JoAnne LaMonica and her son, Max, were used to staying behind when her husband and daughter traveled for soccer tournaments. With 14-year-old Max's food allergies — to wheat, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, barley, rye and oats — it was often too tough to make the trips as a family.
But last year, the Rochester, N.Y., residents took a chance on a trip to Baltimore, and now the six- or seven-hour drive is almost routine — all because of a small cafe in an Ellicott City shopping center.
Opened in 2012, One Dish Cuisine specializes in allergy-safe dining and has built a following of local residents and travelers alike. It was recently named the most allergy-friendly restaurant in America by AllergyEats, a Yelp-like crowdsourcing website and app serving the 15 million Americans with food allergies.
And for diners like Max LaMonica, it's one of the only places they can order off the menu — or order at all.
"The risks are often too great to even consider eating out the vast majority of the time," JoAnn LaMonica said. "Uninformed staff, cross-contamination risks, undereducated cooking staff who do not understand ingredient labeling. At One Dish Cuisine, there is little to fear for Max or for me as his mom."
JoAnn LaMonica found One Dish while researching allergy-friendly restaurant options for a family trip, and after one visit, they were hooked. Max loved the pizza, and his parents loved being able to trust that One Dish was a safe place for their son to eat.
"There are no words that can begin to describe the emotions I feel when I think of Max, his food allergies and what One Dish does," LaMonica said.
Max, meanwhile, is always happy to chow down without delay at One Dish.
"Whenever I go out to eat, I always have to check with the managers, but when I go there I already know — I trust them so much," he said. The teen is a big fan of One Dish's breakfast pizza and said of his first visit, "I ordered probably the whole breakfast menu — it was all safe. I could eat the whole thing. I wasn't worried, either."
This kind of restaurant is a rarity, according to Paul Antico, the Boston-based founder of AllergyEats and father of five. Three of his children have food allergies, and he created the website six years ago to help families like his own find allergy-safe restaurants.
AllergyEats users answer a handful of questions about restaurants, and then an algorithm crunches the responses, ultimately producing a numerical rating. One Dish has better ratings than any other restaurant in the country, Antico said. In fact, it has a perfect score.
"It's unheard of," Antico said. "I don't call anything 'allergy safe,' but if there's anything that comes close to allergy safe, it's One Dish."
Owner Maureen Burke's inspiration for the cafe was personal. She has a milk allergy and celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder in which gluten damages the small intestine.
"I've been doing this my whole life — making my own food and carrying it in little Tupperware containers. I know we can all feed ourselves safely at home. The hazard comes with dining out because all kinds of allergens are flying in kitchens. I just wanted a place to eat," she said.
Burke said she did not meet another person with celiac disease until 2007, but in recent years, food allergy prevalence and awareness of conditions like hers has increased.
"From 1997 to 2011, there was a 50 percent increase of food allergy amongst children," said Leigh Tracy, a dietitian at the Center for Endocrinology at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center.
Tracy said celiac disease affects about 3 million Americans. According to the nonprofit group Food Allergy Research & Education, about one in every 13 children has a food allergy.
Level of severity varies widely, from mild irritation to anaphylaxis, a whole-body reaction in which airways narrow and blood pressure drops. Sensitivity to allergens also varies; for some people with severe allergies, even lightly touching an allergen could trigger a severe reaction.
"Research suggests that about half of all food allergy reactions occur outside the home," Tracy said.
Burke started making frozen meals that she sold to restaurants and hospitals in 2009. In 2012, she and her husband, Dave, opened their cafe. She recognized that the most effective way to avoid allergen contamination in the restaurant would be to eliminate the allergens altogether.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration says about 90 percent of people with food allergies are allergic to one or more of the top eight allergens: eggs, fish, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, soy, wheat and dairy. There are two kitchens at One Dish: The "blue kitchen" is free of those eight foods; the "green kitchen" is free of everything but dairy.
Burke has developed a strict protocol to keep the restaurant safe, including rules like banning cellphones in the kitchen.
"Let's say you're at home and made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for your child, and you're on the phone," Burke said. "Put the phone in your pocket, come to work and get a text and decide to text back. You just contaminated your fingers. I can't take that chance."
If a diner suffers from an allergy that is not one of the top eight, One Dish can still accommodate them. When that happens, the restaurant shuts down production in the kitchen and cleans everything before preparing the meal.
That's the case when 17-year-old Nicholas Klein dines in. He has a mustard allergy, along with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish and shellfish.
"It was like a miracle because we could actually go someplace he could eat and not worry about cross-contamination issues," said his mother, Sharon Klein. "They make it totally safe."
For Burke, remaining safe is the priority, but the quality of the food is also vital. One Dish regulars, like Fulton family Kimberly and Erik Williams and their 9-year-old son, Matthew, who is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, wheat, sesame, shellfish, barley and rye, said Burke's fare, from the pizza to the cupcakes, are excellent.
"I really like the pastas," said Kimberly Williams. "My husband, when he first tried the Reuben [sandwich], he ate it and said, 'Maureen, is this real rye bread or gluten-free?' You can't even tell you're eating gluten-free food. We love it. You don't feel like you're missing out on anything."
At One Dish, a small sign hangs on the wall behind the counter. It says, "Relax and feel the difference."
In any other restaurant, that sign might blend in as part of the scenery. But here, it's a promise that inside the restaurant, people with food allergies can relax as they eat safely and well.