The folks at Thrillist recently wondered: What small chain restaurant of today is bound to be the next Chipotle? They picked out a dozen likely candidates from around the country, and while many of them trade in familiar fast-food territory (burritos, sandwiches, pizzas), there were also a few less well-worn options on the list, from falafel to sushi to fancied-up salads.
And that got us thinking: Why shouldn’t a healthy chain go nuts, Chipotle-style, in 2015? It seems like there’s a growing desire to be able to get nutritious, affordable meals quickly, and McDonald’s adding a token kale menu item might not cut it. Here are three of Thrillist’s healthier picks that we think stand a chance, followed by three of our own candidates.
- Roti Mediterranean Grill — Thrillist likes Roti’s “focus on traceability and high-quality ingredients.” We noticed the way they talk about the Mediterranean diet as “a way of eating that celebrates the essential nutrients that sustain us through each day.” They’ve got a Chipotle-like formula: choose a protein (chicken, steak, and salmon among them), pick a format (salad, wrap, plate), then add sauces and sides. Currently in Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC.
- Native Foods — This Thrillist-endorsed vegan chain goes heavy on the fake-meat options — from the meatball with seitan “sausage” to Baja tempeh tacos — but Native also makes interesting all-veggie options like the beet and blue “cheese” sandwich and the “super slaw” with kale, cabbage, chia, flax, and cracked hemp. Founded in Palm Springs, the 100% plant-based Native is now in five states.
- Chop’t — Thrillist calls Chop’t “a guilt-free option that actually appeals to meat lovers.” We like their “better tastes better” motto, commitment to no pre-packaged or processed ingredients, and the seasonal specials they rotate every 60 days. They’re just in New York City and Washington, D.C., for now, but with more than ten locations in each city, we wonder if they might want to test the waters elsewhere.
- LYFE Kitchen — LYFE (which stands for Love Your Food Everyday) has a clear mission: “Eat good. Feel good. Do good.” One of the founding chefs, Art Smith, once was Oprah’s personal chef and has his own inspirational story of transformation: Since 2008, he’s lost 120 pounds and run several marathons. LYFE touts that every menu item is under 600 calories and has clearly labeled sections for vegetarians, vegans, and those eating gluten-free. The menu has plenty of things that sound healthy (lots of quinoa and kale) but doesn’t shy away from comfort food, either — there’s a burger, flatbreads, and even a “stuffed pizza sandwich.” Currently in six states.
- Dig Inn — I first heard about Dig Inn from New York-based friends when it was still called Pump Energy Kitchen, a name that ultimately sounded a little too bodybuilder-ish. Dig’s main deal is the Market Plate: a protein (think: salmon, five-spice meatballs, lemon herb chicken), two hot or cold sides, and a grain or greens. There are also soups, cold-pressed juices, and sandwiches and salads that vary by location. Dig is just in New York City for now, but following a big investment earlier this year, it’s poised to expand — and the CEO has said Boston’s probably next.
- Sweetgreen — This salad place with three clear guiding words — “delicious, healthy, transparent” — has set up several outposts on the East Coast. Now it’s heading west, with two restaurants set to open near Los Angeles soon. We like that their menu changes not just by season but by region, their balance of greens-based salads and grains-based bowls, and the recipes they choose not to keep to themselves. And not unlike Chipotle and Cultivate, Sweetgreen also throws an annual music festival, headlined this year by Calvin Harris and Kendrick Lamar.
Top photo via Sweetgreen