There are many places in Back Bay to get a salad. But do they have enough clientele to move 700-800 people through their restaurant in a day? Sweetgreen, a chain started by three college students in 2007 in Washington, D.C., seems to have incredible draw. A location on Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library opened last summer, a Fort Point location opened early this month, and a third spot is scheduled for Chestnut Hill this summer.
Yes, the food is locally sourced and the place wants to leave a light footprint (really, these days, so many establishments say that), and yes, you’re met with a wall of gorgeous greens in bins that scream, “I’m healthy.” And yes, the salads are freshly made in front of you and dressings are quite delicious without a hint of bottled aftertaste.
Is the draw the manifesto that includes uplifting messages such as “Beware the status quo,” “Create the challenge you desire,” and “Find your extraordinary”? (They don’t even say things like that last one at TED talks.) Or perhaps it’s the earful at the entrance written with black tiles set into the white hexagonals: “Passion x purpose.” You can’t even grab a napkin in peace. It reads: “Some of the best ideas have come from the back of a napkin. Ready to share yours?”
Sweetgreen has a long cafeteria line of salad fixings. You can make up your own ($6.35) and choose a base of greens or grains, add four toppings (everything from roasted sweet potatoes to soba noodles), and then a dressing (champagne vinaigrette is especially good, as is lime-cilantro-jalapeno). If you want to add a “premium” such as roast chicken, citrus shrimp, shaved Parmesan, bacon, baked falafel, these cost extra ($1-$4).
Or, order a signature salad, among them guacamole greens ($9.50), with roast chicken, avocado, and lime-cilantro vinaigrette; misoba ($8), a bowl of greens, soba noodles, avocado, and raw corn; kale Caesar ($8.75), the leaves mixed with romaine, roast chicken, Parmesan crisps, and Caesar dressing; Chic-P ($8), chickpeas with baked falafel and lemon-tahini dressing; District Cobb ($11.50), with roast chicken, goat cheese, hard-cooked eggs, raw corn, avocado, and agave-Dijon dressing.
Salad makers assemble your ingredients in a large stainless steel bowl lined with a smaller bowl. When the smaller bowl is filled, the makers tip the ingredients into the stainless bowl and start whacking those greens with the cutting edges of the tongs. Then the salad goes into the smaller bowl for eating in (or in a takeout container). The result of this whacking showmanship can be finely chopped greens that are no longer appealing. Husby keeps saying his bowls have a kennel quality.
On Boylston Street, salads are much too fine, even in this era of chopped salad mania. At Fort Point channel, salad makers are more restrained and you find handsome leaves still in your bowl. In both places, workers are smiling, gracious, and helpful to guests. Boylston general manager Michael Smith tells me he hires people who are “happy, humble, and hard-working.” He can teach them the rest.
When the salad makers pick up a scoop of tiny bits of roast chicken, they carefully level it off. To add fresh herbs to a salad, they chop the leaves just before dropping them into the bowl. They remove the avocado from the skin in one swoop. When they ask whether you want the dressing light, medium, or heavy, they make every attempt to get it right.
Lentil-chickpea soup ($3.75 and $6) is full of good flavor and nicely seasoned; carrot-ginger, which is a pretty color, is flavorless, and too similar to baby food.
Sweetgreen locations are light and welcoming, though someone should clean the tables between customers. It’s one thing to wait on yourself and another to scrub the surface. And the protein in the salads is just too little to tide anyone over till the next meal. If you buy extra protein, you could be looking at a salad in or near double digits, which is high, even for this quality.
Still, I’m willing to pay it — and squeeze in beside all those Lululemon yogis. They probably love the Spartan quality.