Tips For Dining Out Gluten-Free: My Trip To London

Tips For Dining Out Gluten-Free: My Trip To London

For someone who believes dining out is half the reason to travel, I can not tell you the disappointment I have felt since finding out I need to be gluten-free.  I recently took a trip to  see the London Jazz Festival and it was tough being in a city with restaurants everywhere that I couldn't eat in.  It was also hard because when I was hungry, I couldn't always eat right away.  To add to the difficulty, for some reason, my phone didn't work there.  I couldn't get 3G so no Google Maps, Yelp, or GPS to help me out when roaming the streets looking for food.

This was my first trip since discovering that I have problems with wheat, so the entire trip was a new experience for me.  I was able to learn, first hand, the difficulties of traveling with food allergies.  However, I still had to eat, and along the trip I learned some interesting tips as well as things to be aware of for future endeavors.

First, the plane ride.  Thankfully they serve decent food on Delta flying from Boston to London and the flight attendants were more than happy to give me extra of certain foods I could eat.  In addition, they told me that if I give more than 24 hours notice on future flights, they will have a gluten-free meal for me (remember this tip!).  I wound up having hummus, a salad, nuts, and cheese.  I also brought along a banana.

However, I needed to eat before the plane ride (because I wasn't sure how much food I was going to get on the flight), and finding decent food at the airport is hard enough without an allergy.  I settled on a cheeseburger with no bun.  I ate it like a steak.  Not the best meal, but at least I ate something.

Once I arrived in London the following morning (it's a red-eye there with the time difference), I stopped at a food stand in Paddington Station and found a  yogurt compote.  For some reason, the yogurt tasted much better than in the States.  Of course, I couldn't choose one with granola, so I went with the yogurt and fruit, only.

Once I settled in, I found a mini-grocery store called M&S  (Marks and Spencer) near the hotel and discovered it would be cheaper, and easier, to find lunch and snacks there instead of going all over the city looking for dine-in meals.  I was traveling alone, so this was another reason it was a good option.

For lunch I found an Indian Chicken with Rice.  They sold various gluten-free sandwiches (though all out of stock at the time) and wheat-free prepared meals.  It tasted fresh and it was good.

I then went back to the hotel and took a nap (much needed as I hadn't really slept in 24 hours or so!), since I had not one, but two, jazz shows to attend that night; one at 7:30 and another at 11:00 pm (I was ambitious on this trip).

I had reservations for dinner at the Pizza Express Jazz Club for the 7:30 show; Charles McPherson.  I did not plan ahead and never looked at the menu before making the reservation, which I really should have done.  However I lucked out and they had a gluten-free dish; Eggplant Parmesan (Melanzane Parmigiana) made with gluten-free breadcrumbs.

This dish was very good, but I really missed having it with pasta.  The struggle in dining out with allergies is that you wind up having to omit foods, whereas at home, you can purchase substitutes at the grocery store (like brown rice pasta).

I was also able to enjoy a gelato for dessert.  So I wasn't hungry when I left (but wasn't entirely full, either).  But enough to enjoy a great performance!  My favorite pastime; listening to live jazz with a good meal.


Later that evening I headed over to the other famous club in the Soho section of London, Ronnie Scott's Jazz club, to see Dee Dee Bridgewater for the 11pm show.  Completely different kind of venue, though.  Pizza Express Jazz Club was more my taste, in the basement of a pizza restaurant, intimate and dark setting.  More casual.  Felt like a cigar bar of the 50's or something.

Ronnie Scott's felt a little more formal.  Seating was different; instead of tables, most of us sat in rows.  I didn't like this as much as I didn't have as much room to move and felt I had to sit straight up the whole time, rather than kick back and relax.  A bonus though, the acoustics were good and the music was right there in front of me.  I also got to meet a young man attending Oxford who is from New Jersey, and we had a great conversation talking about the jazz clubs in NY and the music we like.

And of course, by this time, I was hungry again.  So on to tackle the late night bar menu...

I wound up choosing the Cheese Board with Fruit.  It was pretty good!  Still missed my grains, though.  There wasn't much on this menu to work with, and I only needed a snack, but the choices that were doable were all meat and cheese.

Once again, a great performance.  No pictures allowed in Ronnie Scott's, but I did snag one before I had to put my camera away.

After Ronnie Scotts ended (about 1 am), I took a tour of the city at night.  I stopped at a night club called Bar Soho.   I quickly remembered why I don't like night clubs.  Too loud, too many people crammed into a tiny space and too much drinking.  I'll stick to my refined jazz clubs, thank you.  I only stayed about a half-an-hour before I had enough of that gravy train.  I headed back out to check out the city.

I decided to walk back to the hotel, rather than getting a cab (not sure what possessed me to make that grand decision), but it was a nice walk and I came across a street musician who played excellent saxophone.  He had a slew of people circling around watching.  It was really kind of cool to be out in a big city at around 2 am watching live street music with about 50 or more other people.  I'm not a night person, and I wouldn't make it a habit to roam city streets at this time of night (or morning), but nonetheless this was an authentic experience and one I really enjoyed.

That ends Day 1 of London.  Here are some tips I learned:

  • The hardest thing about being gluten-free when traveling is the gravitation towards meat and cheese.  Personally, I have gone most of my adult life hardly touching red meat, and now I felt like I ate more of it in a weekend than I would in a month (as you will see when you read days 2 and 3).  Whole grains are much healthier in larger quantities than meat and cheese, which should be eaten more sparingly.
  • Not enough carbs!  Again, there are no substitutes, but elimination instead.  This is tough.  I tried to compensate by buying fresh fruit or vegetables when I could.
  • Hitting the grocery stores and the farmers markets was better than restaurant dining for during the day.  It's cheaper and you can read the labels to see if it is certified gluten-free, or simply doesn't contain wheat.  I was also able to buy gluten-free snacks (like crackers) when going to the grocery store.  There was also a Whole Foods Market just outside of Soho.
  • I have found since going gluten-free, I have more energy, despite the fact that I have more meat, cheese and fruit than before. (Of course, fruit gives us energy).  I think when grains are too easily accessible, we eat too many of them, and in the end, it makes us more lethargic due to the blood sugar levels fluctuating in addition to the research that supports the idea that being slightly less than full is better for our health.
  • Plan ahead and you should be fine!  If you take some time to research restaurants and their menus online, you can have an enjoyable meal out and still stick to your dietary needs.
  • Don't let food allergies keep you from having a good time.  While I missed not being able to choose anything I liked on the menu, I still found good food and was able to enjoy some great live performances and a great city.
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