Traveling Gluten-Free in England

Options are increasing for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity

gluten-free sausage sign in England
Finding gluten-free food isn't a problem when traveling 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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