Sweetgreen Is Lively and On-Trend

The national restaurant chain brings the local, sustainable food movement back to where it started.


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Sweetgreen's OMG Omega salad adds steelhead to a medley of fresh greens, avocado, tomatoes, and cucumber.

Pat Mazzera

It's never easy to cut ties with the past. Maybe that's why there was so much consternation, handwringing, and soul searching over the closure of Oscar's, the 65-year-old, old-school, flame-grilled, greasy spoon on Shattuck Avenue on the outskirts of Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto. It felt like the severing of a fast-fading era in the city's history. Oscar's opened some 20 years before Alice Waters and Chez Panisse debuted a few blocks down. It was a seemingly simpler time then, when you could scarf down a double cheeseburger and fries guilt-free without asking whether the beef was hormone-free and the potatoes organically grown. Salad consisted of the piece of wilted lettuce hidden between the buns in the pre-local, organic food revolution days.

There was also the matter of what was replacing this longtime Shattuck Avenue mainstay. That would be Sweetgreen, an organic quick-serve salad chain based in Washington, D.C., that was opening its first Northern California location. "Oh, really?," you could almost hear longtime counterculture Berkeleyites thinking, "Some chain from D.C. is going to teach us about local, sustainable, healthy food?" It was like someone had taken the Berkeley dining ideal, made multiple bad photocopies, and brought it back to the East Bay trying to pawn it off as something new and revolutionary.

In short, I was ready to be outraged. I was ready to roll my eyes. I was ready to seriously dislike this place.

And then I actually went there, and my neat little storyline began to unravel. Nothing kills off the healthy steam of self-righteousness quite like the facts.

The first thing you notice is the building itself. A healthy part of the charm of the original Oscar's lay in its quaint, wonderfully retro setting, a petite structure highlighted by a scalloped roof overhang and white globe lights that made it look like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. The new owners were smart enough not to mess with the original architecture, instead hiring a local design firm to renovate the building and add some modern wood accents to update the look. The place looks great, and it was the first clue that perhaps Sweetgreen wasn't the sort of heavy-handed, bureaucratic chain operation I'd assumed.

And if you dig into the history of the company, that shouldn't be much of a surprise. Nicolas Jammet, Nathaniel Ru, and Jonathan Neman—all three the sons of first-generation, entrepreneurial parents—founded the first Sweetgreen in Washington, D.C., shortly after graduating from Georgetown University. Just like in Berkeley, that first location took over a small, stand-alone burger eatery to which minimal structural changes were made. It turns out that the owners make legitimate and real efforts to tailor each restaurant—and there are over 30 of them now—to the specific area in which it's located.

That goes for the food as much as it does for architecture. The Berkeley restaurant sources ingredients from more than a dozen local farms, ranchers, and producers, including Coke and Jacobs farms, plus Mary's Free Range Chickens, Acme bread, Belfiore's feta, and tofu from Oakland's Hodu Soy.

How do I know that, you might ask? Because they're all listed on a chalkboard above the drinks machine for everyone to see as he or she waits in line to place an order. It's also mentioned on a folding chalkboard outside the entrance. And there's the large disclaimer on the overhead menu about how the restaurant recently stopped serving bacon and Sriracha sauce. So yeah, no one would call Sweetgreen subtle as far as promoting its bonafides as a healthy, social consciousness dining option. Then again, what the hell: You have to respect that level of commitment from a national operation, which, after all, is competing with the likes of McDonald's and Burger King and Taco Bell for marketplace attention (and last I checked, Big Macs, Whoppers, and chalupas don't contain a lot of local ingredients).

As for the food, again, Sweetgreen isn't subtle about the fact that it sells fresh-made salads—piles of greens, eggplants, and tomatoes are stacked up conspicuously behind the counter like a combination salad bar/living wall. But what it does, it does well, and it doesn't suffer from mission creep. The menu is hyper-focused, refreshingly, on salad, with six greens-heavy items, three grains-oriented bowls, three or more seasonal options that rotate five times a year, plus the option to build your own. You won't find wraps or appetizers or even desserts. You want a healthy salad, come on in; if you don't, then don't bother.

Pat Mazzera

Sweetgreen is a refreshing emporium of well-thought-out salads.

And those salads are great. The Bay Bowl, in the "grains" section, contained a mix of quinoa and faro, adding some bulk to the fresh organic arugula, tomatoes, corn, chickpeas, and spicy broccoli. Moist chunks of chicken and organic white cheddar lent fat and flavor, and the whole thing was brought together by rich pesto vinaigrette. The roasted eggplant and falafel, a seasonal special, were highlighted by a liberally herbed falafel and roasted eggplant (which was not overcooked and mushy so that it retained some texture), mixed with lovely baby spinach and chopped Romaine and just-slightly tart cider vinaigrette.

My favorite was the OMG Omega, which offered a grab bag of impeccably fresh veggies (arugula, baby spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes) with ripe avocado and a modest serving of moist, tender roasted steelhead (which along with chicken are the only two nonvegetarian options on the menu). The bowl was sprinkled liberally with briny nori furikake seasoning and a strong, spicy miso sesame ginger dressing. It's a fun, flavorful salad with bold flavors that all worked well together and it's something I could see myself ordering on a weekly basis.

And I'm obviously not the only one who feels that way. The place was packed for lunch each time I went with what looked to be a nice downtown Berkeley mix of Cal students, workers, and professionals. The crowd skewed younger, and it's easy to see why. The modern, light-filled interior, the casual service, the clubby music playing overhead, a young enthusiastic staff, the option to order via a Smartphone: It all appeals to the millennial demographic.

But it should appeal to just about everyone. Sweetgreen provides an undeniably healthy, quick, and pleasant dining experience. The argument could be made, of course, that the company is preaching to the choir by opening in a place like downtown Berkeley, but the truth is that there really aren't that many similar options in the area for a light lunch.

Does it have the same retro charm as the old Oscar's? No. Sweetgreen is lively and loud, very consciously on-trend, and perhaps a bit preachy. But just like a burger, fries, and shake were the standard six decades ago, a light, healthy, and conscientiously sourced meal seems to be increasingly common today.

It's hard to argue that's a bad thing.

This report appears in the August edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.

2016-08-19 08:00 AM

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