The idea of “fast-casual” dining is definitely having a moment right now. Early adopters like Panera and Chipotle have given way to a massive wave of startups looking to claim their share of the coveted lunch rush, and we’ve tracked down 10 chains that have managed to quickly grab themselves a foothold despite all being five years old or less.
Seriously, is there anything chef José Andrés can’t do? The globetrotting Spanish chef’s restaurants run the gamut from tapas (Jaleo) to Chinese/Mexican (China Poblano), from high-end molecular gastronomy (e by José Andrés) to Greek mezze (Zaytinya), and he’s turned his attention to vegetable-driven fast-casual with his 4-year-old concept Beefsteak. The menu lets customers choose from a variety of creative bowls or select their own grains, greens, cooked vegetables, proteins, and toppings. The concept has proven to be very successful, and it’s spread to three locations in D.C., one outside the city in Bethesda, and one on the UPenn campus.
Brown Bag Seafood/Yelp
The 4-year-old, Chicago-based Brown Bag has partnered with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to make sure that all of its seafood is sustainable and responsibly sourced, and it serves salads, sandwiches, tacos, “powerboxes,” and veggie boxes made with a fresh daily catch, salmon, whitefish, shrimp, or chicken. The customizable menu also includes a variety of sides and other little surprises, like truffle parmesan tots, curry fish cakes, and a lobster roll. There’s nothing else quite like it in Chicago, and it’s up to three locations with a fourth in the works.
By Chloe started out in 2015 on a very strong note — as one of the most popular counter-service restaurants in New York City — and has only grown from there. The chain made headlines last year when co-founder Chloe Coscarelli was forced out of the company after infighting, but owners Samantha Wasser and ESquared Hospitality (which owns more than 20 restaurants worldwide) have stayed true to the mission, serving creative vegan fare that’s so good even carnivores love it (its veggie burger is one of the best you’ll find, anywhere). Smart brand partnerships and a robust social media presence have helped its rise to fame; there are currently five New York locations (with one more on the way), two in Boston, one each in Los Angeles and Providence, and one in London (with another in the works).
James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Solomonov is one of Philadelphia’s most renowned (he put his name on the map with his high-end Israeli destination, Zahav), and his fast-casual concept Dizengoff, modeled after the ubiquitous hummus stalls of Israel, has taken off since he first launched it with business partner Steve Cook in 2014. It’s currently up to four locations (including a super-popular one in New York’s Chelsea Market, which opened in 2016), and the chain’s absolutely stunning hummus, ornamented with seasonally-rotating toppings, will go as far as Solomonov wants to take it.
You probably know chef David Chang as the brains behind the Momofuku brand and the new Netflix series Ugly Delicious, but he’s also serving what very well might be the best spicy fried chicken sandwich in New York at Fuku’s six locations as well as at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. Chang is a master of branding and he’s clearly cracked the chicken sandwich code, and this simple, straightforward concept may be his ticket to fast-casual domination.
Not only has entrepreneur Shannon Allen’s Grown expanded to five locations (four in Florida and one in Connecticut) since opening in Miami in 2006, her menus are also 100 percent USDA-certified organic. Healthy breakfasts, bowls, salads, and soups are all available vegetarian or vegan, and the entire kid’s menu is gluten-free. Grown is about as healthy as it gets, and Allen (the wife of former NBA star Ray Allen) hopes to eventually open as many as 10,000 locations globally.
Alice L/ Yelp
Street food king Roy Choi (of Kogi fame) and James Beard Award-winning chef Daniel Patterson (Coi) teamed up in 2016 to open LocoL, a fast-casual concept that has the lofty goal of revolutionizing fast food as we know it. Their “LocoL Cheeseburg” is certainly starting them out on the right foot: The patty is made with 70 percent beef and 30 percent tofu and grains to keep the costs down, and it’s topped with melted jack cheese, scallion relish, and house “awesome sauce.” Other options include “foldies,” chili, and fries, all made with high-quality ingredients and sold for very reasonable prices. It’s had some bumps along the way, including a scathing review by The New York Times’ Pete Wells and a brief closure of two locations for a minor revamp, but it was dubbed 2017’s Restaurant of the Year by the LA Times’ Jonathan Gold, and the three current locations — in LA, Oakland, and San Jose — are going strong.
Hawaiian Poke (diced chunks of raw fish mixed with a variety of sauces and toppings) has been having a serious moment lately, but Mainland Poke has been right there since the trend’s earliest days in 2014. Today, it’s up to four Los Angeles locations, serving fresh tuna, salmon, albacore, toro, salmon belly, spicy tuna, blue crab, octopus, and crawfish tossed with sauces including coconut sauce and sweet chili lime vinaigrette and toppings like avocado, crispy onions, mango, and seaweed. You can also choose from pre-selected combos like the Ichiban, with albacore, ponzu, wasabi aïoli, pickled ginger, scallions, tobiko, and red sea salt. Fresh fish is delivered daily, and all bowls are built to-order.
Starbird was founded in 2014 by a San Francisco-based restaurant consultancy group called The Cutting Edge, and its signature fried chicken (in sandwich, wrap, salad, and tenders box formats) has helped it expand to three locations (with a fourth in the works) in Northern California. The secret to its success? Really high-quality ingredients. The signature chicken sandwich is made with locally-raised, sustainably farmed, free-range chicken dipped in a secret-recipe gluten-free batter and house-baked breads and sauces; and styles include spicy sriracha Buffalo, sweet honey mustard, backyard barbecue, and banh mi. Grilled chicken and Hodo brand soy tofu are also available if you’d prefer something not fried.
Sweetcatch Poke/ Yelp
On the other side of the country from Mainland, another poke shop is making waves in New York: Sweetcatch, founded in 2016 by chef Lee Anne Wong. Diners can choose from a selection of six poke styles designed by chef Wong, including the Classic Hawaiian Salmon with Hawaiian shoyu sauce, sweet and green onions, ogo seaweed, sesame seeds, and sea salt and the Spicy Yuzu Chile with salmon, yuzu chile sauce, onions, cucumber, radish, mango, red chile, cilantro, and sesame seeds; add a variety of toppings, and have it served in a rice bowl, on a salad, or in a maki-style wrap. There are currently two Manhattan locations, with two more opening soon.
The Little Beet/Yelp
Founded by fine-dining chef Franklin Becker and entrepreneur Andy Duddleston in 2013, The Little Beet now has four New York City locations, one on Long island, and two more in the Washington, D.C., area. Entirely gluten-free, The Little Beet lets customers create their own bowls with a wide variety of proteins, grains, vegetables, sauces, and garnishes. It’s not only perfect for those on restricted diets (there are also plenty of dairy-free, soy-free, vegetarian, vegan, and nut-free options), it’s also simply delicious, and is certainly up there with America’s best vegan restaurants.
More from The Daily Meal:
Fast-Casual Chains to Look Out for in 2018
America’s 35 Favorite Pizza Chains
15 Regional Chain Restaurants We Wish Were National
25 Things You Didn't Know About Your Favorite Fast Food Chains
America's 10 Healthiest Chain Restaurants