Hours: McLean: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Bailey's Crossroads: 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday.
Atmosphere: Combination snack bar/grocery store.
Price range: Sandwiches from 85 cents for cheese with alfalfa sprouts, half portion, to $3.25 for a whole club; salads $1.50 to $2.55; special drinks 65 cents to $1.45.
Credit cards: Visa.
Reservations: Not taken, and the restaurant can get crowded at lunch time.
Special features: Carryout; natural foods grocery store; highchairs; parking; sidewalk in McLean is one step up.
Most families, when the situation calls for a quick meal out, head for the local fast-food outlet. Our family has found an alternative: Mother Nature's. The food is speedily served, not much more expensive than at a hamburger or fried chicken place, delicious, and, as an extra bonus, nutritious.
Mother Nature's is a natural foods store. The first sight on entering the branch in McLean is the check-out counter and the filled shelves that line the walls. The food bar is tucked away at the back.
It isn't a big operation. There are about a dozen small round tables with wooden stools. You certainly don't come here with an extended visit in mind. The view is of racks and bins brimming with interesting-looking groceries, and the music is vintage Carole King and such.
The system is self-serve, with paper plates and plastic utensils. The menu is on a chalkboard over the counter where you order, but there are printed menus too.
The offerings are mostly sandwiches, salads and special drinks. Quiche also is listed, but was not available the day we were there. Anyway, it's the sandwich selections that catch the eye.
How about a Mother Nature's special ($2.95), made of avocado, sliced cucumbers, mushrooms and tomatoes, topped with sesame seeds, a dollop of sour cream and alfalfa sprouts? It's 230 calories, by the way. The printed menu lists the calories for all selections.
You also can try more standard fare like ham, turkey or tuna. Then there are the drinks, almost a meal in themselves. They are made from yogurt or milk, with honey and fresh fruits to give sweetness and flavor.
Half sandwiches are available, and the drinks come in both small and regular sizes, so it's possible to put together combinations that fit your appetite.
That's what our family did on a recent visit. Our 8-year-old, a peanut-butter fan, decided on half a peanut butter delight ($1.10) and a small strawberry smoothy (65 cents). The peanut butter was not the ordinary variety but a coarse blend, mixed with cream cheese, nuts, raisins and honey. With a slice of banana on top, it was spread on tasty seven-grain bread. The smoothy combined milk, honey and strawberries in a thick, not-too-sweet concoction.
The blueberry smoothy was just as good, although our favorite drink was the mocha cream ($1.45 for the regular size). This 500-calorie sensation was made of natural ice cream, carob powder, pero (a noncaffeinated coffee substitute), almond flavoring and honey. Just imagine the rich taste of chocolate with a subtle almond tang and you've got the idea.
For those whose tastes and waistlines dictate, Mother Nature's has coffee, tea, milk and juices. The apple cider is especially good.
Other sandwiches we sampled were the tuna supreme ($2.95), turkey ($2.50), and a variation of the BLT ($1.95). The tuna, slightly underseasoned, was topped with sliced mushrooms and alfalfa sprouts (you can substitute lettuce) and served on the seven-grain bread. It was fine, as was the turkey: deli slices piled on the same bread, again with alfalfa sprouts or lettuce.
The cheese, tomato and Bacos sandwich was doubly yummy because its Bacos were nitrite-free. They're made from soybeans, but taste like bacon in the sandwich combination.
For dessert there was only one choice other than packaged cookies. Since our visit, other desserts have been added to the menu, however. The only choice we had was the blondie (89 cents), a huge, homemade square full of chocolate chips and nuts. Although a bit overcooked, it was sweet and satisfyingly chewy.
The bill for five of us came to $16.67 with tax. That also included a box of molasses-flavored licorice, made in Finland, which the children chose as their dessert.