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Keto-Friendly Restaurants: What To Eat And Where To Go
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According to the venerable restaurant guide publisher Zagat, the average American eats out nearly six times a week (pre-pandemic, of course). (1) Even though those numbers include morning Starbucks runs and quick lunches at the local sandwich shop, that’s a lot of restaurant meals. There’s no question: as a people, we love eating out.
That can be one of the issues that make you hesitate when you’re considering the keto diet. A ketogenic meal plan not only places major restrictions on the carbohydrates (grains and starches) you can eat, it places an emphasis on fresh, whole foods while making most types of fast food off-limits.
That concern about eating out is understandable, but unnecessary. Yes, you’ll see the greatest weight loss and be healthier if you prepare your own meals of proteins, healthy fats and lots of veggies.
But you can also live a keto lifestyle without having to slave over a hot stove day after day; quick lunches or nights out at your favorite restaurant aren’t a thing of the past on keto. You just have to be careful about what you order and eat.
What follow are tips on how to stay on ketosis when visiting your local eatery, followed by a rundown of nationwide chains which operate keto-friendly restaurants.
How to Make Your Local Restaurant Keto-Friendly
Small, local restaurants often don’t have a large-enough clientele to cater to those on keto or low-carbohydrate diets. That doesn’t mean, though, that you have to avoid them when you’re eating keto and don’t want to fall out of ketosis.
Here are some suggestions on how you can handle a fun night out without carbs.
1. Be sure you understand what you can and can’t eat. If you’re new to keto eating, you could easily make an inadvertent mistake and order the wrong thing (or sample the wrong things from your dining companions’ plates).
2. Spend a few minutes online checking out your destination restaurant’s menu, before leaving home. Most eateries now post their menu on their websites, so you can scout it out for the best carb-free options.
3. Once you arrive and are given the menu, look for a low-carb section or dishes marked as low-carb options, or ask the server if keto or low-carb dishes are available. As the keto diet becomes more common, even many smaller restaurants offer keto-friendly meal choices.
4. If you have any questions about a dish’s ingredients and whether it’s low-carb, don’t be afraid to ask the server or to have him check with the chef. You can also ask for a complete list of nutritional information (which includes carb counts) for all of the restaurant’s dishes; the law requires restaurants to make those lists available.
5. You won’t want to eat the free bread if you’re on a keto diet, so keep the basket by your dining companions so you can avoid temptation while waiting for your meal.
6. When choosing meals at a restaurant, it’s safest to stick with meat, fish and vegetables with any high-carb sauces or dressings left off (or served on the side, where you can ignore them). If a meal comes with sides of potatoes, rice or pasta, request a side salad or veggie substitute. The restaurant will be happy to cooperate. Needless to say, most will also be happy to substitute lettuce for a bun, if you’re having a burger or sandwich.
7. If you’re having a salad, be sure to request olive oil and vinegar dressing on the side; if you don’t, they may drench the salad with a carb-loaded house dressing. If your meal is ordinarily served with a sauce or gravy, be sure of the ingredients before ordering, or ask that it be replaced with melted butter. You’ll probably want extra fat with a restaurant meal anyway, since it helps you feel more full.
8. Skip the ketchup and barbecue sauce that may be sitting on the table staring at you. Use yellow mustard (not honey mustard), ranch dressing or even some extra butter if you want to add a condiment. Also avoid the temptation to order a soda or beer with your meal if you don’t want water; unsweetened iced tea is a great substitute.
9. You didn’t really want to have dessert, did you? If you simply must, stick to berries with unsweetened cream or a cheese plate. You’ll be better off finishing your meal with just coffee or tea (no sugar, please), with the fat-laden and satisfying addition of some heavy cream.
That may seem like a lot of work, but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. And always remember: you’re the customer! The restaurant exists to make its customers happy, so don’t hesitate to make reasonable requests to accommodate your diet.
There’s another possibility which can make things a bit easier: visit one of the many national chains which already cater to the needs of keto dieters.
Keto-Friendly Chain Restaurants
A chain restaurant may be one of your favorites eating spots. It’s more likely, though, that you (or your dining companion who’s not on a keto diet) choose franchised eateries based on what you feel like eating.
For that reason we’ll list the best chain restaurants offering keto diet foods, based on the type of cuisine they offer. Don’t forget the tips we listed above; skip the potatoes, rice, carb-filled sauces, ketchup and other sugar-laden condiments.
Steaks and Burgers
There are few better choices for keto diners than a straightforward “steak restaurant,” since they specialize in proteins and are happy to serve meals without sauces containing hidden calories. Burger joints may tempt you with fries, onion rings and other forbidden goodies, but they’re great for a quick meat fix.
- Outback Steakhouse: This is one the best chain steak places in terms of side dish selection. A grilled sirloin, filet or ribeye (extra butter, please!) with a side Caesar or Cobb salad, steamed asparagus or broccoli will please your taste buds and fill your stomach.
- Red Robin: You don’t have to feel like you’re on display if you ask to have your burger served wrapped in lettuce – just order it “wedgie style, no fries” and you’ll have a keto-friendly burger promptly delivered. The guacamole burger and Royal burger (with fried egg) are great choices, as is the Avo-Cobb-O salad complete with grilled chicken, egg, bacon and blue cheese.
- Wendy’s: Prefer a fast-food burger while keeping your carb count down? The chain’s Baconator sandwich wrapped in lettuce (no ketchup!) is absolutely loaded with protein and fat – and only three grams of carbs. Smaller appetite? The “Son of Baconator” is about half the size, but it has zero carbs.
- Red Lobster: If you can stay away from the cheddar biscuits (a tough assignment, no doubt), there is a wealth of entrees under five carbs: steamed lobster, shrimp scampi, snow crab legs, tilapia, flounder and grilled scallops. Among the carb-free toppings are butter, sour cream and Caesar dressing. Asparagus, broccoli or a garden salad can complete your keto-friendly meal.
- Joe’s Crab Shack: There are great keto menu options here. Crab nachos, snow crab legs, and Joe’s Classic Steampot each contains less than five grams of carbs, and of course, extra butter goes perfectly with seafood. The crabcake chicken chipotle Caesar salad or broccoli florets only add a few more carbs to the dinner.
- Chick-fil-A: There’s a lot to choose from here, as long as you go for the grilled chicken instead of the breaded stuff. The grilled chicken breast sandwich, chicken club (lettuce, no bun) and grilled chicken nuggets are all low-carb, as is the Cobb salad with chicken.
- Kentucky Fried Chicken: KFC is known for crispy chicken and would seem to out-of-place on this list, but there’s a lot to like there for keto dieters. There are no carbs in any of their grilled chicken choices, and surprisingly, a piece of their original recipe chicken is under five carbs if you get the wing or drumstick. Side salads (and green beans if you eat them on your diet) are, too.
- Olive Garden: Unlimited salad is a good place to start (as long as you skip the bread sticks), and you can build a pretty nice meal with their grilled chicken, sautéed shrimp or Italian sausage. If you want to splurge on carbohydrates, chicken margherita and herb-grilled salmon are both less than 10 carbs each.
- Carrabba’s: Not everyone has one of these restaurants nearby, but the keto-friendly options are good for an Italian place. Try the Tuscan grilled chicken (0.5 carbs), the chicken marsala, pollo Rosa Maria or salmon cetriolini (3 carbs apiece) or if you want a treat, the prosciutto-wrapped pork tenderloin (6.5 net carbs).
- Chipotle: Tacos and tortillas are out here, but who cares when they have specially-designed keto-friendly burrito bowls? You get a wide range of protein choices like chicken, steak and carnitas at one carb or less, low-carb toppings ranging from fajita veggies and lettuce to salsa, and high-fat toppings like sour cream, cheese and guacamole.
- Chili’s: You can get Tex-Mex or burgers here, and there are good keto meal possibilities by holding the tortillas, beans, rice and sauces. The salad bowls, sirloin with grilled avocado or bacon-avocado grilled chicken sandwich (on lettuce) are particularly good. The buffalo wings on the appetizers menu (make sure they’re grilled) work, too.
- Noodles & Company: Don’t let the name fool you. They have great dishes based on zoodles (zucchini noodles) and caulifloodles (yes, cauliflower noodles) with various protein options, to help you keep your carb intake under control.
There’s a huge selection of keto-friendly food at many “regular” American chain restaurants. For example:
- Buffalo Wild Wings has low-carb wings with several different keto-friendly sauces and rubs including parmesan garlic and spicy garlic.
- Sub shops like Jersey Mike’s (order a “sub in a tub”) or Jimmy John’s (order an “unwich,” which is a lettuce wrap) let you pile on the pickles, low-carbohydrate vegetables and proteins without the bread, as long as you skip the sugar-laden sauces like BBQ or Teriyaki. Subway recommends its low-carb chopped salads, without croutons or sugary dressing.
- IHOP is perfect for keto dieters, since cheese omelets, eggs and bacon, and steak and eggs are all ideal ketogenic (and gluten-free) meals.
- Cheesecake Factory: Yes, you read that right. We’re not sending you here for dessert, though; the best bet is the “skinnylicious” portion of the huge menu, where you’ll find dishes like grilled salmon, lettuce-wrapped tacos and terrific salad bowls.