June 18, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

Favorite

Top of the Food Chain 

While we unequivocally adore Richmond’s hyper-local dining scene, these food writers shamelessly share what they love about their favorite chain restaurants.

click to enlarge This build-your-own bowl at Cava features braised lamb with veggies, feta and pita.

Scott Elmquist

This build-your-own bowl at Cava features braised lamb with veggies, feta and pita. 

Cava

The food people I know tend to refer to their favorite chains as guilty pleasures. I have zero guilt and all pleasure about eating the salad and grain bowls at Cava. Let me count the ways:

Salad blends and weird grains. I feel way healthier eating a kale salad blend with quinoa and black lentils than I do rice and beans at Chipotle. It tastes better and I don't get that post-lunch carb crash.

The line. Instead of overwhelming me by making all the choices at once, Cava sends me through the process step-by-step. It's an increasingly popular fast-food setup because it's more efficient, and I love it.

Lamb. What other fast-food place offers lamb? Plus it comes from Virginia's Border Springs Farm, so I'm eating local. Don't like lamb? It also has roasted vegetables, beef, falafel and chicken.

Funky drinks like free lemon mint water. I love the Panera-like creative blends like beet lemonade, blueberry rosemary tea, and ginger-lime turmeric. And the Spindrift flavored seltzers are only five calories.

Harissa. And all the other savory dips like tzatziki, eggplant and roasted red pepper hummus. Bright and fresh, these dips add a tang to my lunch that I can't get anywhere else.

Here's what I don't love about Cava — the price. I know it's great value for what I'm getting, but at around $10 for the bowl, plus a few more for a drink and a chocolate chip cookie from a local bakery, and I'm paying what I would for a sit-down restaurant lunch. I prefer to think of Cava not as fast food, but simply a delicious and efficient meal. — Phaedra Hise

click to enlarge The quinoa salad at Zoës is a hearty mix of greens, quinoa, veggies, feta and lemon vinaigrette. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The quinoa salad at Zoës is a hearty mix of greens, quinoa, veggies, feta and lemon vinaigrette. 

Zoës Kitchen

I'm loath to admit it, especially since I write about food. But there comes a time in every life when we define ourselves by our truths. So here it is: I harbor an appreciation for chain restaurant food.

What's not to love? It's always hot and ready, no fuss, no mess, and effortless. Frankly, sometimes all it takes is one Olive Garden TV ad to send me scrambling for the car keys. But when good sense prevails, my heart and my palate belong to Zoës Kitchen.

Sometimes I like surprises. Other times, I just want to know what I can expect. One of my earliest food memories is of standing in line while a teen heartthrob wearing one of those paper soda jerk hats jammed one burger after another into a white paper bag. I probably ate 20 burgers over the course of that summer, and I found comfort knowing that every one would taste exactly like the one before it.

With its straightforward, basic Greek cuisine, I know Zoës will always be as consistent as my summer of burgers. I know the chicken and orzo soup will keep me in fine fettle, as will a crisp, quinoa salad or a filling pita sandwich. Vegans and vegetarians have a broad variety of options, too, and the promise of no use of fryers or microwaves is indicative of Zoës' commitment to healthy fare.

However one-sided, I've built a relationship with Zoës Kitchen. When I'm working and hungry, I dive into one of its oversized booths to relax and replenish. And when I'm too tired to put together a balanced meal, I know where I can pick one up. The experience is always the same. And that's a good thing. — Lisa Bacon

click to enlarge A chocolate-chip waffle provides a sweet counterpoint to a plate of eggs, hash browns and toast at Waffle House. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • A chocolate-chip waffle provides a sweet counterpoint to a plate of eggs, hash browns and toast at Waffle House.

Waffle House

The wise, mustachioed Ron Swanson once asked Leslie Knope, "Why does anybody in the world ever eat anything but breakfast food?" His fictional colleague sighed and responded "People are idiots, Ron."

Breakfast is, unequivocally, my favorite meal of the day, whether it's actual breakfast, brunch or brinner. So when I began considering what to write for this roundup of chain favorites, the decision came easily enough for me: Waffle House.

My hometown is Charlotte, North Carolina, where that yellow-blocked logo is about as ubiquitous as IHOP's little smile. It wasn't exactly a family favorite as I was growing up, but over the years I've come to realize that Waffle House is always there for me exactly when I need it.

On a road trip with my dad in high school, chicken noodle soup was all I craved when a crippling migraine hit a few hours into the drive — a Waffle House off Interstate 95 saved the day with its seasonal soup offering (who knew?). During my days as an outdoor education coordinator, my staff and I debriefed and defrosted over coffee and breakfast platters after a particularly exhausting and blustery February day outdoors with 150 fifth-graders. It's where we take my brother straight from the airport when he arrives from New York at 5 a.m., and it's where I've nursed more than one hangover.

I've never had to flag anyone down for a coffee refill in one of those booths, as a server holding a fresh pot usually appears at my side long before my mug runs dry, usually with a smile and a "No problem, suga'." My ideal order is plate of eggs over-medium, hash browns and toast, plus a chocolate-chip waffle on the side that I split with a dining companion. It's the perfect solution to that ever-present conundrum of sweet vs. savory breakfast foods.

Most importantly, Waffle House serves actual hash browns — fried mounds of thinly-shredded spuds, none of this breakfast potato nonsense. Smothered, peppered, capped and diced is the way to go, and if you ask nicely the cook will make them extra crispy for you. — Laura Ingles

click to enlarge The chicken limone at Brio Tuscan Grille is served with mashed potatoes and roasted veggies. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The chicken limone at Brio Tuscan Grille is served with mashed potatoes and roasted veggies. 

Brio Tuscan Grille

I have been eating at Brio Tuscan Grille, the Italian restaurant at Stony Point Fashion Park, since the day it opened. It was September 2003, and the mall was set to open the day Hurricane Isabel struck, leaving many Richmond residents without power for nearly two weeks. After the storm, Brio cleaned out the refrigerator and grilled burgers for a crowd. Nearly 16 years and countless birthday dinners and family celebrations later, it's still, given the right occasion, one of my favorite places to go.

Brio is upscale, but not stuffy. Booths are homey. Just walking past the elegant patio makes you thirsty for a dry rosé. White paper lines all the tabletops, and Brio will supply crayons — it doesn't seem to matter how old you are. The menu continues to hover around a simple, clean, Italian-inspired aesthetic. Sauces are light, pasta portions are sizable and packed with vegetables, and herbs smell fresh. It's almost hard to believe there are more than 50 other locations exactly like it, from Alabama to Utah, all of which are located in outdoor malls.

Some things have changed over the years. The chain was bought by a new restaurant group last fall. The boccie court on the patio has been replaced by a fire pit. Somewhere along the way, my beloved shrimp verduta, once a lemony vinaigrette orzo with grilled shrimp, asparagus and tomatoes changed to a healthier and trendier farro, and added broccoli and feta cheese for a Mediterranean treatment. Brio's reliable pasta Alfredo with sliced grilled chicken breast shifted to a campanelle carbonara with spinach leaves. But I choose to focus on the more important victories: The bread basket, a miniature sourdough boule with crispy sesame seed cracker wedges on the side, remains exactly the same.

The bar introduced a happy hour last fall that's hard to beat, often anchored by a charismatic bartender who seems to have his own fan club. The menu features $5 martinis on Tuesdays, $5 house wines and several enticing apps, including crispy shrimp ($6) with spicy remoulade and green onions and a beef carpaccio ($5) with field greens and capers on a Parmesan flatbread. The bar is packed on weeknights, usually with a crowd of regulars.

I still occasionally order a personal pizza from the children's menu, but now I order it with a glass of pinot grigio. — Nathalie Oates

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