Fast-Casual for Grown-Ups
Tender Greens brings a heartier, grown-up eco-conscious dining option to downtown Berkeley.
The tuna Niçoise at Tender Greens features crisp, thin baby greens and transulcent slices of tuna.
Photos by Lori Eanes
Tender Greens. Sweetgreen. Gentle Greens. Emotionally Present Greens?
OK, I made up the last couple of those, but the first two are decidedly real names of real restaurants that opened in the last year within a few blocks of each other in downtown Berkeley. And, yes, both sound like SNL parodies of Berkeley dining establishments that made me cringe a little when I first heard them.
But what the hell—once you get past the cloyingly eco-friendly names, the truth is there’s a lot to like about both places. They pay admirable attention to sourcing local and sustainable vegetables and meats, while offering quick and affordably healthy dining options. Each took over longstanding Berkeley eateries—Sweetgreen succeeded Oscar’s; Tender Greens replaced Taiwan Restaurant—and completed impressive remodels that seamlessly incorporated existing architecture. And the food is very good at both spots. But if I had to decide between these two minichains—you can read my positive review of Sweetgreen in the August 2016 issue—I’d probably choose Tender Greens.
Why? Maybe because Tender Greens just feels a little more grown-up. Sweetgreen comes across very much like the polished product of a couple of very smart, hip, conscientious, and ambitious graduate students—and for good reason, its co-founders met while attending Georgetown University. Tender Greens, while very similar in fast-casual concept, seems more like the product of people who have actually sweated in a kitchen for a few years. And that’s for a good reason—its co-founders have backgrounds working at fine dining restaurants and met while working at one in Santa Monica.
It shows. While there are now a couple dozen Tender Greens scattered up and down California and more are undoubtedly on the way, each location has a unique executive chef. At Berkeley, that’s Sean Eastwood, whose impressive résumé includes running his own Mediterranean restaurant in Chicago and a stint as chef at the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay. True, there’s not much variation between location’s menus—though Eastwood’s specials did rotate fairly frequently during my visits—but the veteran chef’s constant presence behind the counter added to an overall impression that there is an adult in charge here.
Reinforcing that: the food, which was uniformly delicious and flawlessly prepared. Belying its name, Tender Greens serves fairly hearty, stick-to-your-bones fare. And unlike Sweetgreen, which very much caters to the vegan/veggie crowd and even stopped serving bacon for health reasons last year, the menu here remains resolutely anchored by meat. While the process of ordering is a bit baffling (more on that later), the menu itself is pretty straightforward, once you get the hang of it. You can choose a protein from among several types of chicken, steak, albacore tuna, and falafel, which can be served as a plate with mashed potatoes (or a substitute side of your choice), and salad or in sandwich form. Or you can choose between 10 standard “big salads,” most of which are served with one of those same proteins, in addition to chef’s specials and soups.
What I particularly liked about the meat at Tender Greens is that it’s not dumbed down. So if you order the chicken, you actually get white and dark meat with the skin still attached (you can ask for no skin). The steak still has some of the fat and gristle, and the tuna is cooked extra rare and pink in the middle. Those are important details, often axed by chains catering to mainstream palates, that add deeper character and flavor to the dining experience.
So, yes, there was a tough piece of gristle in the backyard steak salad that I had to spit out, but the rest of the medium-rare steak, accented with bits of sinewy fat, was impressively rich and flavorful. The meat in my chipotle barbecue chicken salad was perfectly succulent but made that much better by the sweet, fatty, and spicy chipotle barbecue sauce–rubbed skin. Creamy avocado and queso fresco, crispy tortilla strips, and crunchy romaine hearts with a refreshing lime-cilantro dressing complete what is a robust, balanced salad. And not to worry: The chicken is from California and vegetarian fed, the beef is raised primarily on open pastures on family farms, and both are hormone- and antibiotic-free.
That’s not to say that the greens are second fiddle. A Niçoise salad was served with baby greens—most of Tender Greens’ produce is sourced from Scarborough Farms in Oxnard—that were practically potato chip–level crunchy they were so crisp and fresh. The salad also sported perfectly snappy green beans, fingerling potatoes cooked until just tender with skin on, a delicately soft-boiled and halved quail egg, and rare, practically translucent slices of tuna dressed with olive oil and sea salt. Not nearly as delicate, but just as delicious, was the buttermilk fried chicken, an unpretentiously tasty version that came out piping hot with satisfyingly crispy rosemary- and thyme-seasoned skin wrapping moist white and dark meat. Don’t mess around with other sides; this is a dish begging to be paired with some creamy, buttery mashed potatoes.
Tender Greens even bakes its own cookies, which are big and yummy. Really, the only quibble I had was the ordering. It’s confusing.Walking in, you’re immediately greeted by a bounty of appetizing ingredients stacked behind a counter.
Try to flag down a worker to order, though, and they’ll tell you to move down the line to a cashier. That’s where you order your food, except it’s not where you pay or order your drinks—that happens farther on down the line, after which you have to loiter around the counter waiting for your food.
As for the prices, the plates and salads are all $12.50, which I found reasonable given the quality and quantity of food. Still, it’s high enough to take it beyond the typical Cal undergrad’s budget. Which is OK by me.
On my lunch visits, the restaurant seemed to draw more of a downtown office worker/professor/grad student crowd, which, again, added to the grown-up vibe. In fact, you can even get a beer or glass of wine with your meal. Tender Greens also has a large outdoor back patio, which makes a really nice spot to enjoy that adult beverage.
So, to recap: Hearty steak, fried chicken, beer, outdoor patio, big ol’ chocolate chip cookies, adult beverages. There’s a lot to like here—and those tender greens aren’t even the half of it.
2071 University Ave., Berkeley, 510-356-0697, TenderGreens.com.
Lunch and dinner daily, 11am-9pm.
Average dinner entrée: $12.50. Wine and beer only. Credit cards accepted.
This report appears in the May edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on May 19, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.