The Los Angeles-based salad and comfort-food chain just announced its first outpost on the East Coast, located in New York City's Union Square neighborhood. The expansion has been in the works since 2015, when Tender Greens received a minority investment from Danny Meyer, the founder of Shake Shack and CEO of one of the most successful restaurant groups in New York.
The chain, founded in 2006, has 25 locations in California. In 2016, it made over $80 million in sales - and company executives say annual revenue is growing 20% year-over-year.
We stopped by Tender Greens in downtown San Francisco to see what the buzz is about.
The salad chains of New York have some stiff competition coming their way.
Tender Greens bills itself as "slow food done fast." My food arrived in under 10 minutes and tasted like it could have come from one of Meyer's James Beard-awarded restaurants.
Though I ran out of room, these cupcakes also looked divine.
I took home some desserts, including this dulce de leche coconut bread pudding that was rich but not overly sweet.
Romaine hearts, avocado, queso fresco, crispy tortilla strips, green onion, barbecue-seasoned chicken, and a cilantro lime dressing offered a refreshing and delicious take.
Typically when I think "chipotle salad," I imagine a bed of greens drowning in canned corn, black beans, cheddar cheese, and spiced chicken. Not this salad ...
The salad was plated on a textured ceramic dish, of course.
One chef cut the meat to order, while another sliced the tortilla strips. Seeing the teamwork required reminded me of being in the kitchen at fine-dining restaurants in New York.
I couldn't leave Tender Greens without trying one of its famous signature salads. I ordered the Chipotle Barbecue Chicken salad, which you can find at any Tender Greens location.
And the caponata was, was — I'm still speechless. At first, I mistook the eggplant for morel mushrooms, a five-star dining ingredient, because of their tender, juicy flavor.
And it tasted nothing like a fast-casual meal would. I was mesmerized. The perfectly cooked salmon, which I mopped in pesto drizzled on the side, fell apart in my mouth.
Renner plated the salt and pepper salmon and caponata on a beautiful piece of natural wood. The presentation went above and beyond most fast-casual dining experiences.
His background seeps into the menu. At Renner's suggestion, I ordered a hot plate of salmon over sautéed caponata, a popular Sicilian side dish made of vinegar-sweetened eggplant, roasted vegetables, and capers in a sweet and sour sauce.
Renner cut his teeth in craft pizza restaurants. He studied at the Italian Culinary Institute, which gave him an affinity for simple seasonings and charcuterie.
Each Tender Greens location has an executive chef with a background in fine dining, who shapes the restaurant's menu based on their culinary influences and preferences.
There's another reason for the difference in menus across locations, and it involves this guy. Chef Todd Renner is executive chef of the downtown San Francisco location.
Tender Greens sources ingredients from local farmers, ranchers, boutique wineries, breweries, and coffee roasters — which means the menu varies greatly by location.
These peaches were used in the day's special Harvest Salad, a mix of red and black plums, peaches, and candied almonds over a bed of greens.
There's also a rotating menu of seasonal sides, including roasted corn, rainbow carrots, and a salad comprised of quinoa, summer squash, and watermelon.
Don't let the name fool you. Tender Greens is so much more than a salad joint. Most dishes feature a hearty slab of flank steak, a barbecue chicken breast, or fried chicken pieces.
The menu is divided between signature dishes and custom orders, which include a protein served on a sandwich, as a hot plate with sides, or on a salad. They all cost about $12.
I visited a Tender Greens location in downtown San Francisco during the late afternoon. During the typical lunch hour, long lines wind outside the door.
Meyer's restaurant company, The Union Hospitality Group, made an investment of an undisclosed sum in Tender Greens — its first time taking stake in an outside concept.
In 2015, Shake Shake founder Danny Meyer said in a statement that he visited a tiny California salad chain and loved the idea so much "that I wish I'd thought of it myself."