Ever since my husband, Jonathan, and I started dating in 1996, eating out in restaurants or ordering takeout has been a big part of our entertainment. We love finding new restaurants and returning to old favorites to order familiar dishes.
When our now 9-year-old daughter, Alex, was diagnosed with severe peanut and egg allergies as a 3-year-old in 2007, we realized our lifestyle was going to have to drastically change.
We were scared by Alex's allergic reaction -- too scared to introduce her to new foods in our own home, let alone to take the risk of eating in restaurants.
But, as time went by and we adjusted to our new normal, we wanted to start incorporating elements of our old life into our new reality.
I had wanted to give Jonathan a special gift that Christmas. I wanted to come up with a list of our favorite restaurants that were safe to eat at, and wrap it up in a bow for him. I wanted to convince him -- and me -- that our situation wasn't as dire as we feared, and we could still enjoy going to restaurants as a family.
So I called the first place on my list. When I told the manager about my daughter's food allergies and asked what accommodations the restaurant could make, he shot me down. He told me we just shouldn't come to his restaurant because he couldn't, or wouldn't, accommodate Alex’s needs.
His reaction was exactly what I had tried to convince Jonathan would not happen. But it did. And I was discouraged. Blinking back tears, I hung up the phone and threw away the rest of my list. We continued to avoid restaurants for a while after that.
Now, after six years of living this allergy life, and with the clear focus of hindsight, I realize I hadn't been ready to try restaurants yet. We were too new to food allergies, still processing our new reality and coping with our fear, and we didn't even know what questions to ask.
I also gave up way too easily. The reality is that there are restaurants like that first one I called, where people won't even try to accommodate food allergies. But the good news is that in this age of ever-increasing allergy awareness, those restaurants are few and far between. If I had continued down my list, I would have found many restaurants with knowledgeable, friendly people who would be happy to accommodate Alex's allergies.
Through the years we have found many restaurants, and our daughters are growing up sharing their parents' love of restaurants. Here are a few allergy-friendly restaurants in the Milwaukee area. Please add your comments below if you know of other allergy-friendly restaurants for families.
A WORD OF CAUTION: I am not a doctor. I am sharing my experiences only. Food allergies can be deadly and need to be taken seriously. Do not substitute my judgment for your own. If you go to these restaurants, make sure you talk to the staff about your allergies, and feel comfortable before you eat anything.
A note about locations: Although some of the restaurants in this review have multiple locations, I am just noting the locations we actually visited.
Maggiano's Little Italy
2500 N. Mayfair Rd., Wauwatosa
Our experience: Jonathan and I were told by a server at Tucci Bennuch, an Italian restaurant in the Mall of America, that Maggiano's was a Lettuce Entertain You Restaurant, a company which trains its staff very well in food allergy knowledge and accommodations. So we decided to try Maggiano's when we returned to Milwaukee.
When I called Maggiano's to find out how well the restaurant could accommodate Alex's allergies, the woman who answered the phone said she thought the pasta was egg-free, and double-checked to make sure.
We visited this restaurant with friends whose daughter has a peanut allergy. When we got there, the server knew about Alex's allergy due to our reservation, and my friend informed her about Jadyn's allergy as well.
The server said she was comfortable telling us what didn't contain nuts, but that she was unsure what to tell us about the egg allergy. She had the chef come to our table, who assured us that the pasta Alex wanted was egg-free. Awesome! She ate the whole thing!
Key characteristic that contributed to our comfort level: Humility. At some restaurants, we are immediately uncomfortable ordering food for Alex because of the server’s attitude. Sometimes the server is dismissive or will say he understands the allergy, but won't write it down. When we ask if a certain dish is safe, he will just say yes, or that he's sure it is, but will not offer to check, or will seem irritated when we ask that he does check.
The opposite was true at Maggiano's. Everyone we talked to, including the chef, was happy to double-check to make sure food was safe for Alex. We didn't even have to ask; they offered to do it.
Bonus – The kids' meals came with desserts. The server asked the two moms discreetly if we would like her to check if the ice cream was safe. We did, she checked, and the kids got to enjoy dessert -- a rarity for Alex!
18365 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield
Our experience: This was the first restaurant we found on our allergy-friendly restaurant search, and it has a special place in our hearts.
The staff at Bonefish Grill were the first to suggest baking french fries to avoid egg cross-contamination in the deep fryer, and they continue to do this for us every time. It is also an accommodation we ask for at every restaurant we visit now.
Additionally, Bonefish Grill has secured a reputation as an allergy-friendly restaurant through little touches such as making its pesto with seeds instead of the customary pine nuts for the express purpose of catering to nut allergies.
Key characteristic that contributed to our comfort level: Consistency. Bonefish Grill's allergy accommodations are due to corporate policies. These policies are consistent with every Bonefish Grill location we visit. This is great because we know we can count on Bonefish Grill to be a safe dining destination for our family wherever we travel.
5030 S. 74th St., Greenfield
Our experience: I consider El Beso to be our go-to-Mexican restaurant because it is very close to our house, and the food is delicious. When I decided I wanted to go there for my birthday, Jonathan called the manager to inquire about allergy accommodations. The manager was friendly and made a few suggestions of his own about what would be safe.
When we got there, the server didn't communicate an in-depth knowledge of the menu, but she called the manager to our table, and he was able to give us the information we needed to enjoy a safe meal.
Key characteristic that contributed to our comfort level: The cuisine. Mexican food is often considered a good choice for those with food allergies. It is easy to order something that is safe for multiple food allergies.
For example, Alex ordered a chicken taco on a corn tortilla without cheese. A corn tortilla is a good choice for those with wheat allergies, as are rice and beans. Also, the the tortilla chips that are served with salsa for everyone at the table, although deep fried, are often made in a dedicated fryer since so many of them are served in Mexican restaurants.
Zaffiro's Pizzeria and Bar
Ridge Cinema – 5200 S. Moorland Rd., New Berlin
Our experience: Jonathan and our younger daughter Wendy are completely obsessed with pizza. Alex only likes the homemade pizza Jonathan makes, but since there are other things on Zaffiro’s menu too, we decided to try it.
Our hopes were more than fulfilled, and the accommodations are probably the best we've seen. The server brought the chef to talk to us when we told him about Alex's allergies. He told us that even though the chicken tenders are breaded with egg, and both the chicken tenders and french fries are deep-fried in cross-contaminated deep fryers, he would be happy to make chicken tenders from scratch in a saute pan with an egg-less breading and bake her fries for her. Alex was ecstatic!
Key characteristics that contributed to our comfort level: Accommodation. The lengths that the chef at Zaffiro's went to were above and beyond anything we even dared to hope for. Not only was he helpful and thorough (he even checked back to make sure Alex didn't have a milk allergy, as well), but he also empathized with Alex's feelings about her allergies, making sure she was just as happy with her food as anyone without allergies.
Miller Park peanut-controlled Brewer games
1 Brewers Way, Milwaukee
Our experience: Alex's peanut allergy makes baseball games terrifying for us. We did go to a normal Brewer game once after her diagnosis, and it was horrible. Alex and Wendy had fun, but Jonathan and I were busy scrubbing down seats, trying our best not to step on any peanut shells, keeping the girls' feet off their chairs and their hands in their laps, and glaring at people around us who dared to open bags of peanuts. (I'm pretty sure that last part was only me; Jonathan was more reasonable, realizing that these people were just enjoying a classic baseball snack rather than actively trying to poison our daughter.)
This was why we were so excited when Miller Park instituted peanut-controlled Brewer games. We've gone to two games, and we were able to enjoy them without the worry of being surrounded by peanuts.
The games are always after the Brewers have had an away series because that's when the seats are all power-cleaned. The section that is reserved for the games is specially cleaned of any peanut or peanut residue. There are signs that indicate that no peanuts are allowed in that section. The concession area in the peanut-controlled section does not serve peanuts, and there is a special path to the peanut-controlled section, as well as bathrooms, that are monitored during the game to keep them as peanut-free as possible.
Additionally, Miller Park has an ingredients list for their concessions on its website, so we knew ahead of time what the ingredients were and Alex was able to enjoy the treats she wanted (french fries in a Brewers cap and frozen lemonade).
Key characteristics that contributed to our comfort level: Tailored peanut-allergy section. Although Miller Park does not guarantee that the section will be completely peanut-free (which is why they call it peanut-controlled), the fact that this is an event that is specifically tailored to those with peanut allergies increased our comfort level.
The Smoke Shack
332 N. Milwaukee St., Milwaukee
Our experience: Jonathan and I love this BBQ restaurant in the Third Ward. We felt comfortable trying it out because the menu has a symbol code that categorizes the dishes. For example, there is a picture of a peanut next to each dish that contains nuts. There is a picture of an ear of corn for gluten-free options, and there is a picture of a leaf for vegetarian options.
We figured a restaurant that includes such a code on its menu would likely be allergy-friendly, and we were right! When we went there with the girls, the server was accommodating and suggested a meal for them -- the pulled chicken entree with seasonal vegetables. Since there is no sauce on the meat, it makes it even easier to customize for both taste and allergies.
Key characteristics that contributed to our comfort level: The menu. Although we always still ask what the ingredients are in the dishes we order, it is great to be able to have a visual right away so we can narrow down what our safe choices are.
Chuck E. Cheese’s
19125 W. Bluemound Rd., Brookfield
Our experience: Before we started becoming comfortable with eating at restaurants, we did take the girls to Chuck E. Cheese’s, but just to play, not eat.
When Wendy decided she wanted to go there for her birthday, and she wanted to try the pizza there, Jonathan researched the allergy friendliness. And we were pleasantly surprised. Nuts are not included on the menu (although some of the items have a possibility of cross-contamination with nuts). Nothing is fried; everything is baked, and the chicken Alex wanted is not breaded with egg.
The menu, along with ingredients, is online, and when we arrived, we were given a copy of the ingredients so we could double-check.
Key characteristics that contributed to our comfort level: Online ingredient list. An effective online presence makes things so much easier for planning. An online ingredient list is even better. Of course, it doesn’t negate the need to check ingredients at the restaurant itself, but it does make us much more comfortable.
Amy Shwabe is a Milwaukee area mom who blogs about life with her husband and two daughters, one of whom has severe food allergies.
"... As Jonathan said, the bottom line is that we will ALWAYS make sure that Alex gets to eat safe food that she likes. But it won't always be her favorite food, and it won't always be fun food. Sometimes other people in our family get to have their favorite food. And that has to be okay. It's part of living in a family, whether you have allergies or not." - From April 19, 2013: Are safe treats at restaurants a privilege or a right?
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