When lunchtime rolls around, there’s no end to boring, unhealthy options. There are burgers, Chinese takeout, pizza, sandwiches, and plenty of other ways to put yourself into a food coma via a sad desk lunch even before you hit the 3 p.m. wall. For many of us, salad (and chopped salad in particular) is the best lunch option around, and thankfully there are some truly great salad chains out there.
Hale and Hearty
This New York chain (there’s also a location in Boston) is best known for its soups, but it’s also a solid option for a quick salad. There are six green mixes available as well as four “ready to go” options, averaging around eight bucks: chicken avocado; chicken Caesar; quinoa, edamame, and beet; and tuna on greens. The variety of add-ons and dressings is limited and none stand out as unique, but the ingredients are always fresh.
This Los Angeles chain has three locations in the city, with build-your-own salads starting at $6.75. These include five “simple” toppings including crispy wontons, rainbow rotelli pasta, house-made pita chips, and caramelized onions; premiums include quinoa, tofu, pesto chicken, grilled steak, and seared ahi tuna. Its priciest signature salad, topping out at $11.50, contains romaine, baby spinach, grilled steak, grape tomatoes, bacon, asparagus, sautéed mushrooms, and blue cheese. Any salad can also be made into a wrap, a nice perk.
Fresh & Co
Fresh & Co has 16 locations in New York, and it has tons of lettuce choices for “build your owns,” including mesclun mix, baby spinach, Italian blend, iceberg, Oriental blend, romaine hearts, kale, and a romaine/kale blend. Thirty-one simple add-ons are offered, along with 22 premium and 12 proteins, and you get four to start. They also have seven signature predesigned salads and rotate three seasonal choices (the falafel salad and steakhouse salad are standouts). The selection here is staggering and excellent, and there is also a wide variety of sandwiches, grain bowls, panini, and side salads like cranberry turkey salad and vegan Puebla “unchicken” salad. Build-your-own salads start at $7, and “chef-designed” ones average $9.
Skipping to the left coast, Chop Stop has five locations in the Los Angeles area. You can pick from 12 pre-designed salads averaging about $9.50, or if you’d rather get more creative, you have four lettuce options and 42 add-ons, including a surprising variety of fruits. You are also allowed to pick six add-ons to start, more than nearly any other chain. A huge point in Chop Stop’s favor is its eco-friendly approach to packaging food. The chain also offers “Choppurito” bowls with a base of cilantro lime rice and black or white beans (a clear effort to pull some traffic from Chipotle, but OK in our book) as well as wraps and soups. The salads are packaged in 100 percent compostable containers, the cutlery is made from plant starch, and the to-go bags are Earth-friendly.
Just Salad, with locations in New York, Chicago, the UAE, and Hong Kong, offers up a range of chopped salads, wraps, soups, and smoothies. Pre-designed salads are available in four categories: Seasonal, Value, Health, and Awesome, and they’re more inspired than most other chains; the Smokehouse Steak salad, for example, contains romaine, grass-fed free-range steak, local feta, organic black beans and corn, jalapeños, tortilla strips, and smoky poblano ranch dressing. If you choose the make-your-own route, you have seven lettuces to pick from including baby spinach, romaine, mesclun, kale, red cabbage, and arugula (points for more options!). You get four regular toppings (or if you use the eco-friendly reusable bowl, you get two extra or a cheese), with extras coming in at $0.59 each. The chain also offers six premium toppings, seven protein options, three seafood options, and eight cheeses. The variety offered for these mezzaluna-chopped salads, and the fact that many of its ingredients are local, organic, and sustainable, bumped Just Salad up high in our books.
Saladworks is an institution in the salad-for-lunch world. Founded in 1986, it quickly started outselling the burger and pizza joints in the mall where it started, and today there are more than 100 locations in 14 states. There are 15 pre-designed salads available (including Buffalo Bleu, Mandarin Chicken, Cobb, Nicoise, and Thai Chicken). If you want to build your own masterpiece, you have four lettuce options (and pasta) and get five toppings included in the $8.69 build-your-own price, with each extra goodie costing you $0.99 (unique add-ons include roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted butternut squash, and glazed pecans). Some stores are adopting an eco-friendly approach, including bamboo flooring, LEED-approved recycled vinyl walls, fluorescent and LED lighting, and live herbs in pots.
Sustainability is the focus at Sweetgreen, from the food to the design, and menu items are prepared fresh, use in-season produce, and are sourced from reputable farmers. Salads and grain bowls are completely customizable. For all intents and purposes, if you’re looking to eat healthily and cleanly, Sweetgreen is your new best friend, and with a $35 million round of funding closed last year, one might be opening near you sooner than you may think.
While you can choose from a wide selection of pre-designed salads and bowls, the menu also allows you to customize your own from locally sourced (when in season) ingredients; options include organic quinoa and farro, shredded kale, arugula and broccoli leaf mix, raw beets, shredded cabbage, basil, chickpeas, roasted sweet potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, local feta, Parmigiano-Reggiano crisps, citrus shrimp, organic white Cheddar, house-made hummus, baked falafel… the possibilities are essentially limitless.
Chopt, arguably the most recognizable chopped salad chain in America, is also one of the best, on several levels. When you build your own salad, you have five kinds of lettuce to choose from, and a list of more than 50 add-ons including Southwest quinoa blend, kelp noodles, Niman Ranch bacon, gold and purple beets, raw seed blend, and rainbow carrots. The first four add-ons are free, and you get one mezzaluna-chopped lettuce and one dressing. There are plenty of Chopt outposts in both the New York City and Washington, D.C., areas (along with two locations in Charlotte), and the chain lists all of its sources and purveyors on its website, which is certainly a nice touch. There are 18 pre-designed salads available, including “Destination” (Spicy Sonoma: chipotle chicken, avocado, Sonoma Creamery Parmesan and quinoa crisps, pickled cherry peppers, romaine, kale, and purple cabbage); “Hot-Top” (Braised Chicken Tinga: slow-cooked chicken tinga, brown rice, and black beans served hot over avocado, scallions, tortilla chips, cotija, kale, spinach, and cabbage); Grain Salads (7 Summits: roasted squash, charred red onion, pecorino cheese, quinoa, lentil, millet, kale, spinach, and cabbage); and Classic Salads (Kebab Cobb: grilled chicken or falafel, feta, charred red onion, spicy peppers, pita chips, romaine).