Bistango Is Dead. Long Live Bistango!

No one likes losing their favorite restaurant, but it’s even more difficult when you’ve got a food allergy or intolerance. Let’s be honest, it’s not like you can go just anywhere to eat, so the loss hits harder. That was how I felt about Bistango, an Italian trattoria in Kips Bay, on the east side of Manhattan. Its last day of business was March 16, 2020, when the pandemic forced all New York City restaurants to close. Sadly, it never reopened.

For years, Bistango was my go-to spot for a great gluten-free meal: I’d visit with a gang of fellow writers during Thrillerfest (an annual conference for crime writers), and at least once a month with visiting friends in tow. It was a favorite spot for my parents, my nieces, and my husband and me when we wanted a quiet night out. It was perfect for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and no occasion at all. I remember eating there a week after Hurricane Sandy hit; my husband and I had no food in our fridge, and we were thrilled to find out Bistango had just reopened that day. It turned out that the restaurant had a very short menu that night, yet the warm welcome and attention to gluten-free dining was the same as ever.

But this isn’t a post to mourn the loss of Bistango, it’s to celebrate the one that’s still around. In 2014, the restaurant’s charming manager and host, Anthony, worked on the opening of a sister restaurant at the Kimberly Hotel on East 50th Street, a short walk from Grand Central Terminal. The hotel restaurant was both new and familiar: it has an extensive menu of gluten-free flatbread pizzas — something the original never had — as well as offering a satisfying menu of pastas and main courses, all of which can be prepared gluten-free. Some restaurants now offer gluten-free penne, but it’s rare to find gluten-free ravioli. Literally everything on Bistango’s menu can be prepared gluten-free, from the chicken parmesan to the grilled red snapper.

There’s more: all of the desserts are gluten-free, from the chocolate lava cake with salted caramel gelato to the mascarpone cheesecake with blueberry compote. (Recently there’s been a pistachio cannoli on the menu that I’ve been obsessed with. The menu changes with some frequency, though.)

The tagline on Bistango’s website is, “One always feels at home when gathered with friends and family at Bistango.” For me, that’s definitely been true. I’ve been there lately with groups of visiting friends, my literary agent, and a childhood friend and her eight-year-old daughter, and Bistango has made everyone feel at home. (My husband chose it as the spot to celebrate his birthday.) While gluten-free dining is their specialty, they’re also careful with other food allergies, and vegan options are available. I’ll always miss the original location, but Bistango at the Kimberly has earned its own special place in my heart.

Happy Thanksgiving!

It’s Thanksgiving Week in the US, which means that I’ll be on the road again — though there won’t be much gluten-free dining research involved, since I’ll be visiting with family and friends. Because people are heading in different directions over the next few weeks, it seemed like the perfect time to share some recent news stories with recommendations for where to dine gluten-free in various US cities.

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In the Shadow of the Acropolis

Seeing the Acropolis up close was a dream come true for me. No matter how many times you view a place in photographs or videos, there’s nothing like experiencing it in person. And the Acropolis is particularly alluring because you catch sight of it from different angles as you stroll around the sprawling metropolis that is Athens. Day or night, it’s a joy to behold.

The Acropolis holds a series of treasures. The entry gate, called the Propylaea, was designed to inspire awe. Just beyond it is the Temple of Athena Nike, which represented the goddess as the victorious protector of her namesake city. Step further inside and you’ll find the Erechtheion — a temple famous for its six stone guardians, the Caryatids — and the Parthenon itself, dedicated to Athena the Virgin. Built between 450 BC and 440 BC, it was the largest Doric temple in Greece.

If you want to see the glorious statues and carved reliefs that once graced the Parthenon, there are two places to look. One is the British Museum, which houses the Elgin Marbles, a collection that includes friezes from the Parthenon and one of the Caryatids from the Erechtheion. (The return of this collection is the subject of ongoing debate and discussion between Greece and Britain.) The second place to look is the stunning modern museum at the foot of the Acropolis.

Built atop Roman and Byzantine ruins, the Acropolis Museum opened in 2009 to showcase both art and history. It does so beautifully, with original statues excavated from under the Parthenon, and with impeccable copies of the works that were removed by Lord Elgin. The top floor of the building is devoted to the carved marble panels of the Parthenon. Even though you know you are looking at copies (the museum is scrupulous about noting that), the scenes — depicting warring deities, centaurs, Amazons, and the fall of Troy — are breathtaking.

There was another wonder at the foot of the Acropolis, just across from the museum…. 

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A Lesson Learned in Athens

Friends, I am back from Greece! Even though I’m so jet-lagged that I may need to prop open my eyes with toothpicks for the rest of this week, I had an absolutely fantastic time. It was my first visit there, and I dove headfirst into every historic site I could find. That included the glorious Acropolis, the ancient Agora, the Roman Forum, Hadrian’s Library, Keramikos Cemetery, and the Temple of Olympic Zeus.

Each of these places took my breath away. It wasn’t just the grandeur of the sites, or the thousands of years of history I was looking at. It was also the discovery of charming quirks, like the cats roaming freely around the ruins, and the realization that both Hadrian’s Library and the Keramikos Cemetery are guarded by… turtles.

My first piece of advice applies to every traveler planning to spend a few days in Athens: buy the combination ticket! The Hellenic Heritage e-Ticket saves you time, by letting you skip the ticket line at each site, and it saves you money. To visit the Acropolis costs €20; the combination ticket is €30 and lets you visit all of the sites I mentioned above. (Each site charges an admission of about €8 to €10, which adds up quickly.) Since you now have to book the timing of your Acropolis visit in advance — a new rule that came into effect in September 2023 — it really makes sense to buy the combination ticket online.

On the dining front, I ate incredibly well, starting with the breakfast at my hotel every morning. Athens has many hotels, and I ended up choosing one based on a few factors. Location was key: I wanted to be in Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, close to all of its ancient treasures. (The trade-off being that the streets wind around in confusing ways, with tiny sidewalks full of tourists, but it was wonderful nonetheless.) My husband and I scoured guidebooks and TripAdvisor reviews, and that was how we found a place called the Classic Hotel by Athens Prime Hotels.

Friends, it was perfect. To be clear, our room was tiny, as all guestrooms in Plaka are (space is forever at a premium in historic districts). But it was clean and well-designed, with amenities like a mini-fridge, a safe, a great shower, and a hot tub on the balcony. Even better? The hearty gluten-free breakfast I had every morning.

After booking online at the Classic Hotel, my husband and I wrote to them asking about the included breakfast — specifically, if there would be anything that a celiac could eat. Staff wrote back that while the breakfast included eggs, vegetables, fruits, yogurt, and cheese, they didn’t have any gluten-free bread or other specialty items. That was fine with me. But when I arrived, I discovered that the staff member in charge of the breakfast, Michaela, had gone out and bought some gluten-free items for me. I ended up with two different breads (one brown, one white), rice cakes topped with white chocolate and strawberry, and small crispbreads to pair with the fresh peach jam. Yes, I was spoiled — and very grateful. The Greek reputation for warm hospitality is well deserved.

I’ll be writing more about Athens over the next few weeks, because I ate extremely well there. But my first lesson was that it never hurts to ask a question — or to mention that you have celiac disease. I know some people feel shy or uncomfortable about doing so, but in my experience, it’s worth it.

In-Flight Gluten-Free Dining

I’m an optimist about travel. While I know delays, bumpy rides, and unwanted surprises can crop up on any trip, I believe the inconveniences are worth it. Whether you’re traveling to take in new sights, spend time with family and friends, or for a specific event, you’re making memories that will last.

But there is one aspect of travel that’s an ongoing challenge: airplane meals.

To be fair, it’s easier than it used to be to get gluten-free food on a plane. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease 19 years ago, many airlines didn’t offer them at all. But now that everyone seems to offer meals for the gluten intolerant, other issues have come up. Before the pandemic, some airlines had started pairing gluten-free meals up with other special requests, so that the meal was also dairy-free, for example. More recently, the meals, have sometimes served triple-duty: gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan. While this is a blessing to anyone observing all three restrictions, it doesn’t make it easy to come up with a meal. And it explains why I’ve had airplane “meals” that consisted of a fruit cup with a banana on the side. It’s not unusual to have protein missing from the plate.

While you can’t control everything, you can compensate. Here’s how I handle eating in-flight these days.

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Dedicated Gluten-Free Bakeries

Can you get so sick of cookies that you never want to eat them again? That was how I felt after I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004. Well-meaning friends and family went to their local grocery and health-food stores looking for something safe for me to eat. And what they found were cookies. Lots and lots of cookies. While I appreciated the effort, I got sick of cookies, especially the ones that crumbled to pieces as I bit into them (anyone who’s tried baking with rice flour can relate to this).

Friends, gluten-free commercial baking has come a long way since then. And while I’m happy to visit bakeries that aren’t exclusively for celiacs, I really wanted to showcase some places that are 100% gluten free. Here are some of my favorites from around the United States. Note that a few of them deliver nationwide!

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Exploring Barcelona With Rick Steves

Let me admit a certain amount of bias upfront: I spent a decade writing guidebooks for Frommer’s Travel Guides, so I’m predisposed to believe guidebooks are useful. But in recent years, that belief has taken a beating. Even before the pandemic, guidebooks were an endangered species, since a growing cohort of travelers think they can get everything they need from the Internet. That led to guidebooks being updated less frequently, which undermined their utility. More recently, guidebooks have been getting a bad reputation thanks to what the New York Times calls “a new form of travel scam: shoddy guidebooks that appear to be compiled with the help of generative artificial intelligence, self-published and bolstered by sham reviews, that have proliferated in recent months on Amazon.”

When I was planning my trip to Barcelona this spring, I’d pretty much sworn off guidebooks. This would be my fifth trip to the Catalonian capital, and I felt like I knew my way around the city reasonably well. But when I glanced at the latest guidebook options, I noticed that Rick Steves had a recently updated guide to the city. On impulse, I decided to buy it.

Friends, I’m so glad I did.

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What to Do When You Don’t Speak the Language

I’ve written about traveling with celiac disease for years, and the question I get most often is this: How do you eat out safely when you don’t speak the language? There are plenty of issues that can come up when you travel, but not being able to properly communicate your dietary needs is a thorny one. This question kept me awake nights after I was diagnosed: I wanted to visit new places, but I was terrified of accidentally getting glutened. (I’m not one of those celiacs who never exhibited symptoms. If I accidentally injest gluten, I get very sick.)

What I know now is that it’s possible to travel safely when you don’t speak the local tongue, but it does take work. Being completely honest, some destinations are easier than others. For example, I don’t speak any Swedish (except to say hej and tack), but my visit to Stockholm was one of the safest trips I’ve ever taken. That was because so many locals speak English and because celiac awareness seemed universal. (In Sweden, McDonald’s offers gluten-free Big Macs.) But that was a rare exception: most of my trips have required a lot of advance preparation.

I want to show you how I prepare for a trip. Since I’m going to Greece soon, I thought it would make a good test case. I don’t speak a word of Greek (yet), so where do I begin my research?

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The Return of the Gluten-Free Guidebook

It’s been a while! Since the Gluten-Free Guidebook is settling into its new home on Substack, I thought it would be a great time to reintroduce myself to you.

When I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2004, I figured that my career as a travel writer was dead. Visiting foreign places—one of the great joys in my life—suddenly seemed impossible. Even dining out safely in the cities I know best (I’m Toronto born and New York based) seemed like a challenge. It was tough to imagine eating out in countries where I didn’t speak the language. While I was grateful to learn the cause of the (many) health problems that plagued me at the time, it felt like I was losing something precious in the process.

That sentiment lasted only a short time. I missed travel too much to give it up.

The first step in getting my travel groove back was to do plenty of reading and research so I was educated about what I could and couldn’t eat. Some of it was obvious—wheat, barley, and rye are the main culprits—and some of it was not (even in 2023, I’m still surprising people with the fact that traditional soy sauce has wheat in it). Next, I convinced some of my editors that diagnoses of celiac disease and gluten intolerance were on the rise (true!), and that interest in this “trend” would only grow (also true!). On the first couple of trips I took post-diagnosis, I brought along a box of gluten-free protein bars as a security blanket. It turned out, I didn’t need that many (except at airports, which are still miserable for anyone with dietary issues).

One of my great pleasures has been in discovering how caring people can be. Over and over, I’ve been bowled over by people who go above and beyond to ensure that I can dine safely. The reason I started the Gluten-Free Guidebook in 2008 was because I wanted to share my travel and restaurant research — I do a lot of it, and it doesn’t seem right that it should only benefit me! More than anything, I want people to feel empowered. Anyone with celiac disease or food allergies should never feel as if they can’t travel — they just need a little more advance planning.

Over the past several years, my work has changed. These days, my full-time job is as a mystery novelist (believe me, I’m still pinching myself). But that doesn’t mean my interest in travel has waned. If anything, it’s grown, and book tours, literary festivals, and foreign-language translations of my books have taken me to new places I’ve never been before. Also, some of my books and short stories are set in exotic locales, and I love doing in-person research.

I missed traveling during the pandemic, and I’m thrilled to be back on the road. In the past few months, I’ve been to Barcelona and Boston, Miami and Montreal, Philadelphia and Toronto. Later this fall, I’ll be visiting Greece. It seemed like the perfect time to bring back the Gluten-Free Guidebook. I’m relaunching it on Substack for a couple of reasons: one is practical (the FeedBurner service I used to use gave up the ghost in 2021), and the other is personal (I moved my mystery-writing newsletter to Substack months ago and have been thrilled with the results).

What can you expect to find here? Plenty of recommendations about places I’ve visited myself, plus suggestions from other sources, including fellow readers. There will be specific information about restaurants, hotels, and shops, as well as more general information about how to navigate issues like foreign languages and unpleasant surprises on the road. There will also be plenty of travel information that’s useful for everyone, plus links to relevant news. About the only thing you definitely won’t see here are recipes.

I’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to see in this newsletter. Substack makes a lot of things possible, including video chats and podcasts. That would be terra incognita for me, but you already know I love traveling into new territory.


My fifth novel, One Small Sacrifice, won’t be out until June, but it has been selected by Amazon for its First Reads program for May! If you live in the US, UK, or Australia—and you have Amazon Prime—you can download my new book for FREE right now. (If you don’t have Prime, the Kindle edition is on sale for $1.99; if you want a hardcover, it’s on sale for $9.99 this month.) The book just got a starred review from Library Journal; I hope you’ll check it out.

A new novel means it’s time to hit the road again. So far, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Vancouver for a conference, Denver’s Tattered Cover, Scottsdale’s Poisoned Pen, and Houston’s Murder by the Book. Here are some of the restaurants I found along the way:

Nightingale (Vancouver): Reading this hot spot’s menu in advance made me nervous, because it stipulates, “We politely decline all requests to modify menu items.” I wondered what this would mean for anyone dining with food allergies or intolerances, but local friends promised that it was terrific. They were right! Our waiter took the time to create an annotated menu for me, marking all of the gluten-free offerings (a friend I was dining with is lactose intolerant, and they were able to accommodate this easily, too). My mushroom risotto with truffle oil and pecorino was the stuff of dreams.

Watercourse (Denver): This restaurant bills itself as Denver’s first vegan restaurant. The menu carefully notes GF (made without gluten), GFO (gluten-free optional), SF (made without soy), SFO (soy-free optional), CN (contains nuts), and NFO (but-free optional). I highly recommend the Brussels Sprouts Salad (GF, NFO), with kale, pomegranate, grilled apple, maple dijon, balsamic reduction, and candied walnuts. The Smoky Rose cocktail was also fabulous.

Irma’s Southwest (Houston): I have to credit my wonderful editor for finding this spot. I hadn’t heard of Irma Galvan before, but her restaurants are a Houston legend (Irma opened a tiny sandwich shop in 1988, switched to Mexican cuisine, and never looked back). This delicious outpost doesn’t have a long menu, but what they do, they do really well (chile con queso, fajitas, enchilandas…).

I’ll be at the St. Louis County Library on Tuesday, May 14th at 7pm, and at Ben McNally Books in Toronto on Thursday, May 16th at 6pm. If you’re in either place, I hope you’ll come say hello!