9 Healthy Fast-Casual Spots to Hit in 2016

These chains offer nutritious, thoughtfully sourced ingredients so it’s never difficult to eat healthfully.

2015 saw a boom in the fast-casual restaurant market, with new concepts following the “build-your-own” Chipotle model opening up left and right, and more established healthy chains spreading rapidly across the country. When custom-building a salad, wrap or bowl is in your hands, it’s certainly possible to create a calorie bomb of a meal, but these chains offer nutritious, thoughtfully sourced ingredients so it’s never difficult to eat healthfully. Here are nine spots to seek out in 2016.

When you’re pressed to eat well — and quickly — salad always comes to the rescue. But, oh, how mounds of iceberg bore. Luckily, three Georgetown pals started working with local farmers and turned a trite formula on its head with Sweetgreen back in 2006. Here, ordering the Spicy Sazbi leads to a nutritious melange of organic baby spinach and shredded kale with quinoa, broccoli, carrots, raw beets, basil, sprouts and roasted tofu, capped off with a carrot-chile vinaigrette and burst of Sriracha. The Chic P, a deconstructed, lemon-tahini-laced baked falafel sandwich of sorts, with chickpeas, cucumbers, green and red peppers, and pita chips over a bed of organic mesclun and baby spinach, is another favorite. The bulk of reclaimed wood-adorned Sweetgreen outposts are in Washington, D.C., but they are fast making an imprint in Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, and recently expanded to the West Coast.

— Alia Akkam

Three childhood chums from Montgomery County, Maryland, all sons of Greek immigrants, decided to open a restaurant. Ike Grigoropoulos, Ted Xenohristos and Dimitri Moshovitis brought to life their version of the convivial, contemporary taverna with the debut of Cava Mezze (there are locations in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia). Then, they turned their attention to the fast-casual realm and introduced the fast-growing Cava Grill, where lunchtime crowds spill onto the sidewalk. Once inside, patrons pick a pita, rice or salad base, top it with dips (from a jalapeno-infused feta mousse to roasted red pepper hummus), and plump it up with proteins (such as grilled meatballs and braised lamb), before studding it with the likes of pickled banana peppers and olives. Then, they wash it all down with from-scratch sodas that unite ingredients like pineapple and coriander. 2015 saw expansion to Los Angeles, and more Whole Foods stores being stocked with Cava Mezze Grill-made dips and spreads.

— Alia Akkam

Photo by: Rachel Owen ©Rachel Owen ImageIcon Photography

Rachel Owen, Rachel Owen ImageIcon Photography

Every dish whipped up at LYFE Kitchen — created by Oprah's beloved Art Smith and her vegan consulting chef, Tal Ronnen — is 600 calories or less. At LYFE Kitchen restaurants in California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada and Texas, patrons savor spinach and avocado frittatas accompanied by chipotle-potato hash, herb-flecked roasted mushroom and goat cheese flatbreads drizzled with pomegranate-balsamic, and grass-fed steak with roasted Yukon gold potatoes and caramelized onions. At just 240 calories, the banana budino made with coconut milk and chia seeds is also safely decadent territory.

— Alia Akkam

Photo by: Rey Lopez ©UnderABushel.com

Rey Lopez, UnderABushel.com

José Andrés is not only a talented Spanish chef but also a father to three daughters. Beefsteak, his latest eatery with two locations (so far) in Washington D.C., is where vegetables take the spotlight. The largely customizable menu offers flavorful bowls featuring grains, sauces, crunchy toppings and market-driven vegetables. The kids might gravitate toward the meatless Beefsteak Burger, which is composed of a hearty beefsteak tomato and pickled red shallots, topped with guacamole, alfalfa sprouts and a caper-herb Dijon aioli. It's a burger that Andrés can feel good feeding to his kids, and you can feel good feeding to yours. Forget bottled apple juice. Beefsteak’s juices, like the Pineapple Basil, are made daily in-house.

— Kiri Tannenbaum

As its name implies, Veggie Grill's menu revolves around plant-based foods. Instead of serving meat, the cheerful chain — CEO Greg Dollarhyde is known as the chief energizing officer — puts tempeh, soybean-wheat-pea proteins and supergrains in the spotlight. Amid the vibrant menu of tamari-marinated portobello skewers and Indian-inspired Bombay bowls with kale, cannellini beans, coconut milk, almonds, hemp seeds and cilantro-green curry sauce, splurging at this California, Oregon and Washington chain best comes in the form of crispy, orange-glazed cauliflower florets.

— Alia Akkam

With a predilection for grilled meats, herbs and olive oil, the Mediterranean diet has long been a healthy one. In 1995, when Zoë Cassimus opened her namesake restaurant in Homewood, Ala., naturally she turned to the ingredients revered in her Greek family. Thanks to her ambitious son, a onetime University of Alabama football player, leading the charge, Zoës Kitchen can now be found across the Southeast and Southwest, offering diners pitas filled with caper-and-onion-strewn albacore tuna and homey chicken kebabs over rice pilaf.

— Alia Akkam

How many times a week do you snack on hummus? That’s the focus of this “hummusiya” from Zahav chef Michael Solomonov, based on the quick-service hummus joints sprinkled across Israel. At Dizengoff in Philadelphia (named for Tel Aviv’s famous shopping boulevard), theirs is simply prepared from a blend of tahini, chickpeas, salt, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and water. To adorn the creamy spread, there’s a rotating list of toppings running the gamut from a slow-cooked egg to beef brisket. Solomonov and partners are gearing up to open a new Dizengoff outpost in New York’s Chelsea Market, and we doubt it’ll be the last.

— Kiri Tannenbaum

Lucky Texans and Coloradans can begin their days at Modmarket over cage-free egg sandwiches on ciabatta with chipotle aioli and nitrate-free bacon. Launched by fitness-minded Rob McColgan and Anthony Pigliacampo, Modmarket is the spot for, say, a refreshing roasted chicken salad with mixed greens, sweet potato and grated coconut in a peanut-mango dressing, or cremini-kale pizza hot from the brick oven. Another feel-good boon: Each new Modmarket opening raises funds for a worthy nonprofit.

— Alia Akkam

Chef Franklin Becker left the world of New York City fine dining to focus on this wholesome, gluten-free concept. At Little Beet, you can build a plate around a protein with sides or opt for an inspired salad base, like the Sushi Salad with brown rice, radishes, cucumbers, toasted nori and avocado. Swing by for an egg-white-and-red-pepper breakfast sandwich (in a brown-rice wrap) or quinoa oatmeal in the early-morning hours. In addition to fast-casual locations popping up in New York and Washington, D.C., there’s a full-service restaurant offshoot, The Little Beet Table.

— Sara Levine
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