Pleasurable Dining Out With Extensive Dietary Restrictions
November 5, 2018 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm an enthusiastic omnivore living in a well-known food city. I enjoy dining out for relaxation, learning about new foods and cooking techniques, and celebrating special occasions and milestones. However, my girlfriend follows a very limited diet for health reasons. This makes dining out challenging and even if the food can be made according to her diet, the result is often not that interesting or tasty. Is there a way we can make eating out genuinely pleasurable for both of us, or do I resign myself to doing most of my restaurant dining alone or with friends?

Restaurants in my area are often aware of and can easily accommodate common dietary restrictions by offering veg*n, gluten-free, or dairy-free options. However my girlfriend follows a diet (Autoimmune Paleo) that is both quite restrictive and not well known. Grains, dairy, legumes, nightshades, and seed oils are all off-limits. Restaurant dishes that satisfy one restriction often will violate others, e.g. gluten-free dishes using dairy, and nightshades especially tend to sneak in via spice blends.

With some advance planning and thorough questioning it's certainly possible to get a restaurant meal that is compliant with the AIP diet, but this often amounts to plain, unmarinated, barely seasoned protein served with plain, unsauced, barely seasoned vegetables. Safe but boring. GF grumbles that she can cook much better food at home without paying restaurant prices and I don't blame her. When dining out with a group I think she often eats beforehand and just orders a drink or small item. For dining out as a couple that doesn't work as well, and I feel a bit rude enjoying an interesting and flavorful meal while she gets stuck with something so plain.

Is relaxed, pleasurable dining out together possible for us?
posted by 4rtemis to Food & Drink (20 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
That depends on (1) is your gf really Ok with eating boring food while you enjoy your meal? and (2) if she says she's OK with it, can you trust her and relax and enjoy your own meal? If not, can you find a short list of restaurants that you can trust to have actually good options for her and/or figure out other kinds of going out experiences that work for the two of you, while satisfying some of your culinary cravings with other friends. After all, as long as the two of you some plenty of good relaxing time together, it is OK that you also have that kind of pleasant experience with other friends.
posted by metahawk at 2:24 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pleasurable dining out for you two will indeed be in her eating before hand and having something small and a drink at the restaurant, and in you being cool with it. The pleasure can be in feeling accepted and normal, rather than eating a big meal
posted by Mistress at 2:28 PM on November 5, 2018 [11 favorites]

There are some good places to start here.
posted by Drosera at 2:33 PM on November 5, 2018

I know your girlfriend's pain. This is not a hobby that will be enjoyable / a good use of her or your time. Have you considered going all in on becoming a creative cook yourself?

I love culinary adventure, I get it, it's a huge wonderful part of modern life. Maybe learn to get your sense adventure on through another sense: art, music, gardens, theater (theater can be cool, and you can talk about it over a snack at the _one restaurant you will find after extensive research_ that works for her).

The adventure/fun part of restauranting comes from the element of surprise and of not having to work too hard to get the deliciousness. Neither of those match your girlfriend's needs.

If you want to do some creative legwork to find a restaurant that will delight and reassure her, that would be wonderful -- but, as you know, this will be a gift from you, not a gift to you from the world..... so sorry.
posted by amtho at 2:41 PM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you're in a city with a few paleo-oriented restaurants, you may be able to compile a list of a few spots that would work. Your best bet may be finding a place where you can become 'regulars' -- start with a place with at least one dish that suits her needs, go on slow nights, maybe once a week or so, and cultivate a relationship with staff. (And tip well.) That way, she can trust the prep, she can maybe go off-menu and discover new dishes she loves, and the staff can feel confident that they understand what she needs and won't accidentally make her ill by experimenting.

As someone who was once on a similar diet, though, it really *can* be difficult to do much of anything exciting. Maybe you could channel some of your interest in food into cooking classes, butchery, foraging, or other food-oriented but non-restaurant activities that you could share and enjoy together? (Home cooking will likely allow for a tastier outcome, since a lot of paleo-focused places do still use nut/seed oils and dairy, meaning kitchen staff will be constrained by what they have on hand for prep. And you can use some of the money you'd otherwise spend on restaurant meals to procure really excellent home ingredients.)
posted by halation at 2:43 PM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would focus on finding a few restaurants (or even just one!) that can accommodate your girlfriend’s diet. Become regulars there. Dine early (before the rush), get to know the staff, and over-tip.
posted by actionstations at 2:44 PM on November 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm in a similar boat and the answer is: no, restaurants are generally not pleasurable for people on restricted diets. As you've seen, you can kiiiind of get taken care of at a steak or seafood place but not really; not if she's off butter too.

You'd be doing a loving thing to figure out other kinds of dates to take her on, and ideally learn to cook a couple really tasty things that do work for her, so she can have a night off from cooking and experience what everyone else gets to have at a restaurant, viz., something extra tasty she didn't have to work to research or make or clean up.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:08 PM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I love dining out and enjoy a number of cuisines that my husband doesn't. He's not a big restaurant person in general. So, I go out with like-minded friends. For every meal out with my husband, I go to around 10 without him. We're both fine with it.

Maybe you can do the same and then redirect the energy used searching for restaurant meals that don't exist into leveling-up your home cooking game with custom spice blends and known safe foods compatible with your girlfriend's dietary needs.
posted by quince at 3:11 PM on November 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: One quick follow-up: we are both accomplished home cooks, so I can and quite happily do cook high-quality AIP-compliant meals for her/us at home already. This question is about getting someone else to do it for us every once in a while.
posted by 4rtemis at 3:17 PM on November 5, 2018

As someone who's been temporarily on a restrictive diet for health reasons, I'm afraid these diets often reassign food to the 'fuel, not fun' category. It can be healthy to think of food this way even for people without special health needs (certainly makes it easier to eat healthy food in general) but for me this is a challenge that would have to be met in the kitchen, not in the restaurant. If you're building a meal from a set of approved ingredients to start, it's much more fun and pleasant than trying to cut all the unapproved ingredients from a meal that's already been designed.
posted by Lady Li at 3:18 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree that you need to find some regular go-to restaurants, so that you both know your girlfriend will be at ease. The whole point is for both of you to feel relaxed, and if she's not, you're not going to be.

I lived with someone with dietary restrictions for many years, and the worst part was traveling, even to nearby towns, because he'd have to look at every menu (if we were lucky enough to find restaurants that posted their menus on the window, typical in tourist areas), and we'd often tramp around for a good hour, both of us cranky and hungry, before we found somewhere he could eat.

So I see it as:

1. Get a lineup of regular places, where she knows she can get what she needs, and you both like the food, atmosphere, and service;

2. If you want to try a new place, look at their menu, have her look at it, and go early, before they are slammed, so you can get the extra special attention needed to accommodate her needs -- be prepared to be disappointed, and if necessary, go home and have a fallback meal planned. You can then put this on your list of places to go out only with friends;

3. Consider hiring a private chef once in a while, on special occasions, to come into your home and pamper the both of you, without having to worry about the food. That would probably be a treat for both of you.

It's hard all around, I know. Best of luck to both of you!
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:19 PM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Is relaxed, pleasurable dining out together possible for us?

the suggestions above to make yourselves regulars someplace that handles the restrictions well are probably your best option.

other than that, if you're looking to try someplace new, call ahead? like, early, before the dinner rush, so you can thoroughly explain what's off-limits and the restaurant can brainstorm some dishes that aren't boring af and if they seem put out or skeptical or crabby about the request you can just bail and ring up a different place.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:34 PM on November 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Can you try breakfast, brunch, or lunch meals, instead of dinner? It can be easier to build a diet-compliant, interesting meal a la carte from those menus.
posted by Iris Gambol at 4:09 PM on November 5, 2018

If it's about getting other people to cook for you sometimes and learning new foods and techniques, maybe trade off hosting dinner parties with friends who cook AIP at home, or are willing to? I know it is a rare friend who can handle truly accommodating a serious food restriction in a home kitchen, but it's also a rare restaurant, and maybe the friend is a better long-term relationship investment.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 5:18 PM on November 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I know this doesn't fulfill the "dining out" or "relaxed" component, but have you thought about hiring a personal chef for special occasions? I think someone crafting a menu and going shopping with your girlfriend in mind would have more flexibility than a restaurant working with what's on hand and a set menu.

I just interviewed an event planner, and I didn't know that well-off people regularly hire chefs with experience from top restaurants to come cook for their dinner parties, but it's totally a thing!
posted by Juliet Banana at 6:07 PM on November 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I might find some local places that are smaller and locally-owned, that are dietary-restriction friendly (have vegan or GF or peanut-free dishes or whatever), that cook in a cuisine that can be adapted to your AIP, and call to ask if you can discuss with the chef one afternoon during the slow time. If you're a regular (or willing to become one!), they may well be willing to work with you to provide some meal options for your girlfriend -- they're often willing to do that for children with serious dietary restrictions so the parents can bring their kid and eat out as a family.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:35 PM on November 5, 2018

I know this is a bit sideways to your question but I recommend finding other rituals at a similar time of day - a walk together, yoga or other class, stroll through local gallery, readings, etc. - as your relax and renew ritual. My husband and I made a similar change for health reasons and it took a while to find a non-restaurant groove. Then you can go out with friends knowing you’re not less connected with your partner.

Also for a long time we had a “platter meal” on Fridays which was anything that fit our diet that was no-prep on a platter, eaten like appetizers in front of either the fireplace or a movie. It felt relaxed.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:47 AM on November 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it is fine to ask if restaurants would be able to accommodate these needs in advance, as long as you know many will say no. It might help to make part of the ask “we will come in on a weeknight and make a reservation if you tell us what night/time tends to be slower for the kitchen”, because making a special dish at 6 PM on a Tuesday night when business is slow is MUCH easier than making it at 8 on a Friday when the kitchen is slammed even with their regular dishes that they know inside and out.

When I had a friend visiting from out of town who was on an elimination diet, I went to a local restaurant during their off hours to ask about feasibility of her eating anything there, and they were very helpful about it.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:42 AM on November 6, 2018

The big cheap all you can eat buffet with Italian, Chinese, Salad and Grill options may be your best bet. When trying to feed a group that involves vegans, carnivores, someone with no teeth, and someone with allergies this worked best for us. There are no haut cuisine options and the food is often just a wee trifle less than gourmet, but generally everyone can find something they can eat and have a running chance of liking. Sometimes those places make much of their profit from drinks and can afford tolerable food in the buffet. If you can find a place that does seafood as well that increases her paleo options. And these buffets often have coupons etc. to lessen the cost, which will be helpful to prevent your girlfriend complaining that she could do better and cheaper at home.

Try to avoid one that is also a strip cub. It's disheartening to watch the crowd ignoring the gyrating dancers while they shovel the food in.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:05 AM on November 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

It would be nice to find one place where you can reliably get a casual meal out together when you don't feel like cooking.

Other than that, I think it's totally okay for her to just not join you in your hobby of enjoying fine dining. Couples don't have to enjoy all the same activities. There is nothing wrong with eating a meal without your partner.
posted by desuetude at 7:39 AM on November 7, 2018

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