business and ask them if there were any menu items that could suit my needs.
Note the "Message the business" option in the screenshot below.
For any restaurants that don't have a "Message the business" link, go on their website and look for an email address. This allows you to continue to use the one drafted message with very little extra work.
Once you contact a few, add them to a list or spreadsheet on your computer, and keep track of what they say! As an example, here's my list again:
It's at this point that you'll receive a few rejections from the restaurants you contacted. And that's to be expected – I found that ~15% of the restaurants I contacted were be able to cater to my needs. A few more restaurants seemed to be a better fit for after I've reintroduced more foods into my diet.
On the other hand, you may find that some restaurants exceed your expectations with the quality of their replies. For example, here's one response I got from a Japanese hot pot restaurant in San Francisco:
This is Kevin Kim, the assistant manager at Nabe. Thank you for contacting us prior to the visit you are planning next week regarding your food allergies.
We offer a miso broth that is actually mushroom based that is both vegan and gluten free. If you have, more specifically, a soy allergy as well, this would not be an option. Another broth option we do have is the traditional konbu broth. This consists of konbu (a dried edible kelp that is rich in glutamic acid that adds a level of natural umami not found in other food items), salt, and water. The traditional konbu broth is the most plain broth that is available for our nabemono sets. The other broths that we have on our menu do unfortunately have gluten or nightshades in them but you are free to make any substitutions as you see fit.
A few other things to keep in mind as well are the noodles/starch associated with our nabemono sets, and our dipping sauces. We do offer 3 different gluten free starch options; shirataki noodles (yam noodles), harusame (potato starch noodle), and a gluten free mochi (rice cake) that you are able to substitute for something like udon or ramen for example. We would not be able to serve you our house-made ponzu - a citrusy soy-based dipping sauce, but we do offer a gluten free goma dare - a sesame based dipping sauce.
All of our servers are trained and informed about all of of the things that I have mentioned here and are more than willing to assist and accommodate for your food allergies.
If you are still interested, please feel free to call us at the restaurant during our regularly scheduled business hours to book a reservation (which I highly recommend) or fill out the request form located on our website, http://www.nabesf.com/reservations.html.
This was reply was hands down the best one I received. Nabe was the first restaurant I visited since starting this experiment, and I had a fantastic experience. I'll definitely be going back there often.
My hope is that you'll receive at least one similarly high quality reply.
Step 4: Traveling on short notice
Are you traveling and don't have time to run through the above process? Here are a few tips I try to follow while traveling:
Good salad bars are your friend. The key is to add your own protein via canned fish or other sources, as the prepared foods at salad bars can often contain hidden ingredients.
Eat through the grocery store. This isn't as bad as I thought it would be. My go-to grocery store meal – canned sardines, carrot or celery sticks, and a small carton of berries – isn't particularly exciting, but it gets the job done.
Find a Whole Foods. If there's a Whole Foods nearby, you'll have even more options. The salad bar is a good choice, and even the hot bar has a few options that are AIP friendly, but be mindful of the ingredients and use common sense – I've seen hot bar items mislabeled or not labeled at all at certain Whole Foods locations.
Bring some staples. If possible, sneak a few food items in your bag for airport layovers and other situations where you're stuck with zero food options. A few of my favorite portable food items:
Experiences from the AIP community
On a closing note, this post was inspired by the few people out there who have documented their experiences eating on while on AIP. Here are those resources if you want to learn more or get other viewpoints.
- Eating at Restaurants While on the Autoimmune Protocol
- 4 Tips for Eating Out on the AIP Diet
- Tips for Dining Out on the Autoimmune Protocol
- Travel Food Tips While on AIP
- Link Love: Traveling on a Healing Diet