Matzkin's tale is echoed by the owners of a new type of eatery popping up in Center City: quick-serve restaurants using top-notch ingredients, with a health-conscious eye. Along with Rotisseur, in-and-out spots like Honeygrow, HipCityVeg, and Pure Fare are nudging into the fast-food territory previously dominated by pizza, hoagies, and cheesesteaks.
The timing of these openings might not have been a coincidence. New York, London, and L.A. have been rich with fresh, quick spots for years. These Philly owners all saw the same gaping hole in the food scene - somewhere between high-end restaurants and our increasingly excellent farmer's markets and supermarkets.
"People in Philly are smart and the dining is incredible," Honeygrow owner Justin Rosenberg said. "Our customers go home and shop at Whole Foods. We are offering them something they want . . . that wasn't here."
The ideology behind these restaurants has less to do with fat and calories and more to do with responsible eating: real, nutritious food that tastes great, is humanely raised, and comes directly from farmers, when possible.
And it's no longer just for the gastro elite. During the weekday lunch rush, the line at HipCityVeg often spills out the front door onto 18th Street. It's small, but this kind of response, for a place that doesn't serve meat, is novel.
"When trying to influence people to eat better, the key is convenience and accessibility," owner Nicole Marquis said.
Quick restaurants attempting healthy food isn't original. The fact that the food is so tasty is. "First and foremost, people want to come because it's got good food," Matzkin said. He proudly displays seasonal sides with his chicken, such as Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower gratin with anchovy brown butter, on the counter. "I had a Philly restaurateur tell me there was no way I was going to sell any succotash here," Matzkin said. "But in an hour, it's gone. When they see this big, beautiful pile of glistening corn, and bright fava beans and peppers, they want it."
The food at HipCity is appealing, regardless of your protein proclivities. A portobello mushroom sandwich comes crispy with buffalo sauce and celery slaw, an arugula taco salad has vibrant pico de gallo, and the Ziggy veggie burger gets a dash of a smoked tempeh sauce - "our version of a Big Mac," Marquis said.
The chickens at Rotisseur are from the high-end purveyor D'Artagnan. Owner Matzkin confirms that his birds get brined before their turn in the oven, but won't disclose his cooking methods.
These restaurants are also paying attention to the vibe. Pure Fare has dramatic lighting, subway tile, open shelving, a communal table, and chalkboard signs. It's welcoming and soft, a place where you'd want to linger. Honeygrow is warm but unfussy, streamlined and modern.
"We pride ourselves as a lifestyle brand," said Kriti Sehgal, owner of Pure Fare, who also hosts speakers and community events.
A sense of space helps to make uncommon products feel more mainstream. "What I wanted to do was debunk all the myths about this kind of food," HipCity's Marquis said. "That is where the branding really came in. I worked to create a clean and simple brand that is attractive, that people could take seriously."
The biggest challenge to these healthy-fast-casual concepts is not the uncommon food but the cost. "The green food movement in Philly has been owned by fine-dining places," Matzkin said. "They can afford the small growers and pay premiums for it." People appreciate the product, but often question the price. (A half-chicken with two sides costs $12.50; the popular chicken banh mi costs $7.)
Higher prices mean consistent education on the part of the owner. "I'm actually shocked about how people don't understand the value of what they are getting," Sehgal said. "Our soups don't come out of a bag; they are made fresh every morning. We don't use white sugar, white flour. Nothing that you are eating is empty."
Regardless, the customers they do have are loyal. "Other people are going to start doing more of this," said Marquis, who envisions a second or third HipCity location, possibly in West Philly. "Which is great. It helps the movement." Honeygrow's second location, in Bala Cynwyd, will open soon.
Sehgal hopes to expand but is cautious. These concepts are not big-box, fast-food versions of "healthy" eateries, so ensuring consistency is a challenge. "We make everything fresh . . . the salad dressing, patties for the burgers," Sehgal said. "If we can't be hands-on and have attention to detail, we don't want to grow."
Makes 2 servings
16 ounces coconut milk
1 ounce Thai red curry paste
2 1/4 tablespoons fish sauce
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 ounce canola oil
12 ounces rice noodles, soaked in water for 30 minutes
1 small red pepper (about 4 ounces), chopped
1 small green pepper (about 4 ounces), chopped
1/2 red onion (about 5 ounces), sliced
1 carrot (about 5 ounces), julienned
8-10 ounces firm tofu, drained and cubed
4-5 leaves Thai basil, chopped
1. To make sauce, put coconut milk in pot and warm over medium heat. Stir in curry paste, fish sauce, and sugar. Simmer at medium-low for about 30 minutes.
2. In a wok or large sauté pan, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add all vegetables and stir continuously for 30-45 seconds.
3. Add tofu and rice noodles, and cook, stirring constantly for another 10-15 seconds.
4. Turn heat to low, and add sauce. Stir well and continue to cook until well incorporated, about 15 seconds. Garnish with basil and serve.
- From Honeygrow restaurant
Per serving: 874 calories, 18 grams protein, 92 grams carbohydrates, 37 grams sugar, 72 grams fat, no cholesterol, 1,669 milligrams sodium, 11 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 24 cookies
1 cup all-purpose gluten-free flour (such as Bob's Red Mill), oat flour, or spelt flour
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup date or cane sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
3 avocados, pureed until smooth
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix dry ingredients together by hand or in mixer. In a separate bowl, combine maple syrup, vanilla extract and avocado. Slowly add wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing until incorporated.
2. Chill dough in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. Using an ice cream scoop, if available, scoop out 2 tablespoons of dough for each cookie onto a nonstick baking pan. Flatten balls slightly and bake for 8-10 minutes.
- From Pure Fare
Per cookie: 151 calories, 2 grams protein, 24 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams sugar, 7 grams fat, no cholesterol, 131 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.