The kind folks over at Triumph Dining recently sent me a copy of the 5th edition of their annual Essential Gluten-Free Restaurant Guide to review. The timing was appropriate, since it was almost exactly one year ago, on December 8, 2009, that I reviewed the 3rd edition of their annual Essential Gluten-Free Grocery Guide. As with that review, there were some things I liked, and some that I didn’t.
Let’s start with some of the obvious positives: This edition of the guide includes more than 6,500 restaurants, including over 120 chain/franchise restaurants. What’s more, Triumph updates the information on every entry, every year. That’s a monumental undertaking, and one to their great credit, given how fast things change and the need to stay current in the gluten-free world.
In terms of evaluating this edition of the guide, I gave it a thorough critique in two primary categories: content, and organization. In doing so, I focused on two areas of the country where I know restaurants pretty well – Colorado and New York. For each state, Triumph lists restaurants under sub-headings for some of the major metropolitan areas, and then lists everything else in the state under a catch-all “all other cities.” For example, Colorado has entries for Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, and all other. New York has entries for Manhattan, Rochester, and all other.
Admittedly, the task of deciding how to organize so much information in a way that’s straightforward for the user is a difficult thing. Do you list by restaurant name? City? Region? Triumph, as I noted, chose to go the route of major metropolitan areas, plus a catch-all for the rest of the state. In the context of a printed book, I suppose that’s as good as any other format. Even so, I caught some red flags. New York is a prime example.
New York lists just two major metro areas: Manhattan and…Rochester? What about other areas much more populated (with both people and gluten-free restaurants) than comparatively tiny Rochester? Consider this: There are roughly 75 entries for Manhattan, and 16 for Rochester. I went through the “all other cities” category, and found more than 35 entries for the Hudson Valley, about another 35 for Westchester, and more than 45 entries for Long Island. Wouldn’t it make sense to break out these regions into their own sub-headings? In addition, Brooklyn restaurants were listed under “all other.” Why not fold Brooklyn, Manhattan and the other boroughs into one, single, sensible “New York City” sub-heading?
This “problem” could easily be fixed in a future edition of the guide, and I hope the folks at Triumph do so. The exact same information, presented with an improved organization, would do great things for the book’s value and ease of use.
Alas, I fear the bigger problem – from an organization stand-point – is that this type of information (a nationwide guide of gluten-free restaurants) is better suited to the electronic format than it is to print. Imagine being able to instantly sort entries by restaurant name, state, city, or region. To search by zip code, and confine your search to a given radius. To search by type of cuisine (American, Japanese, Mexican, etc.). This type of functionality would, again, make the same information, presented in a different format with better organization, that much more powerful.
In terms of content, I also have concerns. As I went through the listings for Colorado and New York, I asked myself two things: Are my favorite gluten-free restaurants listed? And for towns I know well, does the guide list restaurants I’m not already familiar with?
In the cases of both Colorado and New York, I found numerous omissions. For example, Cathryn’s Tuscan Grill in Cold Spring, NY is absent. The listings for Ithaca, NY include just two restaurants, while I’m personally aware of at least eight. The situation is much the same in Colorado. Boulder’s entry, while pretty good, is missing BeauJo’s (gluten-free pizza), Hapa (gluten-free sushi), Turley’s (gluten-free diner), and Restaurant 4580 (gluten-free New American). In Colorado’s “all other cities” category, Larkburger (gluten-free burger and fries) is a glaring oversight.
Granted, Triumph has a near impossible task before it…to comprehensively list gluten-free restaurant options across the United States. But to see so many omissions of restaurants I know (and love) is disappointing. On the other hand, to look at the bright side, those of us in the gluten-free community can see these omissions as signs that there are many more gluten-free restaurants out there than we might think or know about. And that’s good news.
And for what it’s worth, I did make some new discoveries in Triumph’s guide. For example, I learned that Massapequa, NY – one town over from my hometown of Farmingdale, where my mother still lives – has both a gluten-free bakery and a pizzeria. Who knew? (I certainly didn’t, but Triumph did…)
In the end, I suppose the two questions you’ll most want to know the answers to are these: Would I use this guide? And is it worth the $24.95 price tag for you to buy it?
For areas with which I’m already familiar, no, I wouldn’t use the guide. Once you get dialed into a gluten-free dining scene, you’re dialed in. The guide’s not really going to help you there. But for unfamiliar locales, such as when you’re traveling, the guide is a great resource for finding safe places to eat. (I can definitely see us using it to explore our new town and surrounding communities here in the Hudson Valley…) Improved organization of the print guide, with more accessible information, would make it even better.
As for whether you should buy it, my conclusion is that, yes you should. It’s a no brainer. The $24.95 price tag is basically the cost of one entree at your average white tablecloth restaurant. If you only find one restaurant to visit in the entire guide, and have a wonderful dining experience there, then it has basically paid for itself in value to you.