Traveling with Celiac Disease: A Family Vacation
There’s nothing more fun than an old fashioned Griswold family vacation. My family and I stuffed ourselves and our belongings into a mini-van and headed out for an epic road trip to South Carolina.
Observation Number 1
It’s true what they say about Southern hospitality; people in the south are nicer. Maybe it’s a slower pace of life, or a don’t sweat the small stuff attitude that Southerners’ possess, but I was impressed over and over again with the charm and hospitality displayed by pretty much everyone we met when we traveled south from the Midwest to Myrtle Beach.
This was our first family road trip post-celiac, and I was a little apprehensive about how the food situation would play out. We had an 18 hour car ride, which I packed plenty of GF snacks and lunch food for, but I was more concerned about how things would play out once we reached our beach destination. Eating out is challenging enough in our hometown, and I had no idea what to expect in unfamiliar tourist-territory.
To combat my pre-travel worry, I did plenty of research ahead of time: I plotted our route on MapQuest and calculated where we’d likely stop night one of our drive. Next, I Googled “Gluten-Free Restaurants” in Knoxville, TN and in our destination city of Myrtle Beach. I took copious notes, including addresses and phone numbers of places that I thought the family would enjoy. But, in reality we ended up eating at very few of the places I had researched. (Planning ahead still gave me a sense of control over the situation, so I’m happy I did it.)
However, Knoxville was one city that my research came in handy, as we ultimately chose an eatery from my notebook list. After a failed attempt at Chick-fil-A, we ended up eating dinner at a place I had previously found online.
Chick-Fil-A Let Down:
We had always wanted to try a Chick-fil-A, and I had read that they are pretty accommodating to GF diets. This was 13 hours into our road trip, and we were all hungry. The four of us piled into Chick-fil-A with high expectations and hungry bellies. I asked what the gluten-free options were, and everyone stared back at us with blank looks. Then the manager tried to dig through a pile of papers for an allergen list, to no avail. (Note to self: a review from one restaurant in a chain does not equal the service received at all. It’s all about the management and the people who work there.)
Eventually the Chick-fil-A folks determined the waffle fries were GF, which I looked up online to confirm- I wasn’t trusting these guys. And that was the only thing we ordered- one order of waffle fries for a starving 15 year old. Then we proceeded to the next establishment: Sergeant Pepperoni’s.
Sergeant Pepperoni’s renewed my faith that our road trip would turn out well. This place was fantastic, and it too was on my list. The small space was a little crowded when we got there, but the delicious smells pulled us through the hoard of patrons to a booth in the corner of the restaurant. There were signs showcasing gluten-free beer and pizza, so I felt pretty good we had made a solid choice in a restaurant that caters to gluten-free orders.
The waitress was extremely sweet and answered all of our questions about food prep and cross contamination. My son does not have a complicated pizza order: just cheese. Nonetheless, this was one of the best GF cheese pizzas he’d ever had. The crust was a bit thicker than most, and the sauce was fantastic. He enjoyed every bite. The rest of us ordered a non-GF pizza, and that too was amazing. The crust was a hand-tossed thickness, and the sausage and pepperoni combination tasted oh so good. If we lived near Sergeant Pepperoni’s, we’d definitely be regulars.
Our first night in Myrtle Beach we found ourselves at a Ruby Tuesday near our resort; it was connected to the Myrtle Beach Mall. I know this is a chain, but not one we have where we live. It was near closing time when we arrived, but we weren’t rushed by the staff at all. Remember what I said earlier about Southern hospitality? It was certainly evident here.
Our waitress provided a separate GF menu to our son. This was a plus right away. He had an entire menu to look at! There were so many choices to pick from he actually had a hard time choosing. Finally, he ended up with a rack of BBQ ribs and a double order of garlic mashed potatoes. I barely got my camera out in time to take a picture before he devoured it.
When he was done, there was not a morsel of food left. Our waitress talked to us about Midwest weather and we laughed about the chaos caused when a flake of snow hits the pavement in Myrtle Beach. Finally, she told us some attractions we needed to visit before trip’s end. It was a delightful evening. We left full and happy.
Chipotle Mexican Grill
We had never been to a Chipotle before, yet we had heard so many good reviews. Man, were we in for a treat. This particular location was attached to the Coastal Grand Mall.
I have NEVER seen anybody in any restaurant so knowledgeable about celiac as the folks working here. As soon as I mentioned “celiac” the young man taking our order and assembling our food washed his hands, changed gloves, and replaced all the utensils with fresh ones. I was so impressed. This was one of the first eating out experiences where I didn’t feel the need to be on edge and explain the importance of not cross-contaminating the food. We ordered burrito bowls, and when we got to the end of the line to pay, the manager came to talk to us; I believe his name was Albert Smith. When he found out it was our first visit to a Chipotle, he comped my son’s entire order. We were so impressed. It was a phenomenal experience. Southern hospitality? I never want to leave.
Carrabba’s Italian Grill
Carrabba’s, believe it or not, is yet another chain we don’t have in our hometown. I’d read so many good GF reviews on other blogs about this restaurant, and we were excited to try it. We ate at the King’s Hwy, Myrtle Beach location, and it was crazy busy when we got there. When we were seated, I asked for a gluten-free menu, and we were told all the GF options were listed with a special icon on the regular menu, which was pretty cool!
Our waitress also had celiac, (what are the odds?) so she was very understanding and conscientious. My son ended up ordering GF Fettuccine Weesie, and when the food arrived, his was cold. No worries, though. We mentioned it to our waitress assuming she’d run it back to the kitchen and put it in the micro. Not the case. The manager came out and said they were making a fresh plate and the meal was comped. We were not expecting that at all. Are you kidding? The second free meal of the trip? Is this a Southern thing? By the way, the second order of pasta came out hot and steaming. Yummy!
Other Odds and Ends In Myrtle
- We ordered Domino’s Pizza to the resort one night, which was standard Domino’s pizza. Nothing too much to comment on.
- Benito’s Brick Oven Pizza. I didn’t get a chance to take a picture, but as usual, the gluten-free cheese pizza was the standard order. To be honest, I didn’t even see this one. But, all reports are that this too was a keeper!
Barefoot Landing, North Myrtle Beach
Barefoot Landing deserves a special accolade. What a fun tourist spot. There are shops, fish to feed, 7D movies, mirror mazes, Bengal tigers, and much more. A person could spend an entire day exploring here; it’s really such a cool place.
There were MANY restaurants that offered GF options, and they looked really good. However, we were not up for a full-out meal, so we opted for Beef Jerky instead. Ha ha, right? Beef jerky? YEP! And, it was so much fun. When we entered the shop, super nice (Southern hospitality?), super outgoing folks offered us sample after sample of the many jerky options- after confirming all but the teriyaki flavors were GF. We had so much fun laughing and nibbling jerky. Eventually, we settled on four varieties to purchase to keep us occupied on the long ride home.
Say what? Hardee’s makes the blog? YES! This was actually a highlight after a stressful morning. We stopped at the Hardee’s in Aynor, SC on our way out of town headed for a straight 18 hour drive home. We weren’t able to make breakfast at the condo like we had in the previous mornings because we had packed everything up to head out early that day. That left us in a conundrum. Where could we get a quick GF breakfast? We decided to give Hardee’s a try. With some online research, I found that their Low-Carb Breakfast Bowls are GF. We were in for such a surprise when we entered. There was a three-man band playing and a group of patrons singing along, tapping their feet, and drinking coffee.
When I asked about the gluten-free breakfast bowl, I was a bit concerned at first because the young lady who took our order didn’t really know what I was talking about: the deer in headlights look. This made me nervous. We’d done so good thus far on the trip, and I didn’t want to ruin it now. She went to get the manager, who must have seen my anxiety with one glance. He immediately said he’d make this order. I watched as he washed his hands, put gloves on, and then cleaned the griddle for a clean cooking surface. I was almost in tears with happiness and relief. He handed me our order and said, “Here you go, Sweetheart. Enjoy.” I love the South!
Overall, I have no complaints on the food front. Our trip was more than wonderful and eating was successful. Thank you to all of these restaurants and food service workers for caring about the needs of your gluten-free patrons. We are so appreciative. There is a level of trust that goes into eating out when you have celiac, and it feels so wonderful to be treated well and be served good food.
And, yes. Southern hospitality is for real.
Jenny- The Gluten Free Tribune