Healthy Chains: The Freshest Fast-Food Spots
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17 Great Healthy Fast-Food Chains
The Little Beet
Fast-and-easy weekday lunch is brightened and lightened at this gluten-free lunch spot. Chef Franklin Becker’s idea was such a hit with midtown New Yorkers craving nourishing food that it has now spawned several new outposts, including one in Washington, D.C. Options include internationally inspired soups, like a turmeric-spiked butternut squash, as well as miso chicken bowls, and salmon and ponzu brown-rice rolls. For a sit-down affair, Becker’s Little Beet Table in the Flatiron District elevates gluten-free fare with dishes like chipotle pork tacos, grilled cauliflower steak and a high-end bacon-cheddar burger on wheat-free bread.
Powerhouse chef José Andrés has long given vegetables the spotlight at restaurants like Jaleo and Zaytinya in Washington, D.C. More recently, he’s made them the entire focus at his D.C. fast-casual spot, Beefsteak (with other locations in Maryland and Pennsylvania). The marinated Beefsteak Tomato Burger, dressed with sea salt and nestled inside an olive oil brioche bun, is a sure bet, but so are the bowls. Make one to order, or trust in a favorite such as the Frida Kale, which melds black bean and spicy tomato sauces with corn nuts and pumpkin seeds.
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. Choose from menu items like tempura-breaded green beans and Indian-inspired Bombay bowls with kale, spiced chickpeas, hemp seeds and cilantro-green curry sauce. But a true splurge at this California, Oregon and Washington (and soon Illinois) chain best comes in the form of crispy, orange-glazed cauliflower florets.
Native Foods Café
A fast-casual vegan pioneer, Native Foods Café first flung open its doors in Palm Springs in 1994. Now found throughout Southern California, with locations in Colorado, Oregon and Chicago to boot, it’s a mecca for plant-based proteins. After plunking vegan chicken strips into creamy housemade ranch sauce, move on to the juicy chipotle tempeh tacos or “meaty” Portobello-and-seitan sausage burger slicked with pumpkin-seed pesto.
With locations scattered across the U.S., Modern Market improves old standards with combinations like cage-free eggs smothered in green-chile chicken and hormone-free bacon. Launched by fitness-minded Rob McColgan and Anthony Pigliacampo, the chain 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.
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 — Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru — started working with local farmers and turned a trite formula on its head with Sweetgreen. Here, ordering the Spicy Sabzi 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 a burst of Sriracha. The Rad Thai, with citrus shrimp and spicy cashew dressing, is another favorite. Most of Sweetgreen’s reclaimed-wood-adorned outposts are in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, but the chain has made an imprint on New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles as well.
Pop into Protein Bar — currently found in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Colorado — for breakfast and you’ll find options that include chilaquiles bowls with spicy tomatillo-lime dressing, and oatmeal and other grains with peanut butter and acai. Founded by a former Kraft Foods employee, the growing chain focuses on protein-rich bowls (try the Backyard BBQ with braised beef and Greek yogurt ranch dressing), as well as mineral- and antioxidant-laden salads and cleverly named Bar-ritos, which are burritos that shun rice for quinoa, and flour tortillas for low-calorie whole-wheat wraps. Slake your thirst with raw juice concoctions such as the pineapple-y beet-carrot Beat Street.
Cava Mezze Grill
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. Good news for Whole Foods shoppers: Many of the stores are stocked with Cava Mezze Grill-made dips and spreads.
Roti Mediterranean Grill
Falafel, kebabs and roti get fast, fresh updates at this Mediterranean restaurant with locations in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York and more. Patrons can add the fillings — made with sustainable salmon, FreeBird chicken, grass-fed beef and organic chickpeas — to salads, rice plates or laffa wrap sandwiches. Toppings such as tahini and sumac onions add desirable jolts of spice and texture.
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. Her ambitious son, a one-time University of Alabama football player, led the expansion charge, opening Zoës Kitchen throughout the Southeast and Southwest, with newer locations now open in New Jersey, Maryland, Pennsylvania and beyond. The menu includes pitas filled with caper-and-onion-strewn albacore tuna and homey chicken kebabs over rice pilaf.
“Eat. Energize.” That’s the motto behind Freshii, which after debuting in Toronto in 2005 has now spread across the globe to locales as far-flung as Austria and the United Arab Emirates. The brainchild of a former fashion-industry insider, the franchise is dedicated to healthy on-the-run options, such as rice noodles bobbing in spicy lemongrass broth and Tex-Mex burritos stuffed with energizing proteins like tofu, chicken, steak or falafel. Early risers are rewarded with options like Greek yogurt strewn with fresh fruit and granola.
Every dish whipped up at Lyfe Kitchen — created by Faye Greenberg and Oprah’s beloved Art Smith — is 600 calories or less. At Lyfe Kitchen restaurants in California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, Tennessee and Texas, patrons can choose from a variety of healthy options, such as eggy frittatas studded with roasted tomatoes and squash and blueberry-quinoa pancakes for brunch, plus delicate herb-roasted salmon and Parmesan-crusted chicken for dinner. At just 252 calories, the banana coconut budino made with chia seeds and date-nut caramel is safely decadent territory.
Atlanta entrepreneur Jenny Levison — of the shuttered Cafe Jonah and the Magical Attic — spreads the wholesome-food gospel with her quartet of Souper Jenny restaurants. At these cafeteria-style joints, the roster of from-scratch soups includes vegan and gluten-free varieties like chipotle sweet potato and creamy cauliflower, which are preludes to options like Greek salad-stuffed pitas. Mere steps from the Buckhead flagship is the inaugural site of Juicy Jenny, Levison’s latest venture, where patrons queue for drinks like the organic, cold-pressed Instant Hydration with cucumber, pineapple, coconut water and lime.
True Food Kitchen
A bastion of fresh vegetables, this Phoenix-based restaurant chain serves anti-inflammatory smoothies, salads and light entrees at locations throughout the country. The menu keeps dishes bright and interesting, creating combinations like heirloom tomato and grilled artichoke pizza that’s finished with post-oven dollops of creamy vegan ricotta. Come morning, diners flock here for hearty quinoa johnnycakes and soy chorizo-packed burritos.
Salads are the stars at California eatery Tender Greens, and most of the produce found in them hails from Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. But diners who crave something more robust than, say, tarragon-dressed butter lettuce can spring for cumin-amped falafel on lavash, or herb-brushed albacore tuna with mashed potatoes. The restaurant’s decor, mixing recycled materials with local artwork, elevates the rustic vibe.