Our latest installment of Quick Bites brings us to Manhattan for one of Washington D.C.'s favorite chains.
When obsessed-over chains from other parts of the nation try to put down roots here in New York City, results are mixed. Sweetgreen has been successful, Fatburger couldn't hack it, and Chik-fil-A's just gross.
Cava Grill, a Mediterranean-flavored counter-service restaurant that they go nuts about in Washington D.C. is the latest entry into the sometimes depressingly crowded field of chain imports, but this one feels like a keeper.
The decor is fine if unmemorable, with healthy-food signifiers like white tiles and light wood throughout. The crowd flow and user experience is handled relatively well, though when the line gets too long you have to cut through people with your tray of food, courting disaster.
There are about a dozen tables running down the right side of the space and a few stools by the front window looking out onto bustling Fourth Avenue near Union Square. The counter workers, the ones who assemble your meal as you travel down the line, are chipper and generous with their servings. There is no tip jar.
Other serviceable things of note: The disposable cups and take-out bowls are compostable. There's a Nutrition Calculator online. Food suppliers are local and listed with pride.
Get ready to make a lot of decisions! Cava Grill is firmly in the choose-your-own-adventure genre of restaurants, with no "suggested" or "signature" dishes to fall back on. The good news: just about everything I tried—and, over the course of three visits, that was just about everything they offer—was very good, so you can't really go wrong.
First up is the Base, which is either salad, or grains, or pita bread, or some combination thereof. The bitter and crunchy SuperGreens blend held up particularly well under the onslaught of ingredients to come, and all five greens options were fresh and bright. Under grains you'll find Black Lentils, Basmati Rice, and Brown Rice, which you can mix-and-match with each other and/or the greens.
Then it's on to the Proteins, the best of which were the juicy Grilled Meatballs and the also-juicy Grilled Chicken. The vegetarian options—fine but undistinguished Roasted Seasonal Vegetables and overly-dry balls of Falafel—were less interesting, though I did get the latter towards closing time, so they might have more life earlier in the day.
Although the Union Square storefront is the first Cava Grill in NYC, the company's dips and spreads should be familiar to Whole Foods shoppers. These also play a role in your meal here, as you can choose as many as three for each dish. These are delicious, especially when eaten with your complimentary small pita or $1.50 side of crisp and oily Pita Chips, but the Crazy Feta, the intense Roasted Red Pepper Hummus, and the seriously spicy Harrisa are the ones I'll be getting every time.
You're not done yet! There's about a dozen toppings you can add, from Pickled Banana Peppers to Crumbled Feta to leaves of Fresh Mint, and the only suggestion here is not to overload. The Yogurt Dill and Lemon Herb Tahini were the winners among the five choices of dressings.
It sounds more exhausting than it actually is, as each item at each station is clearly marked and visible. Don't overthink it, don't ask too many questions (the counterpersons have been given only a cursory briefing about each ingredient), and you'll get through the assembly line with a large bowl of delicious food in a hurry.
Heartier than other build-your-own-salad places and fully delivering on its promise of "gutsy" flavors, Cava Grill is a solid addition to NYC's fast-casual scene. It's still a bit of a mob scene at lunch (and maybe it'll remain that way forever), but both my early evening and nighttime meals were reasonably pleasant and totally satisfying.
Cava Grill is located at 143 Fourth Avenue between 14th and 13th Streets, and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (646-416-6400; cavagrill.com)