Traveling Gluten-Free in England

Options are increasing for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity

gluten-free sausage sign in England
Jane M. Anderson

In England, celiac disease affects more people than it does in the United States. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity seems to be on the rise there, too. And so I thought England was a logical place to visit for a gluten-free vacation—even if I didn't eat well all the time, I reasoned, I'd certainly be able to eat. I wouldn't starve.

And I definitely didn't starve—in two weeks spent exploring mainly around the East Midlands and East Anglia, plus London, I discovered that it's not difficult to follow the gluten-free diet while traveling around England.

I had a few surprises—some extremely pleasant (gluten-free brownies with my coffee) and some not so pleasant (it turned out to be very difficult to find a restaurant in London I could trust). But overall, I determined that traveling in England is safe and fun if you're gluten-free.

Gluten-Free Awareness in England Quite High

The United Kingdom has experienced the same surge in gluten-free awareness as the United States over the past several years—gluten-free is all the rage there, and many restaurants and food-related businesses are advertising the availability of gluten-free products.

That doesn't mean you can throw caution to the wind, though. In one pub, the chef assured us that a dish—seared scallops presented on slices of black pudding—was gluten-free and therefore safe for me to eat. I decided I just didn't trust it. I'm quite glad I did, as when I had a chance to look up the ingredients, later on, I realized the chances were infinitesimally low that the dish actually had been gluten-free.

The bottom line: Trust your instincts, and don't just trust someone who tells you a dish is gluten-free. Either verify the ingredients item by item or choose something else.

Countryside, Town Restaurants Extremely Accommodating

We had terrific luck finding gluten-free food in restaurants in the English countryside and in the smaller cities and towns.

For starters, both Costa Coffee and Starbucks—the predominant coffee chains in the areas we toured—had prepackaged gluten-free brownies for sale. In every store. For once, I didn't have to look longingly at the yummy-looking baked goods as I ordered my cappuccino. Consequently, I enjoyed a brownie for breakfast nearly every day with my coffee.

I lost track of how many places (mainly pubs) offered gluten-free fish and chips—there were plenty of them, and most seemed to have separate fryers (essential to avoid cross-contamination).

Multiple other places—especially upscale freehouse pubs and restaurants attached to country house hotels—offered either separate gluten-free menus or a wide selection of foods designed to suit the diet.

I contacted one freehouse restaurant—The Froize in Woodbridge, Suffolk—just a day in advance of our reservation with friends on a busy holiday weekend, and owner/chef David Grimwood promised I would have plenty to eat. When we arrived, I was thrilled to find that almost everything on the menu was marked with a "C" (for coeliac-friendly), and he had both gluten-free bread and gluten-free gravy for me to enjoy. (The meal was a highlight of our trip.)

London (Surprisingly) Not As Gluten-Free Friendly

However, my luck turned a bit when we got to London.

The first night, we headed for a Thai restaurant that appeared on a gluten-free restaurant list, but that place didn't pass my inspection (no matter what the staff might have insisted, regular store-bought soy sauce does contain gluten—it says "wheat" right there on the bottle). So instead, we wound up at a rather expensive steak place that did pass inspection (the manager understood without being told that I couldn't have fries from the shared fryer), and I had a small, pricey steak and salad (the default gluten-free meal for so many of us).

We found a sushi place for lunch the next day (sashimi is one of my go-to gluten-free meals when traveling since it's freshly made and generally a low risk for cross-contamination). But for dinner we just struck out completely—we quizzed six or eight different restaurants, and none of them seemed to have the basic knowledge needed to provide a safe gluten-free meal. We wound up visiting a city supermarket and having a late-night picnic in our hotel room.

Two nights (and a dozen restaurants quizzed) in London isn't a big enough sample size to draw firm conclusions, but it did seem to me as if it's more difficult to eat out gluten-free in London than it was in other parts of England. Since our trip, contacts who live in London or nearby have verified my impression—it really is harder there, they say. Most people have one safe restaurant where they eat, or they simply stay home.

Gluten-Free in England Travel Tips

If you're planning a trip to England and you follow the gluten-free diet, here are some tips that can help make your experience fun and successful:

  • Consider renting an apartment or house. It helped that instead of a hotel room, we instead found a small cottage through the website Airbnb. That way, we could cook many of our own meals, which took lots of pressure off me — I wasn't always on the lookout for my next safe meal.
  • Search for safe food in supermarkets. Even if you're in a hotel room with no facilities, you can find gluten-free snacks—including non-perishable crackers and other bread products—in many supermarkets around the country. Sainsbury's seemed to have the best selection, but most others also had a few items.
  • Ignore pressure from restaurants eager to get you in the door. In London, we experienced a fairly hard sell from several restaurants that seemed to really want our business ... and to be willing to say almost anything to get it. I can't say this enough: Trust your instincts. If they don't seem to know enough about gluten to know how to cook gluten-free, go elsewhere.
  • Watch out for hamburgers and sausages. Unlike in the U.S., in England, most hamburgers and sausages seem to contain additives like breadcrumbs. Therefore, one of my other go-to meals (a hamburger on a bed of lettuce) was off-limits ... and I'm quite glad I asked before ordering it.
  • Most steakhouses can make you a steak, baked potato, and salad. Many of us in the U.S. have found steakhouses to be reasonably accommodating, and the same seems to be true in England. If you're in a pinch and need a safe meal (assuming you eat meat), try to find a local steakhouse.

The Bottom Line: Gluten-Free Travel in England Is Pretty Easy

Would I recommend travel to England if you eat gluten-free? Absolutely.

You won't find chains like Outback Steakhouse or Uno Chicago Grill (with their gluten-free restaurant menus) anywhere—in fact, there really are relatively few chain restaurants around (nothing like in the U.S.). But you will find relatively high awareness of the gluten-free diet in the independent restaurants and in the few chain places.

Of course, it helps—tremendously, in fact—that people in England speak, well, English, making it reasonably simple to explain to restaurant personnel the need to avoid gluten cross-contamination.

Overall, I'd go back just for the Costa Coffee gluten-free brownies. But even if you're not a brownie fan (or a coffee lover), there are plenty of reasons to visit England, and you're likely to eat pretty well if you do go.

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