Chain restaurants, whether fast food or sit-down, can be a real boon for people with food allergies because their standardized menus often include allergen information, and because they can be reliable options when traveling. However, the consistency of chain restaurants can lead to unwarranted complacency. Here are a few things to keep in mind before you eat out at a chain restaurant.
The major virtue of chain restaurants is that they often (but not always) include allergen information on their websites. You can use this information to narrow down which restaurants are worth investigating further. However, you can't assume that an item that's marked as safe on an allergen chart is safe for your allergies. Recipes may change before the website is updated, and the charts may not account for cross-contamination. Nonetheless, once you've identified some promising candidates, you can move on to...
Asking the Management
Once you've identified a reasonable number of menu items that might be safe for your diet, you'll want to talk to a manager at the location where you're interested in eating. Specifically, you'll want to confirm that menu items marked as safe on an allergen chart are still safe. You'll also want to ask whether fried foods are cooked in dedicated fryers, as this is a common source of cross-contamination. Grills, woks, utensils, and cutting boards are also potential avenues of cross-contamination, so be sure to check on these. Finally, ask about garnishes and condiments at sit-down restaurants.
At the Restaurant
In a sit-down restaurant, you'll want to mention to the server that you've talked to the manager about your allergies. The server is in an excellent position to ask questions and make requests of the kitchen and can ensure you that your allergies are being handled seriously and professionally. For more information about eating at a sit-down restaurant see Eight Tips for Eating at Restaurants.
Fast Food Hints
Bring along disposable wet wipes or a wet washcloth in a plastic bag to clean off tables and chairs at fast food restaurants (or anywhere you can't be sure was cleaned before your meal). This can help prevent crumbs and allergens from previous diners from contaminating your food. Be leery of play spaces at fast food restaurants; often, children will not have washed their hands before using these facilities and may spread allergens by contact.
Don't assume that every location of a chain is alike, either in terms of awareness or in terms of ingredients. Different restaurants may set up their kitchens differently, use slightly different sources for prepared foods, or have a better or poorer understanding of cross-contamination. When traveling or before trying a new location of a chain you've successfully eaten at, ask about specific dishes, cross-contamination concerns, and garnishes just as though you've never eaten at that chain before.
Ask Every Time
Even when you've established a good rapport at a restaurant, mention your allergens every time (if the server doesn't do so first). Once you've eaten somewhere a few times, you'll know which dishes are likely to be safe and whether foods are normally fried together, but mentioning your allergy to your waiter should ensure that the kitchen takes special care against cross-contamination.