D.C.'s Sweetgreen in the NoMad Hotel, a New Hope for New York Salad
1164 Broadway (in the NoMad Hotel), New York, NY 10001 (map); 646-449-8855; sweetgreen.com
Service: Cheerful and efficient
Setting: A green, locavore Chipotle
Must-Haves: Earth Bowl, Kale Caesar
Cost: Most salads range from $8 to $12
Compare To: Chop't, Just Salad, Pax
Recommendation: Good for the neighborhood—very, if salad's your thing. Surpasses all of Manhattan's salad chains.
If one were to chronicle the life and death of the American lunch hour, the phrase "I'll just have a salad" would receive its own chapter. Those first two words tell us all we need to know—whatever follows is a second choice, settling for something less than what we want or think we deserve.
Of course if the lines for salad bars or chains like Chop't and Just Salad are any indication, "just a salad" is exactly what we want and think we deserve. But do we really love those chopped crunchy substrates for caloric toppings, or are they just a better alternative (for our conscience, if not our waistlines) to midtown's drab steam table delis?
More on that in a minute, but first, enter Sweetgreen, a D.C. salad chain that made its first inroads in New York this summer, landing at the NoMad hotel to no small amount of fanfare.* The company, which was launched by a trio of college kids in 2007, has expanded to 20 locations that command lines of dedicated fans. Like other salad companies, Sweetgreen stakes its veggies on near-endless customization of fresh produce. Unlike most other salad companies, it has the purchase orders to back up its talk: stores use locally grown produce when possible, rounding out their selection with organic greens and a rotating cast of seasonal ingredients.
* In the interest of full disclosure, I'll note that Serious Eats has worked with Sweetgreen's Sweetlife Festival in the past. I have no personal or professional relationship with the company and have approached this review as an independent editorial project.
There's a lot of magical thinking and doe-eyed sustainability prose on the company's website and college-newsletter-like menu, enough to make this bagel eater's eyes roll a little, but here's the bottom line: Sweetgreen is Manhattan's best quick-service salad chain with prices on par with other midtown lunches. It's a salad company for people who actually love salad, who don't eat their greens just because they're supposed to.
You can build your own salad (baseline $7.35) with a basic formula: greens (arugula, mesclun, baby spinach, romaine, or kale) or warm quinoa and farro; up to four toppings (raw corn, roasted sweet potatoes, pickles, cooked broccoli, soba, sprouts, and the like); cheese and proteins (such as chicken breast, feta, chevre, cheddar, lemony shrimp, bacon, and tofu, $1 to $3.50 per); and dressings (basic and fancy vinaigrettes and not-too-fatty creamy dressings). They're just different enough from (and better than) the salad chain standard to encourage you to experiment freely.
Don't expect miracles at these prices, but the chicken is just that much more moist and chicken-y, the cheese is that much more flavorful, the vegetables are that much better cooked than standard. Most of all, Sweetgreen's greens taste like real greens. Their mesclun and arugula negotiate a delicate bittersweetness, their spinach is pleasantly mineral, even their romaine is sweet and, well, green. If there's one major reason Sweetgreen's salads beat all their competition, it's the upgraded flavor of the greens themselves.
We focused on the pre-made salads, which are thoughtfully constructed and pretty good overall—we wouldn't be surprised to see any of them at a Soho cafe with a 50% markup. Their prices range from $7.95 to $11.85; calorie counts run from 400 to 730. When removed from their compostable packaging, the salads measure to a little over a quart with a surprisingly high ratio of goodies to greenery. And since the greens are left whole, not chopped into utter submission, they stay crunchy and fresh for longer.
Our favorites? An Earth Bowl grain salad ($9, 734 calories) disappeared fast, its chicken, grape tomatoes, arugula, corn, cheddar, and broccoli playing well with mellow quinoa and a nutty pesto. It's also the most filling by far, wholesome but not heavy. Sweetgreen makes a good Kale Caesar ($8.85, 450 calories), its kale sturdy but tender, its light dressing tarted up with lime. We like the kale so much we wish it weren't cut with romaine, a lettuce that, even with a local pedigree, feels like filler.
Guacamole Greens ($9.65, 575 calories) are one of the chain's top sellers in D.C.: surprisingly flavorful mesclun with generous lobes of avocado, chicken, tortilla chips, and a lime-cilantro vinaigrette. Ignore the chips, which lose their crispness as soon as they're dressed, and stay focused on that sweet avocado. With a little fork and knife work you can divide it up to get a little in every forkful, which makes up for dressing that isn't quite as sharp as it should be. The Misoba ($8.85, 550 calories) is more carby thanks to a fat handful of soba noodles amidst all the mesclun. The noodles are overcooked and the overall impact of avocado, cilantro, miso, and sesame is a bit muddled, but it's a satisfying lunch all the same.
Less successful is a District Cobb ($11.85, 690 calories) overly sweetened by an agave-enriched dressing and candy-like bacon, and the Chic-P ($8.85, 548 calories), starring mushy, flavorless baked "falafel" that had us reaching for napkins to discretely rid ourselves of the bad taste in our mouths.
I preferred the Santorini ($10, $425 calories), which is as Greek as a roadside gyro but abundantly tart and light—lemony shrimp with crunchy romaine and some grapes thrown in for good measure, though the salad isn't especially filling and it's light on the mix-ins. The Spicy Sabzi ($7.95, 408 calories) has the opposite problem: too much going on with kale, spinach, broccoli, quinoa, beets, tofu, and then some, and a certain lack of direction. But it's a filling and satisfying lunch all the same, and the vegetables are fresh and cooked well.
That's two smash hits, four pretty good options, and two wide misses. Not convinced by that scorecard? We pitted Sweetgreen against three of its competitors: Pax, Chop't, and Just Salad, ordering a chicken Caesar at each. We found, time and time again, an over-reliance on fatty dressing designed to cover up acceptable-but-bland and limp romaine and edible-but dry-chicken. Some bowls exhibited a wretched sweetness; others an afternoon-wrecking lack of inspiration. In contrast, Sweetgreen's Caesar, though a couple bucks more expensive, was abundantly fresh, lighter, and more intensely flavored with less of a dressing crutch.
When you consider Sweetgreen's by-and-large successful pre-made salads and the several thousand combinations of greens, mix-ins, and dressings at your DIY disposal, you have a reasonably high chance of under-$10 lunchtime success. Is this a seismic shift away from the chopped salad bar standard? No, but the salad game isn't about making the Best Possible Salad. It's about making something marginally better for you than a sandwich, marginally better tasting than what you'll find at a vending machine, marginally more interesting than other salad bars, marginally more pleasant of an experience than other quick-service operations.
Sweetgreen, with its awesome produce, reasonable calorie counts, not-exorbitant prices, and ebullient, efficient staff who make a long line move quickly, succeeds on all these counts. That it's local-, organic-, and sustainable-leaning is almost besides the point. At its core, it makes a salad that a serious food lover could call downright respectable. Just a salad? Not here.