We Really Like This: Fleming’s Steak House

Anyone with a food allergy will tell you that going out to eat can be challenging in the extreme. Even when a restaurant offers a gluten-free menu, one of the biggest problems is cross-contamination and sloppy food handling.

Imagine a restaurant that not only offers a gluten-free menu but has a corporate wide mandate to utilize food-safe practices to avoid cross contamination?  That would be Fleming’s Steak House.

We’ve had multiple opportunities to enjoy dinner at Fleming’s Steak House in Palo Alto (all under the fine cooking of Chef Christopher Bennett) and we have never had any issues remaining safely gluten-free.

There are Fleming’s Steak Houses in various locations in twenty-eight states. You can find specific locations here.  All Fleming’s have the same gluten-free menu which you can find here.  From executive Corporate Chef Russell Skall:

“The chefs make sure the kitchen staff is aware of what gluten food items are in the kitchen and on the menu. When prepping any food item, they make sure to use a clean cutting board with clean hands and clean gloves.

Almost all of the prep is done in the back of the kitchen during the day for things like home-made bread and desserts.  At night, when guests order off the gluten free menu, the cooks can refer to
Fleming’s printed material.  For some of the items, it can be as simple as not adding a crouton or substituting a gluten free sauce.”

On a regular basis the Fleming’s Chefs review good gluten-free (and food allergy) practices for the chain. At each location, the Fleming’s  Chef is responsible for making sure everyone working in the restaurant, from runners to servers and especially line cook staff know how to accommodate gluten-free and other food allergy orders.

It all begins when you make a reservation (which is always a good idea if you need a food accommodation). If you mention in your reservation to tell the Chef that you are eating gluten-free it helps get that information to the right place.

When you place your order, the server inputs an allergy alert on your ticket and both the Chef and sous-chef make sure your order is prepared appropriately, checked and double-checked before it gets to your table.

In fact, when an order is placed where the ticket indicates an allergy alert, the kitchen is prepared in advance. Re-gloving and new utensils and boards are utilized by prep staff to make sure there is no cross-contamination.

In an interview with Chef Bennett at the Palo Alto location (our local Fleming’s) we learned that there is at minimum a double-check system in place to make sure that any gluten-free or allergy-free orders are accommodated appropriately.

Chef Bennett gave us a tour of the kitchen and indeed, the boards and utensils are ready and well away from the regular cooking areas.  In fact, the corporate chain has a mandate to accommodate diners with food allergies and they seem to go out of their way to make that experience a positive one.

Each time we’ve eaten at Fleming’s we have been accommodated graciously with a gluten-free dinner that has evolved for the better over time.  When we first dined there (when they first opened in that location) the gluten-free menu was only available after our server went to the back and printed it out on a regular piece of paper. These days the gluten-free menu, which is a subset of the regular menu choices –  looks just like a regular menu.

Earlier this summer (full disclosure here) Fleming’s (via Carina Ost) invited four of us (me, Cap’n Awesome and Patrick & Charissa Luke from Zest Bakery) to dinner to give their gluten-free menu a try and to give them some feedback.  It was a lovely experience where every detail was managed with great success.  It’s always nice when a restaurant brings you in as a guest and the experience is terrific.

But that wasn’t the end of it for us.

While the invitation to dinner was terrific (and delicious), it was important that we try out the restaurant just like anyone else would.  So I made a reservation and specified that we would need a gluten-free menu.  Rest assured, no one recognized us and we were treated splendidly. Our server (different from the time before) had a little less familiarity with gluten-free in general, but was nonetheless professional, knowledgeable and affable. She knew where to go to get answers to questions and made sure our dining experience was just right and that our order was gluten-free.

That is exactly what I want in a restaurant and a server – an ability to work with the dining guests, and a great attitude.  While the final bill was not insignificant (Fleming’s is not known as an economy dinner) the overall experience was excellent again.

Consistency wins.

And – that was not the end of it. I wanted to go back and interview the Chef because the kitchen is only a reflection of the Chef  – and the Chef’s attitude and practices is a reflection of the corporation.  They can write all they want about being accommodating to folks with allergies or gluten issues, but unless they also give it more than written service, it makes no difference.

We’ve all been tricked at least once by a food service that claimed to accommodate gluten-free and did that only in print and not in service.

Fleming’s is not that kind of restaurant.  We had an informative interview and a tour of the kitchen where we actually saw some of those good practices to avoid cross-contamination in action.  It was also much appreciated that Chef Bennett asked for our honest feedback which we provided – there were a couple of very tiny things we noticed and they were quickly remedied. Who wouldn’t like that kind of response?

And if you are ever in Palo Alto and eating at Fleming’s, ask Chef Bennett to make you the Chocolate Lava Cake because he prepares it totally gluten-free and it is sensational.  I want one. Right now.

Thank you, Fleming’s Steak House.  We really like this.