If you’re the type to judge a restaurant by its name, spots such as Sweet Leaf and Vitality Bowls don’t leave much to the imagination: They practically scream healthy.
Both are among a growing crop of fast-casual restaurants in the Washington area that specialize in bowls — aesthetically-pleasing, nutrient-heavy dishes built around a base of whole grains or superfruits. Most of the time, these start plant-based and can easily be modified to adhere to such popular eating styles as Whole30 or gluten-free diets. And they taste great.
Here are five spots to grab a quick, healthful bowl for lunch or dinner.
“Peace in,” Flower Child’s front doors announce, a welcome message that hints at the chill vibes inside: The restaurant is bright, airy and colorful, with funky murals and inspiring messages like “Good goes around” splashed across the walls. At its four area locations, everything is made from scratch using local ingredients.
“Our motto is healthy food for a happy world, and that’s what we strive to create,” says Jessica Mulroy, regional manager of restaurant operations. The menu includes soups, salads, bowls and the kind of sides that double as worthy entrees; all can be modified to adhere to, for example, vegan, gluten-free, keto or Whole30 diets.
The Mother Earth bowl ($9.95) is a hearty, well-crafted mix of ancient grains, sweet potato, portobello mushroom, avocado, cucumber, pistachio pesto, charred onion, leafy greens, red pepper miso vinaigrette and hemp seed. (Protein such as tofu or salmon can be added to any bowl.) Mulroy says she can’t resist the Glow Bowl ($9.95): spicy sweet potato noodles, bok choy, zucchini, onion, jalapeño, shiitake mushroom, coconut milk and sunflower butter. “It’s reminiscent of pad thai,” she says. “It gets me every time.”
Combine either bowl with the yuzu Brussels sprouts, made with charred onion, savoy cabbage and golden miso. And top it all off with homemade rose petal lemonade or kombucha on tap. Flower Child also serves wine, seasonal sangria and local beer.
Multiple locations in the District, Virginia and Maryland.
Ten years ago, Tara Gilad’s daughter was born with severe food allergies. Soon after, Gilad and her husband realized there were few acceptable dining options in their California community: “We looked at each other and said, ‘A lot of the restaurants in our area aren’t safe for people with allergies,’ and we also didn’t have a lot of heathy options — and definitely none that offered superfoods.”
So they launched their own superfood cafe. Vitality Bowls has nearly 80 locations across the country, including one in Arlington. All the shop’s offerings are made to order in a kitchen designed to avoid cross-contamination, and they contain no ice, frozen yogurt, artificial preservatives, trans fats or other fillers.
The bowls are built around one of four superfruits: acai (a dark purple palm berry), pitaya (also known as dragonfruit), graviola (a heart-shaped, sweet tropical fruit) or acerola (a tart fruit rich in vitamin C). The superfood bowl ($12.99) blends all four, creating a thick, creamy, purple-ish base topped with crunchy granola, banana, blueberries, goji berries, organic cacao nibs and honey. That’s a lot of ingredients, but each adds a distinct flavor — and helps prove that superfoods can, indeed, taste super.
1515 Wilson Blvd., Arlington.
Arita Matini couldn’t find anything to eat. Around a decade ago, driving back and forth between Marymount University and her home in McLean, she regularly despaired over a lack of fast, healthy options. “So we just decided, let’s do something ourselves,” she says. In 2009, Matini and her brother, Andre Matini, opened Sweet Leaf, a community cafe that now has seven locations throughout Northern Virginia and the District.
In addition to breakfast all day, Sweet Leaf’s offerings include salads, warm grain bowls, sandwiches, soup and smoothies. More than 80 percent of the ingredients are locally sourced and organic, and there’s a robust selection of gluten-free and vegetarian options. “We cater to all kinds of dietary restrictions people have these days,” Matini says. All Sweet Leaf’s dressings are made in-house; some of the most popular include a spicy cilantro vinaigrette, jalapeño Caesar and maple balsamic vinaigrette.
The delightfully flavorful grain bowls are big enough to split. The falafel tzatziki ($10.25), for example, features homemade, organic falafel; kale-cucumber-tomato tabbouleh; purple cabbage; local feta; mint; organic mesclun; turmeric rice; pita chips so good one longs for more; cucumber tzatziki and a drizzle of green tahini. Another top-seller is the harvest bowl ($6.95): cage-free egg over a bed of quinoa and organic arugula, plus avocado, feta, cracked pepper and pesto vinaigrette.
Multiple locations in Virginia and the District.
Protein Bar & Kitchen
In 2009, when Protein Bar & Kitchen opened in a small Chicago storefront, quinoa wasn’t the household name it is today. “People didn’t know what it was, let alone how to pronounce it,” CEO Jeff Drake says. “Protein Bar put quinoa on the menu.” And directly into bowls: The restaurant, which now has two locations in the District, offers high-protein salads, wraps and bowls that can be customized for any diet, including the gluten-free, keto and paleo plans. There are at least 15 grams of protein in every entree.
About a year ago, the chain introduced riced cauliflower as an alternative to quinoa. “We add chia, flaxseed and nutritional yeast, so we fortify it with some protein,” Drake says. “You’re going to give up about 70 percent of the carbs but still get the same protein promise.”
Popular bowls include the healthy parm ($11.49), which has 33 grams of protein and is made with plant-based Beyond Beef meatballs; housemade tomato sauce fortified with ghee; spinach; nut-free pesto; Parmesan; and organic quinoa. The Mexicali ($9.49) is a can’t-believe-it’s-healthy mix of chicken, corn, black beans, cheddar, warm kale, salsa, spicy tomatillo lime sauce and chipotle Greek yogurt, topped with avocado and cilantro. It’s zesty and filling — no surprise, given the 41 grams of protein.
925 17th St. NW; 398 Seventh St. NW.
Abby Taylor grew up surfing in her hometown on the Jersey Shore, and then took her board globe-trotting, to Nicaragua, Hawaii, California and Puerto Rico. Everywhere she went, she had an acai bowl. “And I was like, ‘Why isn’t this an option in New Jersey?’ ” she recalls. “There’s nothing worse than getting off the beach and having a slice of pizza or a cheesesteak.”
So in 2014, Taylor and co-founder Robert Giuliani set up a cart along the side of the road, with an umbrella and blender, and brought acai bowls to the Shore. The duo handed out flyers and made it their mission to explain acai to the masses — and one day, the line for their bowls stretched down the street. In 2015, they opened their first storefront, and Playa Bowls now has more than 65 locations.
Inside the shop, its beachy origins are evident: Fluorescent green leaves are painted across black walls, pineapples line the counter and a surfboard dangles from the ceiling. There are dozens of bowl options, with bases including acai (Taylor’s favorite), pitaya, coconut, Chia, banana and oatmeal. The Costa bowl ($11) is sweet and healthy: a cool, creamy banana base blended with honey, almond milk and vanilla protein, topped with crunchy granola and more banana, Nutella and fresh mint.
Multiple locations in Maryland and Virginia.