It's hard to take seriously, this new wave of "healthy" fast food, these McWraps and Wendy's flatbread sandwiches. It's as if fast food chains are throwing Michelle Obama an "egg white delight" in the hope that she'll just leave them alone. Or maybe they think that health-conscious consumers will rejoice when words like "wrap" are lobbed at them, ignoring the fact that, for instance, the crispy chicken McWrap has more calories than a Big Mac. It's safe to say that the conundrum of how to deliver healthy, cheap fast food to the masses probably won't be solved by McDonald's and Burger King — to expect as much would be like relying on the coal industry to pioneer clean energy solutions. Not when there are so many mountaintops still unremoved, not while our lust for soda and fat remains so profitable.
Enter LYFE Kitchen, the first part of which stands for "love your food every day." LYFE opened in Culver City earlier this year with the noble aspiration of pioneering a new kind of franchise, one that serves healthy, affordable, fast-ish food. Culver City is the second location to open (Palo Alto was the first), with more California locations in the works and an ambitious plan to open 250 locations within five years.
The team behind LYFE is an impressive one. On the business side is a former executive at Gardein (the faux-meat company) and a couple of high-ranking past and present McDonald's executives; on the chef side are Art Smith and Tal Ronnen. Smith made his name in Chicago and as Oprah's personal chef; he famously lost a lot of weight a few years back when he decided to get healthy. Ronnen is one of the country's most prominent vegan chefs, and incidentally just opened a high-end vegan restaurant, Crossroads, on Melrose Avenue.
LYFE isn't what you'd call high-end, but it also isn't your regular fast-food joint with bad lighting, plastic seating and tile floors. The dining room is airy and bright, with lots of woodgrain on the floors and tabletops, and trendy white-and-orange upholstery, plus a large, multitiered planter spilling live herbs and greens in the center of the room.
You stand in line and choose from a rack of menus — regular, vegan or gluten-free — and order at the counter. You then get a numbered GPS tracker, which you take to your table, and which supposedly helps runners find you and deliver your food. (I did see many lost-looking staff members wandering around with food, so I'm not sure how accurate those trackers are, but the system seems to work OK.) You get your own water and silverware on the way to your table.
The menus are large, and try to cover a lot of ground. There are starters and salads, entrees and flatbreads, sandwiches and a burger. Most dishes are 300 to 600 calories, and cost $8 to $15, making LYFE a relatively cheap, relatively healthy alternative to regular sit-down restaurants and a relatively expensive, much healthier alternative to fast food. The question, of course, is how does the food taste?
It's a mix. Things that taste good left to their own devices without a lot of manipulation fare well. There's a delicious charred artichoke appetizer served with garlic aioli, which is basically just three artichoke quarters, grilled simply. Salads are quite good, like something you might make for yourself at the Whole Foods salad bar on a day you're feeling less than adventurous.
But — and here we begin a list of complaints that almost don't seem fair given the context — the salads tend to taste under-dressed, and a tad bland as a result. There's a creamy, tangy guacamole appetizer served with crispy tortillas that taste stale but probably are just suffering from being baked rather than fried.
I found most of the entrees reminiscent of Trader Joe's frozen entrees, albeit of higher quality but slightly blander. The grilled barramundi was certainly fresh, but the soba noodle, shiitake mushroom and edamame jumble it was served over was surprisingly tasteless. I get it; we're used to combinations like this being sodium bombs, if not MSG bombs ... but the "spicy broth" wasn't spicy in the slightest, and even if LYFE is avoiding salt, there's no reason to avoid ginger, or garlic, or basil, or any of the other ingredients that might have worked to make this dish tastier without compromising health. Those of us who cook at home with an eye toward health know that wholesome food is quite capable of being intensely delicious.
A grain bowl of quinoa, farro and imitation "beef tips" would have been fine if not for the sweet chili-ginger sauce, which was just too sweet. This again tasted too much like a packaged meal, without enough zest or the pop of fresh veggies and herbs. The same was true for the kabocha squash farro risotto, a dish that at $8.99 probably is priced right for its quality of flavor — two notches above Lean Cuisine, three notches below a decent restaurant or homemade risotto.
Flatbreads are more successful, particularly the mushroom and goat cheese option. But I was baffled by the burger, which was flavorless and floppy and supremely unsatisfying. "I'd rather eat a bag of Doritos," my friend said sadly, pushing the rest of her burger aside. Perhaps you shouldn't go to a health-food restaurant and order a burger. But perhaps they shouldn't serve a burger that tastes like this.
If all this seems a little harsh, well, it probably is. Taking LYFE on its own terms, looking at what it's trying to achieve, there's a lot to commend. It's a daunting task, trying to bring freshness, quality and consistency to what the chain hopes will be a national audience. There's absolutely an audience for this food — at lunchtime, lines for LYFE are out the door. It's obvious people want a healthy alternative. They want to be able to go out and sit somewhere nice and maybe drink a glass of wine (or, even better, have one of the very good housemade sodas), and have a meal that's quick and easy and good for them.
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Quick and easy are the mainstays of fast food anyway — I'm convinced a large swath of fast-food customers don't particularly care what the food tastes like; they just want something immediate and cheap.
LYFE isn't quite immediate, and cheap is in the eye of the beholder. But from the standpoint of flavor, there are few things on LYFE's menu I can actually recommend. For dieters, for vegans, for the gluten-intolerant, for the office worker who forgot to pack his lunch and wants to avoid all the salt and fat of most restaurant meals, LYFE could be a godsend. I wish it all the success in the world. I just don't really want to eat there ever again.
LYFE KITCHEN | One star | 9540 Washington Blvd., Culver City | (310) 507-7955 | lyfekitchen.com | Mon.-Thurs., 7 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-10 p.m. | Entrees, $11.99-14.99 | Beer and wine served | Street parking, valet during dinner