A meal at LYFE Kitchen isn't just supposed to fill you up; it's supposed to make you feel good. Founded three years ago in California by a pair of former McDonald's executives and an investment banker, this rapidly expanding chain, which entered the Denver market this summer with a location in the Park Meadows Shopping Center, takes wellness seriously. The restaurant shuns white flour, cream and butter, and doesn't have a fryer. It offers lengthy vegan/vegetarian and gluten-free menus, complimentary sparkling water, and recipes packed with superfoods, not sodium. Even the space is WELL-certified, signifying that requirements in a host of areas from air quality to lighting have been met.
See also: Behind the Scenes at LYFE Kitchen
And sure enough, after the stress faded from trying to order quickly from such a large menu at the counter (other guests were also having a hard time and let us go in front of them), I began to feel pretty good. Maybe the living wall of herbs had something to do with it. Maybe it was the anticipation of all those phytonutrients hitting my body. Or maybe it was the quote from Margaret Mead, the one that made me feel like I wasn't just having lunch, I was making the world a better place, one forkful at a time. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has," read her uplifting words, painted on one wall in a space that feels very au courant, with an orange-and-white palette, reclaimed wood, a shaded patio and a mix of contemporary seating straight out of Scandinavia -- or at least Ikea, down the road.
Then I started doing the math, and it became immediately apparent that I was going to need more than plants and a pep talk to keep those good vibrations going. Looking at the menu while waiting for our food, I noticed something I'd missed in our rush to keep the long line moving: calorie counts. "Everything on the menu is under 600 calories, and most are well under 600," owner-operator DJ Mitchell later told me. "You can't make a huge mistake and overeat."
That's probably true for 99 percent of LYFE's guests. But I was about to do just that, in such monumental proportions that, when everything was said and done -- the mango-cucumber-lime smoothie, the budino and vegan cookie, the noodle bowl, the salad, the soup, the steak and the cashew cream sauce under the chicken -- I was staring at a whopping 3,289 calories. And that was before the wine, which (thankfully) didn't have numbers underneath. I shudder to think of my grand total at normal restaurants, ones where calories are no object and taste is the only concern.
But as luck would have it -- for me, that is, not for LYFE -- I consumed only a fraction of those calories. When the food started rolling in, delivered not in courses, but in dribs and drabs as the kitchen prepared each dish, very little inspired me to clear my plate. Yes, there was a fantastic bowl of corn chowder, with plenty of kernels and a sprinkling of chives, as well as a silkiness that came not from cream, but from cashew milk. The biodynamic grüner veltliner, delivered by a friendly runner, had all the refreshing grapefruit notes she'd said it would. And Gardein, a broiled-chicken substitute sprinkled over a salad, capably mimicked the pleasant interaction between poultry and a hot grill. On other visits, a whole-wheat-flax flatbread with roasted tomatoes, eggplant and a Boursin-like dollop of tofu-thickened garlic sauce stood out, as did edamame hummus and a banana budino made with chia seeds and coconut milk.
But the kale Caesar that imitation chicken was sprinkled over contained so much romaine, I forgot it was supposed to have kale at all, much less the quantity behind its name, and the eggless dressing did little but moisten the greens. Art's unfried chicken, a signature dish named after executive chef Art Smith, formerly the personal chef for Oprah Winfrey, looked promising, but the seasoned, breaded, baked breast was so dry, I felt like I was eating a peanut-butter sandwich. An Asian noodle bowl of soba, edamame and sustainably raised sea bass should've been packed with flavor, but the kimchi broth could have passed for low-sodium vegetable stock with chile flakes. "This is really bland," said my friend as he pushed back his half-eaten plate.
Despite its emphasis on health and its appeal to plant-based eaters, LYFE Kitchen isn't supposed to occupy the same niche as Native Foods Cafe, another health-oriented California import. "We can speak to the vegan and the gluten-free and the husband of the gluten-free who wants a burger," says Mitchell, who owned McDonald's franchises with his wife prior to getting involved with LYFE. The couple plans to open a second location in Boulder this fall.
Keep reading for more on LYFE Kitchen. On one visit, I happened to bring along two friends -- a vegetarian and her omnivore husband -- who sounded like the people Mitchell is trying to attract. His steak won props for being grass-fed and cooked to the right temperature, which isn't as easy as it sounds with lean beef. But without a steakhouse's flavorful crust and liberal dusting of salt (LYFE counts sodium as well as calories), it had all the appeal of boiled meat, and no amount of vegan garlic-parsley "butter" could make up for that. On another visit, a grass-fed burger was equally disappointing, and for much the same reason. It did, however, perk up when I took off the oatmeal bun and sprinkled on some salt.
Unlike the McDonald's kitchens that Mitchell previously oversaw, the crew at LYFE Kitchen preps nearly everything in-house. And it does so under the direction of culinary manager Zachary Gart, who trained at LYFE's headquarters and learned a thing or two about the front and back of the house through stints at Hillstone in New York and Robert Speth's Michelin-starred restaurant in Switzerland. But whoever prepped the radishes, broccoli and cucumbers in the quinoa crunch bowl should have done a bit more knife work, so unwieldy were the hunks -- and the chipotle vinaigrette and hot sauce were so sparingly applied, I felt like I was eating the arugula and quinoa tabbouleh plain. Baked garlic-parmesan sweet-potato fries came out limp, as if they'd been sitting for a long while before making the journey from oven to table. And a glass of so-called chocolate budino was filled to the brim with pomegranate-plumped chia seeds with only a smudge of chocolate sauce on top.
Now, I have nothing against health food. Indeed, I'm all for it. I'm part of an organic, local CSA. My son carries a list of the dirty dozen, the twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables, in his pocket so that he knows what to steer clear of at the school cafeteria. At home, I'm more likely to reach for whole wheat than white flour, and occasionally thicken soups not with cream, but with cashews blended in my Cuisinart. So I'm the first to know that typical restaurant excesses -- steaks cooked in butter! sauces mounted with more butter! -- aren't necessary to make food taste good. But as I ate salads, sandwiches, entrees and sides at this well-intentioned chain, I longed for more. Not more food -- my calorie count was already high enough -- but more touches like fresh citrus, plentiful herbs and, yes, more salt to brighten the fare.
"Healthy food, it can be scary for people," says Gart, when asked about the restaurant's overriding philosophy. LYFE, he adds, is trying to make it "approachable," which is why it's called LYFE, for "Love Your Food Everyday."
If I had to eat at the mall and my only options were LYFE Kitchen and the pizza, burger and Chinese-food chains that once dominated food courts, I'd certainly choose LYFE. And I appreciate the way the restaurant allows people of all dining stripes to enjoy a meal together. If the corporate decision-makers could work out some of the kinks -- from blandness to a complex menu that doesn't lend itself to the fast-casual format -- I might even be what you'd call pro-LYFE. But I still wouldn't eat there every day.
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Select menu items at LYFE Kitchen: Sweet-corn chowder $3.99
Kale Caesar $7.49
Quinoa crunch bowl $8.99
Spicy eggplant flatbread $8.99
Grass-fed burger $8.99
Art's unfried chicken $12.99
Barramundi noodle bowl $13.99
Grass-fed steak $16.99
Baked garlic-parmesan sweet-potato fries $3.99
Chocolate budino $3.99
Chocolate chip cookie $1.49
LYFE Kitchen is open 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Get more information at lyfekitchen.com.