Healthy dining has many definitions, but starting the new year off with mindful eating -- and more vegetables -- is something everyone can agree on. Diners can find a healthful meal at nearly any Los Angeles restaurant by ordering grilled fish and plenty of greens, but it's easier at the spots that emphasize local produce and sustainable meats and fish. These restaurants may have varying philosophies, yet all offer a chance to experience exciting tastes and lighter preparations.
A cozy cafe near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) that's much more than just a bakery, Black Cat is the place for unusual breakfast ideas and lunches that range beyond sandwiches. Healthy breakfast and brunch choices include a tofu scramble with spinach or housemade granola with low-fat yogurt. Bibimbop-style farro riffs on the Korean dish with an umami-packed mix of wheat berries, a sunny-side up egg, chard, roasted tomato, mushrooms and luscious burrata cheese. At lunch, quinoa salad with chickpeas, cucumber, tomato and corn is served on a satisfyingly large plate. Crispy crab cake salad is slightly decadent, but still qualifies as a salad, while zingy Thai shrimp salad seems low in calories but high in flavor. Warm spinach salad is made with turkey bacon for a lighter touch.
Mendocino Farms, a mini-chain of wildly popular sandwich shops, has spawned a larger flagship location in Downtown known as Blue Cow. Using the ingredients from local farms and artisans that Mendocino Farms is known for, Blue Cow adds creative cocktails, appetizers and main dishes while keeping the multicultural sandwich menu. A convenient stop before the Music Center or concerts at California Plaza, Blue Cow offers a large heated patio and outdoor bar. What's healthy at a place famous for its sauce-laden steak sandwich? Roots and Kale Caesar is a colorful composition of shaved vegetables and hand-torn croutons, while the Vietnamese chicken salad's tangy flavors could make a person forget about steak. Singapore-style cauliflower curry is perfect for non-meat eaters, and shrimp summer rolls in lettuce cups are a feather-light way to start the meal.
Angelenos are enthusiastically embracing Cafe Gratitude, a raw and vegan restaurant that encourages diners to feel grateful for the nature's bounty. It may not be easy to order an, "I Am Magical", with a straight face, but though the names of dishes have a New Age aura, Cafe Gratitude is more modern dining than hippie hangout. At breakfast, chia seed porridge with hempseed milk ("I Am Free") feels both hearty and virtuous. For lunch and dinner, "I Am Fortified", is a filling farmer's market cornucopia of kale, squash and broccoli, topped with creamy garlic tahini sauce over brown rice or quinoa. Proclaim, "I Am Awesome", with herbed cornmeal-crusted eggplant on grilled panini bread. Drinks include the consciousness-expanding, "I Am Immortal", (warm coconut milk, immune system enhancing elixir.) If your consciousness is already sufficiently expanded, craft beers and wines are also available.
In the tradition of many of LA's best food finds, Hirozen is tucked into the corner of a mini-mall. Hirozen has long been known for ultra-fresh classic sushi, but its secret weapon is a long menu of daily specials with a fusion feel -- think blue crab egg roll with coconut curry sauce. The bargain-priced salmon and ikura bowl strikes just the right balance between nourishing and delicious: sushi rice is mixed with flaked fresh salmon, then topped with salmon eggs and seaweed for a one-bowl meal that tastes like it just swam in from Tokyo. The tempura might look tempting, but health-conscious diners can select steamed black cod with lily bulb and shitake mushroom sauce or a meaty-tasting tofu steak.
Huckleberry made its reputation as one of the city's top bakeries with flaky pastries and hearty breads, but if salted caramel squares are on the back burner while healthful eating takes precedence, there are several options that don't involve chocolate or bacon. A colorful mélange of vegetables and greens, the roasted Market Salad is sprinkled with candied almonds for crunch and topped with just enough Laura Chenel goat cheese to feel luxurious. A well-balanced salad with white beans, local line-caught tuna, arugula and green beans might just provide justification for having a whole-wheat shortbread cookie for dessert.
With seven years on LA's body-conscious dining scene, M Cafe de Chaya is the place for spotting celebrities while feasting on everything from vegan or fish sushi to giant BBQ seitan burgers, homey soups and organic French fries. The all-purpose breakfast, lunch, dinner and takeout spot is notable for its macrobiotic philosophy, which adds fish to a broad selection of vegan dishes. Craving a hefty burger but don't want turkey or beef? The grilled tuna burger topped with spicy yuzu mayo is one of the city's best. Or, for a fortifying meal that's nearly calorie-free, try the Miracle Bowl, with zero-calorie yam noodles, mushrooms, bok choy and tofu or salmon.
Pitfire Pizza has grown into six locations, pleasing locals with a mix of imaginative pizza combinations, family-friendly prices and beer and wine. The Big Sur pizza with shrimp and no cheese is about as healthy as pizzas get, and gluten free pizza crust is available. If the rest of the party is filling up on dough, consider the Farmer's Market vegetable platter, a terrific rotating combo that might include kale, potatoes, carrots, chickpeas, cauliflower and squash, served with a crock of fluffy ricotta cheese and toasted bread.
Los Angeles, both the capital of uber-healthy restaurants and a formidable stronghold of ethnic food, is finally starting to combine the two. Exhibit A is Urban Garden, a casual, all-natural Middle Eastern sandwich and salad cafe convenient to The Grove and Farmer's Market. Make a customized sampler plate from dips like yogurt with zataar spice or sun-dried tomato hummus paired with whole wheat flatbread, or go with a recommended combo like the Lean & Mean, with beef kefta kabobs, kale salad and couscous salad. Tart and bright-tasting Lebanese fattoush salad becomes a meal with the addition of chopped rotisserie lemon-herb chicken. There's plenty of vegetarian items, including sublimely airy falafel, with quinoa lightening up the chickpea balls.
Even non-vegetarians feel comfortable at the Veggie Grill's ten LA-area locations. Younger eaters will want to try familiar tastes like Buffalo "chickin" wings and veggie cheeseburgers. But if imitation meats don't appeal, stick with the massive and flavorful salads like the popular All Hail Kale, and don't miss the crunchy sweet potato fries. Immaculate, bright decor will banish all misgivings of flavorless vegetarian food, and prices are reasonable.
A stylishly austere storefront in up-and-coming Atwater neighborhood near Griffith Park, Viet Noodle takes Vietnamese food well beyond MSG-laden pho noodles. Many ingredients are organic, including the housemade soy milk. Shelves of vintage books line the walls of this spare cafe that offers noodle dishes, Vietnamese sandwiches and salads like jackfruit with mushrooms or the ultra low-carb beef salad. Regulars favor turmeric fish or lemongrass beef over rice noodles. The spicy sardine sandwich on French bread is made with one of the most sustainable fishes.
Black Cat Bakery & Cafe
519 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles
(also at the Pacific Design Center)
Blue Cow Kitchen
350 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
639 Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles
8535 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles
Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe
1014 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica
M Cafe de Chaya
7119 Melrose Ave.
(also in Beverly Hills)
Six locations including West LA, Mar Vista, North Hollywood, West Hollywood, Culver City, Costa Mesa
446 N. Fairfax Ave.
Locations including West Hollywood, Hollywood, Farmer's Market, Westwood, Santa Monica
Viet Noodle Bar
3133 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles