One Dish Cuisine: The Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant in America
“Amazing!” “Heaven on Earth.” “What a Find!” “I cried.”
These are just a sampling of the words used by the food allergy community to describe One Dish Cuisine in Ellicott City, MD – now deemed by AllergyEats as The Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant in America! Not only does One Dish Cuisine have the most AllergyEats user reviews of any restaurant in the country, but every one of those reviews has awarded One Dish Cuisine a perfect score for food allergy-friendliness, most with gushing commentary as well!
When we first wrote about One Dish Cuisine in a January 2015 blog (Dishing With One Dish Cuisine: The #1 Rated Independent Restaurant on AllergyEats), owner Maureen Burke shared her story of personal motivation behind creating a restaurant designed specifically for the diner with dietary restrictions. At that time, Maureen also explained the food allergy protocols she implemented at One Dish Cuisine to keep her customers safe and satisfied. I had to experience it for myself.
My Visit to One Dish
Upon my first visit to the restaurant, Maureen blew me away with her knowledge of virtually every ingredient in every food without looking (though the huge binders they have for customers to cross check are very comforting), as well as the procedures and protocols she has in place to ensure that virtually any conceivable risk of cross-contamination is addressed and prevented. Equally impressive was her knowledge of food allergies and gluten intolerance in general – rivaling that of almost anyone I’ve met in the food allergy community (outside of medical professionals). She even goes one step further and only hires people that have a true understanding of food allergies, many of whom have anaphylactic food allergies themselves. (Employees are served meals in the restaurant to avoid any cross-contamination risk from eating elsewhere – they are not allowed to bring outside food in.)
One Dish Cuisine is completely free from 7 of the “Big 8” most common allergens – all except dairy – plus gluten and even more! Of course, One Dish takes care of its dairy-allergic customers just as carefully and “caringly” as all other diners through the use of two completely separate kitchens – the green kitchen (with dairy) and the blue kitchen (no dairy) – offering virtually the exact same menu from both. One might wonder why they have dairy in the restaurant at all if each menu item can be made without it. It all comes down to taste. While Maureen has been genius at learning to use different ingredients to mimic the taste of meals you could get elsewhere if you didn’t have food allergies, she admits that recreating the texture of a traditionally dairy-based meal (like pizza or grilled cheese) without dairy is difficult and compromises quality.
But the magic behind One Dish Cuisine’s success as an allergy-friendly restaurant is far greater than just the ingredients in the restaurant. It is much more significant than just making every meal from scratch. It’s more than just prohibiting outside food from the restaurant in order to safeguard against cross-contamination. It goes beyond the willingness to stop one of the kitchens – regardless of the time of day – for a full cleaning when someone comes in with a non-traditional food allergy or allergies. It’s bigger than the strict vetting of their food vendors – and periodic testing of their products – to find out exactly what’s in the food and whether there has been any cross-contamination risk in the supply chain. It even goes further than prohibiting employees from bringing their cell phones into the restaurant (since those phones are in their hands all day, thus highly likely to transport someone’s allergens). And if that’s not enough, it goes beyond deliberately not locating One Dish Cuisine near another restaurant for fear of allergy contaminants coming in through the shared ventilation system!
The magic, in fact, is owner Maureen Burke, herself beset by celiac disease and a dairy allergy since before these conditions were as common as they are now.
“I know how isolating it can be to have food allergies,” Maureen explained.
Most apparent from my visit, however, was Maureen’s love of her customers… and their adoration of her. Again and again during my visit, devoted customers came in – beaming – only to be greeted by name from an enthusiastic Maureen as she made her way over to their table for some light chit-chat – as if catching up with a cherished friend. It reminded me of Cheers, where everyone seemed to feel at home (and Maureen knew everyone’s name) – in this case, at home in their “safe place.” Multiple times during my visit, Maureen related stories to me of specific guests who will only eat at her restaurant, guests who have come from very far away just to visit One Dish Cuisine, and guests whose experiences and gratitude at her restaurant have made her feel – in her words – “like the luckiest person in the world.” Many times, Maureen couldn’t help shedding tears as she shared these stories. “I have such a connection with our guests – it’s amazing – it’s our own little brotherhood.”
These stories about incredible guest loyalty and gratitude towards One Dish Cuisine have been coming my way for years from many different sources, so I decided to reach out to some of these devoted customers to hear their amazing stories directly.
First, I called the family of “Max” from Rochester, NY (344 miles away from One Dish Cuisine). What I experienced over the next hour was the most touching story about dining out with food allergies that I’ve ever heard. (I’ll have a separate blog post out about this inspirational story itself shortly.)
13-year-old Max has allergies to wheat, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, barley, rye, and oats (he fortunately outgrew a coconut allergy). He also has mild cerebral palsy. Max and his family of four rarely eat out in Rochester. Seeing the look on the faces of restaurant staff, as they struggle to answer the family’s questions, makes them feel it’s too risky, especially when the servers ask “Well, what CAN he eat?” Max’s family, of course, understands the danger of exposure to Max’s allergens and, as recently as last year, had to use epinephrine on Max with a rush to the Emergency Room. They’ve resigned themselves to what many in our community do at one point or another – they bring food from home for Max to eat at a restaurant… when they have to go to one. But for the most part, they avoid restaurants altogether. They have been fortunate enough to visit Disney World and have Max’s food allergies accommodated there, but of course the high cost of that trip makes regular visits prohibitive.
A year-and-a-half ago, Max’s sister Abby had a soccer tournament in the Baltimore area (where Ellicott City is a suburb), which the whole family attended. As always, Max’s mother, JoAnne, pre-cooked meals to bring on the trip for Max. This time, however, she decided to research restaurants around the Baltimore area (using AllergyEats amongst other tools: shameless plug) and found One Dish Cuisine. She read the amazing reviews, reviewed the restaurant’s website, and wondered if it could all really be true. She and Max couldn’t comprehend the possibility of a restaurant where Max could order ANYTHING right off the menu.
It was a trip they had to make. And yes, it was all true.
To try to sum up the depth of this discussion would be impossible without its own blog entry, but the bottom line is, in Max’s words, “It was really exciting. I could have anything. I felt like a normal person. It was really, really heartwarming – it made me feel great and I was happy. I was in Heaven. I gained 8 pounds that day.” Over a few visits during that trip, Max ate pizza (all different toppings), a burger, French fries, French toast, donuts, soft pretzels, a club sandwich, pasta, a chef salad, and even REAL birthday cake. (His favorite of all is Maureen’s pizza.) They returned for every meal during the rest of that trip, took home loads of frozen food, and have since become regulars, despite living over 300 miles away, taking home as much food as possible after every visit, especially the pizza!
In fact, Max’s family planned his 13th birthday around events in the Baltimore area, all so that they could enjoy EVERY meal of Max’s multi-day birthday celebration at One Dish Cuisine! Everything else, including taking in a Baltimore Ravens game, was literally the afterthought of the festivities.
Max says that One Dish Cuisine is the only place where he can eat without worrying. He’s more comfortable there than even at Disney World, generally considered the Gold Standard in food allergy dining.
And how’s this for reciprocal love? Max and his father, Steve, are going on his 8th grade trip to Washington, DC in a few months. The class will be dining out at restaurants each night, which obviously won’t work for Max. Enter Maureen to the rescue. She promised to make a batch of food for Max and meet up with he and Steve so Max can enjoy his restaurant meals during that trip just like his classmates. Your eyes still dry?
My second call was to Courteney, mother of 11-year-old Miles, who has severe allergies to wheat, rye, barley, milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, mustard, and shellfish. Miles, like Max, doesn’t get to eat restaurant food generally. The family does go out to eat quite a bit (as many busy families do), but Courteney always cooks and brings Miles’ food with them for safety. Miles doesn’t complain. Even at 11, he understands the difficulty of accommodating his long list of allergies and the importance of staying safe.
Miles lives near Washington, DC, about 45 minutes away from One Dish Cuisine. One day, 3 or 4 years ago, Courteney came across One Dish Cuisine online and decided they should check it out. She called Maureen to talk with her first. She didn’t want to get Miles’ hopes up only to have him disappointed when they got there. Maureen took the time to explain the whole setup at One Dish Cuisine and how they take every precaution to keep their guests safe. The encouragement on the phone was enough to convince Courteney that they should give it a shot.
Courteney was extremely nervous when they arrived at the restaurant and remained nervous despite the significant amount of time Maureen spent with them learning about Miles’ specific food allergies. Miles seemed nervous and hesitant too, but Courteney and Maureen reassured him. And it was magic! Miles was able to eat anything off the menu – despite that long list of allergies – and feel like a normal guest. “It was so overwhelming for him,” Courteney explained, and she cried with joy watching him eat that first meal. Courteney recalls that their family of four probably ordered enough food for 10 that day so Miles could try as much as possible. He tried chicken nuggets, French fries, a cheeseburger (for the first time), a cupcake, and more.
One Dish Cuisine was, and remains, the only restaurant where Miles can order off a menu… and Courteney can’t imagine trusting anyone else. She’s been spoiled by the care and love Maureen puts into serving her food-allergic guests safely. And the rest of the family loves the food too! Being free of allergens doesn’t require any sacrificing of quality or taste as Maureen has proven [and I can testify to myself].
Courteney still gets emotional every time she sees Miles being able to eat anything he wants off the One Dish Cuisine menu and feels it’s important to share this tremendous success on Facebook every time they go. In fact, One Dish Cuisine now makes the cakes for all of Miles’ birthday parties. Courteney praises their beauty AND great taste, acknowledging that other guests have no idea that the cakes are free of so many food allergens.
Miles’ family now has a dedicated freezer in their basement just to store the frozen food they bring home every time they’re near One Dish Cuisine (roughly every 4-6 weeks they make a run to “fill up”)! They bring home at least a dozen cupcakes, 10 Mac ‘n Cheeses, 10 pizzas, chicken nuggets – as much as the cooler and freezer will hold. “There’s an ongoing resupply going,” Courteney explained.
More Raves from the Community
What has really amazed me was learning that these stories were NOT the exceptions – they’re the norm! One Dish Cuisine has gained an amazing following of proud and vocal visitors from all over the country who either design trips around being able to eat at One Dish Cuisine or go out of their way when traveling to pass through Ellicott City and enjoy Maureen’s food. In fact, One Dish Cuisine has now had visitors from every state in the U.S. and many from overseas as well (Canada, Mexico, Great Britain, Israel, and more). “People are so appreciative of the allergy-friendly environment that we’ve created here that most cry happy tears and want to hug us,” Maureen said, beaming.
Here’s what some One Dish customers have said about their experiences:
• “We vacationed out this way just to be able to go and eat at this restaurant.” [from Ohio]
• “Heaven on earth. Only place I can tell my kids they can have anything on the menu.”
• “Our child said it felt like she was at home there because she felt so safe.”
• “We never eat out. We tried One Dish and will definitely return. I could say ‘yes’ to everything.”
• “This is the only place where we can truly let our guard down and enjoy ourselves. It is literally a labor of love for these owners who take allergies as seriously as those of us who care for someone with allergies. It is impressive how hard they work to keep their patrons safe.”
• “I cried at the knowledge of the owner and how much she offers for families with allergies.”
• “This place has been a lifesaver! I am less depressed and anxious because I can now go out to eat, a phrase I haven’t been able to use for years. Not only is the food delicious and the service top notch, the lending library, educational Facebook posts and encouragement provided are priceless!”
• “Worth the trip no matter how long!”
• “The clear labeling on the foods, the allergy sensitive preparation, and the personalized attention from the owner and staff made for an absolutely wonderful dining experience. We will be visiting again as well as ordering take-out and taking advantage of their frozen food section.”
• “My boys were incredibly thrilled because they were able to choose anything from the menu in the whole restaurant, including dessert! The smiles on their faces said it all and I wish I had captured the moment when I told them they could get anything they want. One of them said it was the best day of his whole life! When I saw how happy they were, I cried. They just want to feel normal and today they did.”
• “We finally made it to the ultimate allergy friendly restaurant.”
• “The look on my son’s face when he saw the dessert case and realized he could have anything in there was priceless!”
• “Bravo for catering to us! It is so rare that my son ever eats out. He’s 13 and feels so left out socially. I thank you for blessing the allergy community.”
Over and over, similar comments are shared on AllergyEats or posted on Facebook – “it’s the only restaurant where we can eat,” “we can eat anything on the menu,” “the owner takes such amazing caution to feed us safely,” “the food is great,” and on and on. And I’ve never seen a single bad review from the food allergy community! Think of that. One Dish Cuisine has more ratings on AllergyEats than any other restaurant in the country – and every one of them has shown a perfect score! I always say even the best restaurants will have an occasional mistake, but so far Maureen is proving me wrong… and I love it! She proudly boasts that she has never had a customer that she couldn’t accommodate.
Oh, and did I mention that her customers all think the food is delicious? It doesn’t taste like “food allergy food” (whatever that is). It is healthy and appealing – great for those with and without food allergies.
This blog post is incredibly long because I’ve tried to capture just how allergy-friendly and amazing One Dish Cuisine is when it comes to accommodating our food allergy community. But even all this doesn’t do justice to Maureen’s efforts. Missing is the fact that the restaurant is unfortunately not, at this point, a profit generator. In fact, one can confidently say that Maureen (along with her husband) is doing this as a labor of love for the individuals in our food allergy community. What I saw at One Dish Cuisine was a mission even more than a restaurant. Maureen admits candidly that she and her husband are not taking home paychecks for their full-time work at the restaurant, but she doesn’t have time to dwell on that – she’s too focused on how best to take care of her customers, roughly 90% of whom come in as part of a party with food allergies. (This isn’t to say that Maureen doesn’t want to – or know she has to – generate profits. She’s trailblazing the industry right now, so there’s no model to follow, but she has some well thought-out plans under consideration.) Courteney – Miles’ mom – recognizes this. “It’s not a profitable business; it’s a labor of love. She’s so dedicated to the community. She should be nominated as a CNN Hero.” I agree.
“I’m so glad that AllergyEats is rewarding a smaller, independent restaurant that goes out of their way to be so allergy-friendly and accommodating,” Courteney continued. It’s great that some bigger restaurant chains are becoming allergy-friendly, but One Dish Cuisine is so special and unique in their ability to truly accommodate. Maureen is much more than an entrepreneur or restaurateur – she’s an advocate for the entire food allergy community.”
One Dish Cuisine is so well regarded that they have even been contracted by major hospitals in the area (Children’s National Medical Center, Anne Arundel Medical Center, Carroll Hospital Center) to make food for their patients with food allergies. Maureen is very proud of that, as well she should be. It’s become unfortunately common to hear about hospitals that aren’t equipped in their kitchens to accommodate food-allergic patients.
The Future for One Dish Cuisine
So what’s next? Well, it’s time for One Dish Cuisine to expand. (Don’t you think?) Maureen is currently planning to open a new restaurant in Bethesda or Rockville, MD within a year. In this more populous area, it is hoped that the number of customers will be high enough to generate profits, while of course not sacrificing the same incredible personal treatment and extraordinary food allergy protocols that each customer deserves and gets in the Ellicott City restaurant. The new restaurant will likely incorporate an attached Irish pub concept as well, hopefully a profit driver to help subsidize the cost of running an allergy-friendly restaurant the only way Maureen is willing to accept – all in! In my discussions with Maureen, I asked her whether it will be possible to properly serve her food allergy customers at both locations with the same love and care they currently get in Ellicott City – mainly because she can’t clone herself. But, as with everything else Maureen has done, she has thought this through in detail and was able to describe to me what it would require. Franchising is also a possibility, but a very difficult proposition as Maureen would demand the same love of customers that she currently shows, and, of course, the same great efforts to accommodate all food-allergic guests. Combining that kind of deep devotion to each guest – always enthusiastic about the “mission” despite the challenges – with the ability to run all aspects of a restaurant is a rare and unique combination.
Finally, I asked Maureen how it feels to have One Dish Cuisine named by AllergyEats as The Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant in America. She replied, “I’m so grateful, but it’s easy when you’re the only one doing this. No one else will do this unless they’ve lived and walked in my shoes. You need to be motivated to learn how to cook like I cook. There’s no culinary school that can teach what I do.”
Let me end this long blog post by commending One Dish Cuisine for being name AllergyEats’ Most Allergy-Friendly Restaurant in America! And I’ll also invite your comments below. We’d love to hear from guests of One Dish Cuisine as well as those who now may want to try it.
And remember, wherever you dine – whether at One Dish Cuisine or anywhere else in the country – please take a minute to rate your restaurant experiences on the AllergyEats app or website. Each new rating makes AllergyEats a more valuable tool for our entire community. You may even help someone find the next One Dish Cuisine!