Let’s face it, eating healthfully can be challenging—especially if you’re in a hurry or on a budget. Fast-food restaurants constantly beckon with super-size bargains they can have ready in minutes. We know it’s bad for us, and we may not even really like it, but it’s cheap and it’s there. Lyfe Kitchen, which recently opened in the District, is a fast-casual chain that’s proposing another option. It offers quick, healthy meals at a reasonable price point, although it’ll still set you back a bit more than a trip to McDonald’s.
Lyfe has a pair of heavy-hitting chefs helming its corporate kitchen. Executive chef Art Smith is a former contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef Masters. The award-winning chef owns Chicago’s Table Fifty-Two, heads a nonprofit dedicated to teaching nutrition to children, is the author of Art Smith’s Healthy Comfort and served as Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef for 10 years. (I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Oprah appears like a particularly healthy eater.) Consulting chef Tal Ronen is one of the nation’s most prominent vegan chefs, and the man Steve Wynn brought in to help improve the vegan menus at his restaurants.
Lyfe is a bright space with indoor and outdoor seating, and a fresh herb garden on one wall. You order from a counter and a server delivers your meal to your table. The menu features starters such as edamame hummus with vegetables and grilled artichokes, as well as various soups, salads, flatbreads and sandwiches. There are also eight full entrées, including ravioli, steak and potatoes, and a stir-fry grain bowl. Breakfast is available daily till 11 a.m. And there are separate gluten-free and vegan menus. Ronen also helped develop the faux-meat line Gardein, which is available in many items.
One thing Lyfe does not offer is soda. Instead, beverage choices include craft beer, wine, coffee, smoothies, infused waters and hot and iced tea. Just don’t look for any artificial sweeteners for them—you won’t find any here.
I’ve already had some amazing dishes. Something called a Pizzadillawich—a hot folded flatbread sandwich stuffed with eggplant, peppers, onions, goat cheese mozzarella and basil—was so flavorful I didn’t even bother with the pomodoro dipping sauce. A cup of sweet corn chowder that substituted cashew milk for cream was equally delicious. And a margherita flatbread was as good as many I’ve had in high-end restaurants.
Unfortunately, I’ve also had some disappointments, and one total disaster. The hot-wing sauce on the un-fried Buffalo chicken strips was a little overpowering, and the ranch dipping sauce did little to cool the heat. I also thought the spicy tomato sauce that came with my salmon, which was delicious, really drowned out the taste of the mild fish.
Those are small complaints. But the grass-fed hamburger I sampled was a true misfortune. Perhaps I should have known when I asked for it medium rare, and they told me I could only have it medium or medium well—a good rule of thumb for commercially mass-produced patties. But what I got was a factory-stamped hockey puck of beef that was well done and horrifically dry, not even up to McDonald’s or Burger King quality. I love the idea of casual restaurants using grass-fed beef, but not like this!
My other gripe about Lyfe is that the fast-casual format doesn’t work well with their formally structured menu. While dishes are listed as starters, entrées and desserts, unless you specify, everything arrives at the same time. Moreover, while service here is a lot quicker than other local healthy-dining spots, the food feels more mass-produced and less made-to-order.
All of that said, for speed, convenience and creativity alone, Lyfe should quickly become a favorite of healthy eaters. Just steer clear of the burger.
Al’s Menu Picks
- sweet corn chowder ($4)
- margherita flatbread ($8.50)
- Pizzadillawich ($8)
- roasted salmon, tomato and fennel ($15)
140 S. Green Valley Pkwy., 702-558-0131. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon–Thu; 7 a.m.–10 p.m. Fri; 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Sat; 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Sun. Dinner for two, $25–$50.