I ate at Lemonade, the fast-casual chain that's taken over California, and saw why fans love it
Irene Jiang / Business Insider
- The fast-casual competition is heating up, even as diners' demands become harder to meet.
- The rise of mobile ordering has forced fast-casual restaurants to improve their to-go game while still delivering the tasty, healthy, high-quality, environmentally conscious food that their customers want.
- Lemonade is one such promising fast-casual chain. Based in Los Angeles, Lemonade has been compared to Sweetgreen and has regularly appeared on lists of up-and-coming fast-casual chains.
- I ate at Lemonade to see what it was like, and I was thoroughly impressed by the streamlined experience and the quality and freshness of the food.
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I confess, I'm a millennial. I love avocados and thrift shopping, and I'm never going to be able to afford buying a home.
Millennials live differently from the last generation, and we eat differently, too. Not only do we want our food to be fresher and faster than ever, we want it to be healthier, tastier, and somehow more socially and environmentally conscious. Oh yeah, and, we don't want to have to interact with another human being to get it.
Gone are the power lunches of yesteryear. Now, lunch is a grab-and-go occasion. Mobile ordering has swept across America like Lizzo mania. The perfect millennial lunch place has quinoa bowls, ripe avocados, and a mobile ordering option. If you think Sweetgreen has this market cornered, let me introduce you to Lemonade.
Lemonade is a chain of fast-casual restaurants serving "seasonal Southern California comfort food." Lemonade is winning hungry hearts all over the state of California and shaping up to expand its eatery empire.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I went to a Lemonade restaurant in Hollywood to see if it would stand up to a taste test.
I scootered down to the Lemonade on Melrose in West Hollywood.
It was a cute, homey one-story house with outdoor seating and bright yellow trim.
Inside, the house was split into two sides: a dining area and a kitchen and cafeteria area. There was also a pick-up shelf for online orders.
I was impressed with the selection, but honestly overwhelmed.
Lemonade has everything from steak to poké to grain bowls to salads. it also sells soups and sandwiches.
Nearly everything is customizable, which overwhelmed me further.
I told my bowl artist that I was having trouble deciding, and he asked if I wanted a sample of anything.
I asked for a sample of poké and was reassured by a well-spiced piece of fresh raw tuna.
Decisions are terrifying, so I asked my bowl artist to simply make me a tuna avocado poké bowl ($13.20) by the book.
Many of the items on Lemonade's menu are inspired by other cultures. Poké is Hawaiian. There was also miso beef, Mexican street corn, and curried cauliflower.
At check-out, I saw the biggest macarons I'd ever laid my eyes on. For dessert, I picked up the salted caramel flavor ($4).
My meal wasn't complete without a cup of lemonade ($3). I chose lavender elderflower.
Finally, I was ready to head to the tiny dining area in the other half of the house. It was clear that this restaurant was built for the to-go crowd.
There isn't a stay-in option for packaging, as it's just assumed that most customers will take their meals to go.
But since I had nowhere better to go, I decided to dig into my meal in-house.
I'm a huge poké fan, but I generally don't have high expectations for a place that doesn't specialize in it. Bad raw fish is really, really bad.
However, nothing about this bowl gave me pause.
The star of my bowl was a mix of raw ahi tuna, radishes, avocado, and mandarin orange slices.
The bowl comes with a side of seaweed salad and a generous dash of furikake, a Japanese rice seasoning.
I bit into a tender cube of tuna. It tasted like it'd been plucked from the ocean that morning.
Not only was the fish fresh and plentiful, it was mixed in with ingredients that really brought out its flavor.
The radish was crispy, the orange slices tart, and the avocado creamy.
An extra stroke of genius is the seaweed-based furikake, which brings out the umami in the mixture.
The rice was cooked to perfection, neither too soggy nor too hard.
I couldn't believe it, but I had just had one of the best bites of poké I'd had in recent memory.
Next, I took a break from food to hydrate myself with lavender elderflower lemonade.
This wasn't sticky, sugary-sweet lemonade. It was light, delicate, and fragrant.
The lavender elderflower flavor was unlike anything I'd tasted before, but its floral notes worked well with the shy tartness of the lemon.
Lemonade is often compared to Sweetgreen, its much-larger, salad-focused fast-casual competitor.
Both Sweetgreen and Lemonade target the same market: health-conscious, eco-conscious, to-go lunchers with bougie tastes.
I tend to think of to-go lunches as less satisfying than home-cooked meals or sit-down meals, and I think that's true for many people.
But this to-go meal was better than many meals I've had at sit-down restaurants.
Eventually, I unwrapped my giant salted caramel macaron. It was cold and seemed like it was still defrosting.
Part of it had melted into goo, confirming my suspicion that the macaron's journey into room temperature wasn't going well.
My mom always says, "It all looks the same in your stomach, anyway." So down the hatch it went.
Although I loved the luscious caramel flavor, I was unimpressed by the cold, bready texture. It didn't taste like a macaron.
However, I did save half and eat it the next morning. Once the macaron had been fully defrosted, it tasted 10 times better.
But bready macaron aside, I was thoroughly impressed by my meal at Lemonade.
And although the chain currently only has locations in California, I might not have to wait too long for Lemonade to reach my corner of the country.
Originally a LA-area chain, Lemonade has grown across the state of California in recent years. And if things keep going well for the chain, then maybe soon, life will give us all Lemonade.
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