Healthy Chain Restaurants: The Freshest Fast-Food Spots
Eating on the go used to mean settling for a guilt-inducing burger and a mess of greasy fries. But now, savvy entrepreneurs are zeroing in on consumers' desire to eat healthy, affordable food on the run.
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23 Healthy Fast-Food Spots
Making your own meals may be the most-healthful way to eat, but churning out three nourishing meals day after day is not a realistic scenario for most time-strapped home cooks. Here are some of the restaurants that have broken through with a commitment to mindful ingredient sourcing and balanced menus, offering creative selections and welcoming atmospheres.
The Little Beet
With locations in New York and the Washington, D.C. area., The Little Beet is a favorite for health-minded on-the-go diners. The gluten-free, largely paleo- and Whole30-friendly menu — with plenty of vegan options — includes globally influenced creations, like grilled avocado garnished with "super seeds," and sweet potato mac and cheese with brown rice pasta.
Go To: The Little Beet
Chef collaborations and seasonal updates keep things current at Sweetgreen, the always-packed-at-lunchtime sustainable-salad empire founded in 2007 by then-Georgetown University students Nicolas Jammet, Jonathan Neman and Nathaniel Ru. Seasonal options round out a year-round menu of options like the Rad Thai, with organic arugula and mesclun, citrus shrimp and spicy cashew dressing, and the warm Harvest Bowl, packed with organic wild rice, roasted chicken and toasted almonds. Each of the Sweetgreen locations, in Washington, D.C., California, Chicago, Massachusetts, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, are propelled by alliances with some 500 local farmers and growers.
Go To: Sweetgreen
First opened in 2005 as an elevated mom-and-pop alternative to classic New York-style delis, Freshii was a near-instant success. There are now several hundred locations around the globe, serving spicy lemongrass soup, teriyaki brown rice bowls, honey-Dijon dressed spinach salads, and even low-fat probiotic frozen yogurt crowned with walnut and mango. Come for breakfast ,when scrambled egg, aged cheddar, and black bean burritos await, or sign up for one of the 5-Day Cleanses fueled by juices like the beet-lemon-ginger-carrot Red Power.
After devoting 40-plus hours a week to his finance job, Justin Rosenberg regularly boarded a bus from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., where he spent weekends in a restaurant kitchen. This experience primed him to launch Honeygrow in 2012. It’s since become a haven for wholesome red curry stir-fries with rice noodles and roasted spicy tofu, and salads with yellowfin tuna and herbed white beans, ideally washed down with cold-pressed apple-spinach-cucumber-lemon-basil juice. With locations in Philadelphia, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Boston and Chicago, the brand has even expanded from Honeygrow to Minigrow. The spin-off, currently available just in New York, features a smaller menu of noodles and greens whipped up in an assembly-line format.
A spinoff of a Rockville, Maryland, Middle Eastern Restaurant, Cava Grill is an expansive grab-and-go offshoot with locations in Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, California and more states on the way . The build-your-own menu starts with a base of salad, warm pitas or grain bowls of brown rice, lentils or saffron basmati rice. From there, customize Mediterranean combos including an array of dips —roasted red pepper hummus and jalapeno-infused Crazy Feta are two popular options — with falafel, braised beef, grilled chicken and spicy lamb meatballs as protein options. Complete it with toppings like pickled onions, tomato-cucumber salad or quinoa tabbouleh. If the gratis lemon-mint water doesn’t satisfy, look out for the beet lemonade. Containers of Cava’s lauded dips, from harissa to cool tzatziki, are found on the shelves of Whole Foods Markets and other specialty shops.
Go To: Cava Mezze Grill
True Food Kitchen
Much of the nutrient-rich food at True Food Kitchen is gluten-free, organic, vegetarian or vegan, and much adheres to well-known physician Dr. Andrew Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Since opening the first location in Phoenix in 2008, it's expanded to California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Each season the menu fittingly adjusts, with hearty options like miso-glazed sweet potato and a turmeric Ancient Grains bowl in winter. Brunch is especially popular, with dishes like quinoa Johnny cakes and vegan chorizo burritos.
This upbeat vegan quick-serve spot lures diners with black bean-quinoa-sweet potato Guac Burgers and apricot sriracha-glazed tempeh-topped spicy Thai salads knocked back with ginger-lemon-orange-cayenne shooters. Come in the morning for pancakes topped with coconut whipped cream and quinoa hash browns with tofu sour cream. Those on the run will appreciate the To-Go by Chloe offerings, from sesame-ginger buckwheat soba noodles to raw Madagascar vanilla bean chia pudding. Beyond the cookies and cupcakes, seek out Chill by Chloe, a plant-based, non-dairy frozen dessert line in flavors like strawberry shortcake or salted peanut butter. With a menu this playful, it’s no wonder by CHLOE. has grown throughout New York and expanded to Los Angeles, Boston, Providence and even London, where a seitan shepherd’s pie and tofu fish n’ chips keep locals chuffed.
Former financier Adam Eskin transformed the bodybuilder-loving New York mini chain Pump Energy Food into the more inclusive and cheerful Dig Inn in 2011. It was a smart shift, which has led to expansion across New York and into Boston as well. Dig Inn chefs work with ingredients sourced from a regional network of farmers and producers, as well as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, producing Marketbowls laden with proteins like grilled organic tofu with charred red onion and herby marjoram-parsley-rosemary roasted chicken. Homey sides, such as cauliflower with chickpea crumble and coconut-roasted carrots, further brighten standard lunch combos.
Inspired by the fresh, affordable made-to-order food prepared at no-frills street stalls in Asia, Asian Box was founded in 2012 by fine-dining restaurateur and consultant Frank Klein and Executive Chef Grace Nguyen. Limited to the West Coast, with outposts in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area, Asian Box is an eco-conscious brand, using compostable packaging recycled construction materials. Out of the open kitchen come gluten-free dishes such as caramel-slicked Passmore Ranch catfish with jasmine rice or shrimp and soy-garlic beef to dip into lime-black pepper sauce. Those who prefer to customize dishes can play with combinations of chilled rice noodles, coconut-curry tofu and tamarind vinaigrette.
Much of chef-turned-humanitarian José Andrés's time has recently been dedicated to global disaster relief through his ambitious non-profit organization, World Central Kitchen. The prolific restaurateur - whose restaurants include Washington, D.C.'s Minibar and Jaleo, along with the Bazaar by José Andrés at SLS Hotels in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas and South Beach - has also made the time to nurture Beefsteak, the concept he founded in 2015 illuminating fresh, market-driven vegetables. The menu includes bowls like the Kimchi-Wa, a mix of sweet potato, carrot, rice, edamame, and garlic yogurt sauce, but it would be hard to leave without caving into the BeetSteak Burger, a hefty marinated beet paired with pickled red onion, vegan chipotle mayo and sea salt on olive oil brioche - in summer, it turns into the namesake Beefsteak, using beefsteak tomato, not meat. With four locations on Andrés' D.C. home turf and one in Philadelphia, Beefsteak is now poised for the Midwest, opening at the lauded Cleveland Clinic.
Go To: BeefSteak
Californians have long loved the Backyard Marinated Steak plates with sprouted rice and butter lettuce, and chipotle barbecue chicken sandwiches at Tender Greens. Now the nearly 30-location-strong chain has expanded to New York, with Boston up next. The close proximity to the Union Square Greenmarket is a boon for menu sourcing. Each Tender Greens is run by its own chef and showcases a different menu. At the East Coast newcomer, for instance, Executive Chef Peter Balistreri prepares daily specials, including Wednesday night handmade pastas, and exclusive dishes like a salad of Maine lobster tail from Luke’s Lobster over a bed of baby gem lettuce and watercress. Take in the action of the open kitchen from the marble chef’s counter, with draft beer from Brooklyn Brewery in hand.
Go To: Tender Greens
Protein Bar & Kitchen
Frustrated by the lack of on-the-go protein-forward foods to support his active lifestyle, Matt Matros founded Protein Bar in downtown Chicago in 2009. Now called Protein Bar & Kitchen, the restaurant has also expanded to Washington, D.C., and Colorado, serving all-day menus. Start the morning with scrambled grass-fed eggs cooked in ghee and accompanied by turkey bacon, or organic steel-cut oat and quinoa oatmeal swirled with peanut butter and acai puree. During lunch, pop in for a signature spicy Korean Bar-Rito, folding together all-natural steak with diced cucumber, radish, spinach, pickled carrot and quinoa in a low-carb tortilla, prefaced by a cup of chicken chili with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
Roy Choi of L.A’s famed Korean taco truck Kogi, and Daniel Patterson, the San Francisco chef behind Coi and Alta, disrupted the fast-food world with LocoL, which opened in 2016. Designed to bring healthy, organic, easy-on-the-wallet food to underserved communities, LocoL has outlets, in the California’s Watts neighborhood of L.A and West Oakland, with a counter inside the San Jose Whole Foods Market. Timeless burgers and chili-cheese fries are clamored for, but other filling hits on the short menu are smoky, braised Messy Greens and the Foldies, which fold beans and cheese into crispy tortillas.
Founded in New York in 2001 by longtime friends Colin McCabe and Tony Shure, Chopt significantly revitalized the bland image of "eating your greens." Customers love the freedom of picking their own toppings - maybe hearts of palm and sliced almonds, maybe corn and Niman Ranch smoked bacon - to enliven their romaine or arugula leaves. The brand has expanded to Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., North Carolina and Tennessee. For those who have a hard time making decisions, Chopt also wins points for its own elaborate suggested concoctions, like the Texas Po'Boy with FreeBird fried chicken and charred red onion tossed in Tex-Mex ranch, or the jalapeno-studded Mexicali Vegan.
Holler & Dash
From the same company as Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, this biscuit house loses the old-timey rocking chairs and country fried steak. Located in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta and just outside Charlotte, Holler & Dash has industrial accents like exposed brick and Edison light bulbs, and a menu of still-indulgent biscuit sandwiches stuffed with fried chicken, pork tenderloin or goat cheese. Beyond biscuits, the menu includes a roster of good-for-you options such as peanut butter-banana toast with honey and a sprinkling of chia seeds, steel-cut-oat bowls, and seasonal greens dressed in lemon vinaigrette. Fried sides can be swapped for fruit. Ingredients are sourced from quality farms and sustainability-minded producers, including Springer Mountain Farms in Mt. Airy, Georgia, and Atlanta pickling guru Doux South.
Noodles & Company
Fresh food fast was a rarity when marketing executive Aaron Kennedy unveiled Noodles & Company in 1995. It filled a huge void: There are now nearly 500 locations of this Colorado-based chain across the United States. An abundance of soups, salads, pastas and noodle dishes awaits, with plent of options for gluten-free and vegetarian, along with those concerned about their sugar and sodium intake. One particularly alluring aspect of the menu is a section devoted to dishes that are 500 calories or less, including the Japanese pan noodles - caramelized ribbons of udon with broccoli, shiitake mushrooms and black sesame seeds in a sweet soy sauce - or Penne Rosa, pasta tossed in a spicy tomato cream sauce with spinach and feta or parmesan. A new lineup of decadent mac and cheese varieties - boosted with barbecue pork, buffalo chicken or truffles - can be ordered in smaller, under-700-calorie portions for necessary splurges.
Go To: Nooldes & Company
Birmingham, Alabama, was the first location of Zoe's Kitchen, founded in 1995 by Zoe Cassimus and her husband, Marcus. It's grown to more than 250 locations throughout the States. Peruse the comprehensive, Mediterranean-minded menu featuring French-baked feta, charbroiled salmon kabobs, cauliflower rice bowls and pitas filled with vegan baked falafel. Good news for large broods: Zoë's recently created value meals intended for a minimum of three people that revolve around centerpieces like Moroccan citrus-roasted chicken with turmeric rice, or baked cheese and spinach ravioli.
Fill up on brick-oven toasted sandwiches that unite ingredients like fresh mozzarella with basil pesto and blueberry-balsamic jam or roasted eggplant, goat cheese, and harissa tahini. Along with sweet potato-curry soup, tossed-to-order Thai coconut salads and cremini-kale pizzas, there are also lemongrass pulled-pork plates with garlic mashed potatoes, and, for early risers, breakfasts of Southwest tofu scrambles. The brand's loyalty to making most ingredients from scratch has also led to growth outside of Colorado in Arizona, Indiana, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Texas.
Lotus + Cleaver
Inside 1-800 LUCKY, the buzzy Asian food hall that debuted in late 2017 in Miami, is Lotus + Cleaver, an ode to Chinese barbecue and wok dishes utilizing top-notch ingredients. Begin with Peking duck buns, then move on to salt and pepper-lime leaf shrimp. Stir-fried market greens, a tofu-studded cucumber ribbon salad, and plenty of chrysanthemum tea keep the health-conscious sated. Owners Doron Wong and Erika Chou, known for the New York restaurants Northern Tiger and Yunnan Kitchen, will next introduce the concept to Austin at The Domain shopping center.
Hamburgers fuel the fast-food market, and though Elevation Burger is fast and affordable, the chain stands out from the crowd with its organic beef from grass-fed, free-range cattle. Hans and April Hess opened the first Elevation Burger in Falls Church, Virginia, in 2005, and it quickly gained a loyal following for thoughtful touches like fries cooked in olive oil, cheeseburgers made with six-month-aged cheddar, and veggie burgers made using organic grains and vegetables. The newest addition, Crispy Chicken, coats organic poultry in gluten-free breading. There are now nearly 50 locations of this eco-friendly burger joint, which are crafted with sustainable materials and outfitted with energy-saving lighting. Find one in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Maine, Michigan, Florida, Texas, and even the Middle East.
Muscle Maker Grill
Fitness fiends and workout newbies alike adore Muscle Maker Grill. The Houston-based chain - there are around 60 outposts around the country and Kuwait, fittingly including military bases - has specialized in nutritious foods since 1995. Fans rave about lean ground-turkey tacos cooled with fat-free sour cream, and signature bowls like the Godfather (grilled chicken breast, portobello mushrooms, roasted red pepper, reduced-fat mozzarella and balsamic vinaigrette over broccoli), as well as grass-fed beef burgers tucked into whole wheat buns, and four-berry smoothies. Super-devoted fans can opt for meal plans, so that a steady stream of steak Caesar salads, barbecue chicken wraps and teriyaki stir-fries is regularly delivered straight to the home or office.
Bellevue, Washington-based MOD Pizza encourages a novel way of thinking about pizzas, with an inviting pizza-making ethos that puts a premium on people by paying staff fairly and hiring those with special needs. Founded in 2008 by husband and wife Scott and Ally Svenson, MOD Pizza has more than 300 locations in the U.S. and UK. Customers choose their crust (original, gluten-free and the new thicker, chewier Mega Dough are possibilities) and more than 30 toppings, including homemade red sauce, a garlic ru, and vegetables roasted on the premises for their make-your-own 11-inch pies finished with sauces like Mike’s Hot Honey or fig-balsamic glaze. Seasonal salads meld ingredients like kale, ricotta and roasted red peppers.
Going strong since 2006, the all-vegan Veggie Grill expanded to the Midwest for the first time in 2018. Known for cooked-to-order dishes like the Beyond Burger, fiery kung pao tacos with crispy faux chicken, and Indian-inspired masala bowls combining spiced chickpeas and turmeric-roasted cauliflower, Veggie Grill updates its menu seasonally, including options like a bowl of no-meat meatballs and braised kale over creamy polenta in winter.
Go To: Veggie Grill