While I always (always, always) love an impressive five-star hotel, I often prefer a healthy fast casual meal to a Michelin-starred one. Sure, there’s no culinary stardust and I won’t so much as glance at a wine list when I’m ordering at a counter (even I draw the line somewhere), buuuut if I’m going to be stuck in an uncomfortable chair for the duration of a meal I’d rather it be for 30 minutes and not three hours. Another bonus for the dietarily restricted? FC joints let me substitute ingredients to my heart’s desire without offending a Bon Appetit darling or my wondering for the next two hours and 45 minutes just how much my server hates me beneath their perfect, Michelin manners.
I do enjoy fine dining for special occasions and for the wine list. I just want healthy, plant-based food the way I want it to make my body feel awesome the other 90% of the time. So that is why I am so stoked on what is happening with the current crop of fast casual restaurants who are going full-board with healthy eats. Here are my current favorites - some national, some regional and all are happy to substitute whatever you like.
This DC-based salad chain is a growth machine. The first time I tried it, I queued up with the New York lunchtime rush, wrapping around the corner of 28th street for a salad for a salad in a plastic container. It was worth it! Year-round go-tos like the Spicy Sabzi are filling AF with tons of textural variety and color, and seasonal salads rotate based on location and time of year. Basically everything that I love. You can also just DIY a totally customized salad, at the counter or via mobile app in advance so you can grab and go.
Locations: CA, NY, DC, MD, VA, MA, PA
Chef Tanya, as all of Palm Springs and her pretend bffs like me refer to her, is an OG vegan fast casual visionary. The first Native Foods opened in Palm Springs in 1994. I spent the entirety of my lunch budget while at UCLA on spicy scorpion burgers and key lime pies the Westwood location. Big hearty bowls combine various grains like quinoa and rice with creative sauces like a vegan ranch and a moroccan, and the burgers are divine.
Locations: CA, IL, OR, CO
Yeah, I know it’s not sexy or new or indie, but if you are road tripping outside of any metropolis, beyond the ‘burbs, chances are you are going to not necessarily want, but need Chipotle. The most widely available healthy FC outlet of any on this list, Chipotle is a solid standby for salads and bowls with multiple bean options, vegan sofritas protein and seriously legit guacamole. I don’t remember the last time I’ve eaten at one within a city center, but once the radio options narrow to static or country, seeing a Chipotle off of a freeway is like an oasis in the desert. Locations: Everywhere and beyond
To just get right out with it, Flower Child gets my order right maybe 1 out of every 5 visits. I return because it’s delicious, and somewhere deep down I’m hoping they figure out they are in the service industry. There is no yummier, easier (when they get it right) place for hearty vegan bowls, curry hummus, and the thrill of a restaurant overwhelming me with the number of clean, vegan side dish options. They have something for every craving: post-workout and need something light and hydrating? Yep. Something when it’s rainy and I need to eat my feelings, but like healthy? Yep. And when they do get my order right it makes my entire day.
Locations: AZ, CA, TX
True Food Kitchen
From the owners of Flower Child, True Food Kitchen is a slightly less casual fast casual take on healthy, American-meets-Mediterranean bites. With anti-inflammatory menus dreamed up by Dr. Andrew Weil (check out my interview with him for 7x7 here!), dishes are full of phytonutrients, healthy fats, and plenty of vitamins and minerals. The ancient grains bowl is a fall staple in my routine when I’m in Santa Monica or Walnut Creek. While it and other dishes can include a vegan protein, friends that prefer an animal protein can add shrimp or a similar option so everyone can tuck into their preferred take on ‘healthy’. Just don’t leave without ordering a slice of squash pie to share. YUM.
Locations: AZ, CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, MD, PA, TN, TX, VA
A lot of this menu is actually not crazzzy healthy or super vegan-friendly - I mean, it calls itself a ‘sandwich market’. But the items that are healthy and plant-based are different from the offerings at any other bowl/salad/wrap spot. And when a craving hits for their vegetarian Chinese salad or the enlightened falafel wrap with a vegan tzaziki that is pressed like a panino, nothing else does the trick. Lunch is busy and the vibe is so LA, at least at the Wilshire location. They offer free samples of sides when you go to pay, which I think they do to upsell, but it just confuses me. But if free sides are a plus for you - then just another reason to check out Mendo Farms.
It’s a schlep from most things other than the Santa Rosa mall (insert emoji girl with “I guess?” hands up) or specific parts of wine country from San Francisco, but I’ve gotten pretty slick with excuses to visit Amy’s in the suburban hamlet of Rohnert Park. And once I’m there, I make sure to bring a few friends at least, so we can order as much of the menu as possible. Amy’s is of course owned by the people who make those sodium-rich but delicious burritos and pizzas that were an awesome go-to for microwaving after an extended happy hour in college. The new all vegetarian/vegan drive-thru so so much more sophisticated than my drunken freezer to microwave burrito-scarfing. High ceilings, a ton of staff and a sunny patio make it such a pleasure to indulge in vegan burgers, burrito bowls, superfood salads, mac and cheese with veggies and non-dairy milkshakes. I know I said this was a healthy list, but sometimes a treat meal is the healthiest thing at that moment.
Locations: CA for now, more soon. Check out this Fast Company story on the upcoming expansion!
Tell us your favorite fast casual joints and/or road trip stops in the comments below: