Healthy Chains: The Freshest Fast-Food Spots
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17 Great Healthy Fast-Food Chains
No, nothing beats a nourishing, homemade meal, but sometimes jam-packed schedules just don't allow for quality time with the cutting board and stove. While that used to mean settling for a guilt-inducing burger and mess of greasy fries, savvy entrepreneurs are zeroing in on consumers' desire to eat healthy, affordable food on the run. Just like Chipotle Mexican Grill made burritos stuffed with cilantro-lime rice and naturally raised chicken a lunchtime ritual, there are now a slew of other like-minded chains churning out fresh, tasty grub. With their upbeat, modern interiors and plethora of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free selections made before diners' eyes, these 17 burgeoning chains prove that fast and good-for-you foods aren't mutually exclusive.
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 curry-spiked cauliflower-leek, 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 coriander tuna, steamed red snapper 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. Now he’s making them the entire focus at his D.C. newcomer Beefsteak (forthcoming locations are planned in Maryland and Pennsylvania). The marinated BEETsteak sandwich, 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. 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.
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 corn tortilla chips into avocado-kale-cashew-cheese dip, move on to the creamy chipotle tempeh tacos or “meaty” Portobello-and-seitan sausage burger slicked with pumpkin-seed pesto.
With locations in the Southwest and beyond, Modern Market improves old standards with combinations like cage-free eggs smothered in green-chile chicken and nitrate-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 is fast making an imprint on New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
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, as well as mineral- and antioxidant-laden Super 6 Salad Mixes (try the Backyard BBQ with braised beef and Greek yogurt ranch dressing) 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 gingery beet-carrot Beetbox.
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. Then, they wash it all down with from-scratch sodas that unite ingredients like pineapple and coriander. 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., and New York. 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 garlic sauce and sumac onions add desirable jolts of spice and texture.
Sure, you can get a Reuben and a tuna melt here. But if you want to be good, bow tie pasta topped with roasted zucchini, tomatoes, artichokes, Asiago and organic spinach, as well as the Nutty Mixed-Up Salad, chock-full of ingredients such as organic field greens, dried cranberries and pumpkin seeds, are no mere afterthoughts. Jason's Deli might be known for its salad bar heaping with everything from cucumbers to carrots to sort-of-indulgent mini muffins, yet this pioneering chain, started in 1976 by Joe Tortorice Jr., was also one of the first to forgo high-fructose corn syrup and artificial trans fats.
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, lead the expansion charge, opening Zoës Kitchen throughout the Southeast and Southwest, with locations starting to open elsewhere in the country. 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 turkey carnitas. Early risers are rewarded with options like blueberry- and walnut-strewn oatmeal.
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 savor spinach and avocado frittatas accompanied by chipotle-potato hash, herb-flecked roasted mushroom and goat cheese flatbreads drizzled with balsamic, and “unfried chicken” in cashew cream sauce. 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 ginger carrot and pesto veggie, 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.
Asia’s vibrant street stalls are the inspiration behind these eateries, located in Northern and Southern California. Each is tricked out with reclaimed materials and FSA-certified wood. The soothing aesthetic complements the menu. Custom boxes start with brown rice, jasmine rice, cabbage salad or cold rice noodles, which are topped with proteins like lemongrass pork or lime shrimp, sustainably grown pickled vegetables and housemade sauces like tamarind vinaigrette. Bonus: The kitchen does not use freezers or fryers in Executive Chef Gracie Nguyen’s recipes.
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 pomegranate-chia limeade and butternut squash pizza spun from spelt and flax dough. 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 hail from Scarborough Farms in Oxnard. But diners who crave something more robust than, say, tarragon-dressed butter lettuce can spring for harissa-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.