Grilled flatiron steak sandwich
Tender Greens takes the fast-casual concept to a new level. Fast casual is a concept embodied by restaurants like Panera Bread that are a step above fast food in terms of quality, but still get you full for under $10. But Panera has its shortcomings--it has a chainy feel (no matter how hard it tries not to), terrible elevator jazz music, and it gets its food from major national suppliers. Sometimes Panera's food is too heavy or greasy, and it's not particularly healthy. Tender Greens takes everything that's wrong with Panera and fixes it, if you don't mind paying close to twice the price.
Tender Greens recently opened in downtown Culver City next to Ford's Filling Station (pay attention to that, because as of this writing, TG doesn't have its own sign). The restaurant makes a lot of promises on its website. It claims to be a local gathering place where you can eat a homecooked meal made from the finest ingredients--"the kind of food you'd make at home if you had the time." They promise great music (isn't musical taste highly subjective?), a strong committment to using recycled materials and environmentally friendly products wherever possible, and a dedication to enriching urban communities. They also help us all eat locally by getting their food from Scarborough Farms in Oxnard and support small businesses by serving wine from boutique wineries and beers on tap from microbreweries.
Color me impressed. Tender Greens pretty much delivers on every single one of these promises.
The interior dining room is sleek yet cozy, with yellow walls, colorful pillows in the booth seats, and modern tables and chairs. The upbeat music is, in fact, really enjoyable (if on the loud side). The napkins are recycled and most of the food tastes better than you'd expect it to.
Steak sandwich with spinach, goat cheese, and hazelnut salad
The menu is small, offering just a few salads, two soups, and four meat options that can be eaten as either a sandwich or a hot plate. You can order a small salad for $5 or a large salad for $9. If you want something more filling, you can get a sandwich for $9 or a hot plate with mashed potatoes for $10.
The first dish I tried was the flatiron steak sandwich. The steak was sliced into thin strips and layered diagonally across the bread atop slices of roasted red pepper. A little bit of mayonnaise-based sauce helped moisten the ciabatta bread. The sandwich was just the right size for my mouth in terms of thickness, but between the crusty bread and the slippery peppers, it was a little hard to eat neatly. The steak was cooked only to medium rare, but I wasn't sure how recently it was cooked because it was barely warm. Given that the sandwiches fall under the "Hot Stuff" section of the menu, I would have expected it to be hot. The sandwich still had a good flavor though, and the red pepper/steak combo was a great idea.
I also enjoyed my salad, even though I'm not usually a big spinach fan. The greens were very fresh, and something about the dressing tasted just a little unusual, in a good way. They were a little skimpy on the goat cheese, I thought--of course, I can never get enough cheese.
Chicken plate with butter lettuce salad
Similarly, the chicken was barely warm. I thought the it was better than a lot of the chicken I've eaten lately because it was fairly moist, but my friend pointed out that it was on the bland side, and she was right--it really just tasted like plain old grilled chicken. The mashed potatoes were terrific--just lumpy enough to taste homemade and incredibly creamy. We both thought that the butter lettuce salad didn't taste like much.
The lemon cupcake was one of the highlights of the meal. Though seriously lacking in presentation, the flavor was rich and zesty. My friend said it was the best cupcake in LA, and she really knows her cupcakes. The cake was fantastically moist, and the icing was a surprising buttercream frosting which was more rich and less sickeningly sweet than most icing. To quote Rachael Ray, "yum-o."
To drink, I had a lemonade, which wasn't exciting at all. I was surprised that our drinks came in plastic cups, which didn't seem to be in keeping with Tender Greens' committment to environmental responsibility. It's possible that they had just run out of glasses, though it didn't seem busy enough for that, and it doesn't take long to run a load of glasses through an industrial dishwasher. My friend really enjoyed her Mighty Leaf iced tea.
Though the staff clearly needs to work on getting food served at the right temperature, they were at least friendly, and the gregarious manager came around a couple of times to ask how we liked our food (admittedly, it didn't occur to me to mention the food being cold when I saw him). He seemed very involved in the restaurant's operation, walking around constantly, making sure tables were almost instantly cleared when customers left and that everyone was happy.
$12 is more than I'm used to paying for a sandwich, a side salad and a drink, but much of the food we eat is not priced to accurately reflect its impact on our land, our citizens, and our farmers. In other words, maybe you can get a McDonald's burger for $1, but the real cost of that burger is passed on to the guy who lost a finger because he was forced to work at unsafe speeds in the slaughterhouse. The cost is also passed on to our environment when a bunch of chemicals get dumped into our rivers in the process of making cheap food, and to the small farmers who are put out of business or grossly underpaid for their product because they are at the mercy of the large companies controlling food production and distribution. At Tender Greens you're paying $10 for a sandwich and a salad, but presumably the farmers are being paid fairly for their product, the products are being raised without destroying the land, and the cows and chickens aren't being pumped full of hormones. If you're interested in learning more about eating responsibly, I highly recommend Eat Here and Fast Food Nation.
Would I go back? Well, I support what the restaurant is trying to do and I would like to see more restaurants follow their example. But I don't eat a lot of sandwiches, and Tender Greens isn't on any of my usual routes. If I worked in the area though, I might become a frequent customer, assuming that the cold food kink gets worked out once the restaurant has been open for another week or two.
9523 Culver Blvd. (between Cardiff and Watseka)
Culver City, CA 90232
Park in the parking structure on Watseka (2 hours free parking)
Tender Greens Menu
Tender Greens Website
Interesting LA Times article on the Culver City restaurant scene