Good Food: Fine Dining at Fast-Food Prices

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Who said fast food has to be low-life, greasy, and unhealthy? Ten new chains permit the traveler to eat elegantly-but fast and cheap

In 1993, Steve Ells, a chef at the multi-starred Stars restaurant in San Francisco and fan of Mission District taco joints, asked a fundamental question: What if fast food went fine? What if grab-and-go meals used good, nongreasy ingredients? His answer was Chipotle Mexican Grill, where they stuff the burritos with lime-and-cilantro rice, cumin-spiced black beans, and adobo-marinated chicken or juniper-infused pork. "Just because it's fast doesn't mean it has to taste like 'fast food,'" says Ells. Distinct from burger-and-fries purveyors, the new hybrid Chipotle and contemporaries like CosI, Panera Bread, Noodles & Company, and others became known collectively as "quick casual" or "adult fast food." Serving upscale fare in limited-service settings (meaning, for the most part, that patrons order and receive food at a counter) keeps per-person checks in the $7 to $9 range, according to industry analyst Joe Pawlak of Technomic restaurant consultants. And that attractive price range for high-quality food makes these new, fine-food outlets ideal for the fast-moving budget traveler visiting cities in the United States.

"Baby boomers want better quality food, but they still don't have time to sit down-and that's especially the case for travelers," says Pawlak.

Quick, casual eateries may only account for a $5 billion nibble of the $138 billion fast-food business. But their numbers are growing. Fast-food giant McDonald's joined in, backing upstarts Chipotle and Pret A Manger, while Wendy's recently purchased the Baja Fresh Mexican Grill.

A boon to penny-wise travelers who don't want to sacrifice flavor, this burgeoning new breed includes the following:

Deli sandwich boutiques

Briazz

Seattle-based Briazz caters to daytime downtowners in its markets, serving upscale deli sandwiches. In addition to cold grab-and-gos, the chain offers hot meals from "piadinas" (Italian wrap sandwiches made with warm flat bread) to basil-chicken chili and jambalaya. Look for Briazz sandwiches in many Starbucks locations, which are currently test-selling the fare in pursuit of a lunch trade for the coffee giant. Info: Smoked turkey and Havarti cheese on ciabatta bread with lemon-caper aioli, $3.79. There are 46 caf,s in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle; www.briazz.com.

Cosi

Crusty, hearth-fired bread, baked continually in on-site ovens and closer than anything else in America to true Italian focaccia, distinguishes CosI from the corner-deli pack. Breakfast service touts square bagels ("squagels") made from the dough, and lunches feature sandwiches that globe-trot from Indian tandoori chicken and Middle Eastern hummus to Italian-esque goat cheese panini. Mismatched tables and chairs, faux-painted walls, and oversize couches engender comfort. Nearly 75 percent of shops-those not in business districts such as New York City's Wall Street-stay open for dinner, and waiters serve from a hot-meal menu, similar in price to the daytime carte du jour but including a full bar. Don't miss the do-it-yourself s'mores. Info: Tandoori chicken and roasted red-pepper sandwich, $5.95. More than 90 locations in 11 states (Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin) and Washington, D.C.; www.getcosi.com.

Pret A Manger

Founded in 1986 in London by two British developers who could not find good-quality take-out lunches, Pret A Manger has mushroomed, gaining the attention of fast-food giant McDonald's, whose recent minority purchase of Pret has enabled it to expand internationally. The sleek-looking shops vend freshly made sandwiches-some on baguettes imported (partly baked) from France-with fillings such as chicken tikka or arugula, avocado, and Parmesan with pine nuts, primarily for off-premises eating. Acclaimed pastry chef Claudia Fleming, formerly of New York City's Gramercy Tavern, recently signed on, boosting Pret A Manger's foodie appeal. Info: Arugula, avocado, Parmesan, and pine-nut sandwich, $5.25. More than 130 outlets in Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, and the U.K.; www.pret.com.

Fusion Cafes

Noodles & Company

From Wisconsin mac-and-cheese to Indonesian peanut "saut,," Noodles & Company serves noodle-based bowls from a U.N. of larders. Most come without protein, but chicken, beef, tofu, or shrimp can be added for about $1.50 to $2. Salads, soups, and seasonal specials supplement ten noodle-based entr,es in lively, bright storefronts serving lunch and dinner. Bars dispense beer and wine as well as soft drinks. Info: Japanese pan noodles with chunky vegetables, $5.25. Nearly 70 units in Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Coming very soon to Michigan, Texas, and Utah; www.noodles.com.

Wolfgang Puck Express

Tinseltown celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck does quick-service business of his signature dishes-many pulled from his Spago repertoire-like Chinois chicken salad, butternut-squash soup, and four-cheese pizza at a growing number of self-service outlets. Like Wolfgang Puck Caf,s, which offer table service, Express shops sport vibrant mosaic-tile patterns and an open kitchen, where cooks fire pizzas in an open hearth and toss salads to order. Info: Chinois chicken salad, $7.95. About 22 locations in California, Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, and Illinois, including at airports in Chicago, Denver, and Los Angeles; www.wolfgangpuck.com.

World Wrapps

World Wrapps borrows from global ethnic cuisines and packages each-from Japanese "samurai" salmon to Spanish paella-in an oversize Mexican tortilla (also available in a ten-inch small), assembled to order. "Bowl" versions of the sandwiches come unwrapped and tortilla-free. Bento boxes and kids meals expand the choices. A franchising effort is newly under way, with expansion expected west of Chicago. Info: Texas Roadhouse BBQ Chicken with mashed potatoes, slaw, and tomato-corn salsa, $5.50. There are 16 shops in the San Francisco and Seattle metro areas; www.worldwrapps.com.

Bakery Cafes

Corner Bakery Cafe

Founded in Chicago and now run by Brinker International of Dallas (owners of Chili's and Maggiano's chains, among others), Corner Bakery shops prepare up to 17 different breads daily from brioche to sourdough. The loaves (also sold whole) form the foundation of a sandwich-based caf, menu that spans soups, salads, and sandwiches. Typical choices include minestrone soup served in a bread bowl, chicken-bacon-avocado chopped salad, tomato-mozzarella-basil on ciabatta bread, and ham and Havarti cheese on pretzel bread. The warm, wood-paneled settings draw coffee-and-pastry snackers between major meals. Info: One-half chicken pesto sandwich and one-half caesar salad combination, $5.99. Eighty-two outlets concentrated in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, southern California, and Washington, D.C.; www.cornerbakery.com.

Panera Bread Originally established as the St. Louis Bread Company (and still operating under that name in parts of Missouri), Panera specializes in "artisan bread" from a grape-based starter used in a range of flavored loaves including kalamata olive, sesame semolina, and three seed. Take-out breads and pastries supplement the caf, operation, which serves sandwiches, salads, and daily soups like broccoli cheddar and black bean. Wooden booths and fireplaces in some caf,s encourage lingering. Info: Turkey with chipotle mayo, field greens, and red onion on Asiago focaccia, $5.55. There are 478 locations in 32 states. Markets include Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Jacksonville, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.; www.panera.com.

TEX-MEX GRILLS

Chipotle Mexican Grill Chef Steve Ells fused his fine-dining background and love of Mexican tacos in Chipotle, wrapping lime-and-cilantro-tossed rice, cumin-spiced black beans, adobo-marinated chicken, and juniper-infused pork in 20-ounce, made-to-order burritos sauced by four varieties of house-made salsa. Most locations pour margaritas and beers as well as soda. Corrugated-metal walls, blond-wood floors, and curving surfaces generate a hip, urban vibe. McDonald's now holds a majority share of Chipotle, enabling the chain to add about 100 stores annually. Info: Steak burrito with black beans, cheese, rice, and chile-corn salsa, $5.25. More than 230 outlets in the U.S.; www.chipotle.com.

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