The concept of serving an entrée that includes at least one side dish—perhaps a starch or vegetable—has long been part of dining tradition. Think of steak with a baked potato or grilled salmon accompanied by fresh green beans.
These plated meals were copied to a degree by quick-service eateries in their combination meals, such as a burger or other sandwich with fries. With fast-casual restaurants, the primary item—like a burrito or a bowl—often has starches and veggies mixed in.
Today, however, plated meals featuring an entrée and sides are a popular offering within the fast casual 2.0 segment—the growing category that represents a more premium version of fast casual. In some cases, these menu items are pre-selected. Other concepts allow guests to mix and match their proteins and sides, a tactic central to the fast-casual experience.
“The customization here is more in choosing the sides, but the [entrée] is set,” says Claire Conaghan, a senior account manager at market research firm Datassential. “[Chefs] have sort of decided what’s best for the entrée, more like a casual restaurant.”
While the fast-casual category combines facets of quick-service and casual restaurant experiences, Conaghan says fast casual 2.0 leans more upscale with chef-inspired and seasonal menu items cooked to order, local food sourcing when possible, and fancier décor and presentation, including china plates. These restaurants still have customers order at the counter, although several offer additional service options, including bars. The price is typically higher than most fast casuals, and the meal delivery may be a bit slower, although it’s still mostly less than 10 minutes.
Some fast casual 2.0 operators don’t even consider themselves fast casual. When Atlanta-based Fresh To Order began in 2006, “We were not trying to be fast casual, but ‘fine fast,’” says Jesse Gideon, corporate chef and chief culinary officer.
Conaghan says fast casual 2.0 is to fast casual the same way that polished casual restaurants are to the typical casual ones. “The concept is growing,” she says. “You need to acknowledge it is there, but it may not create a giant shift in the industry.”
Some fast casual 2.0 chefs have found that even though they may have wanted to decide what should be served as sides along with an entrée, that doesn’t always work in a limited-service setting.
A few years ago, Denver-based Modern Market added Homestyle Plates to its menu, featuring three of its proteins as entrées with two set sides. That included the herb-roasted chicken breast with mashed sweet potatoes and an arugula and blue cheese salad.
“That lasted all of one week,” says Nate Weir, director of culinary operations. “We found more people were substituting sides from other plates. So we went back to the drawing board, and customers now can choose their protein and two sides to mix and match.”
Plates were part of Fresh To Order’s concept from the start—along with paninis and salads—and they help provide the fast-fine halo. They make operational sense, Gideon says, since the proteins are all fire-grilled to order.
“It’s all about cross-utilization for us,” he says. “Entrées are a natural byproduct of that and easy for us to do.”
The 14-unit chain features long plates with one of four proteins—chicken, salmon, steak, or calamari—in different sauce styles and served with specific sides. The coconut curry chicken or salmon, for instance, comes with roasted corn relish and wheatberry rice. A 6.5-ounce grilled prime steak medallion has balsamic cabernet reduction as its sauce, along with garlic jack grit cake and baby greens, while the almond chicken skewer has an almond-rosemary crust, mashed sweet potatoes, and Asian slaw.
“One of the things we strive for is food that is recognized, but with a twist,” Gideon says. “The sauces and garnishes are a little different than elsewhere or at home.”
For 22-unit Modern Market, offering plated meals is “a chance to further differentiate ourselves,” Weir says. “We are proud of the way we do protein, making it fresh to order, so it made sense to add it more as a center-of-the-plate item.”
While guests are welcome to customize their size, Weir adds, the chain sticks with special sauces with its entrées. The chicken breast has salsa verde, the flank steak has an au jus, and the ginger and sesame-crusted organic tofu has lemon-maple vinaigrette.
There are six sides normally available, including two seasonal ones. The mashed sweet and red potatoes are popular, as is the side salad. Although the plates can be ordered with one side, most diners choose two, he says.
The Homestyle Plates sell well at lunch, but the heartier meals are particularly popular at dinner, “which was a good reason to add them,” Weir says. “It’s more of a traditional dinner plate.”
On the West Coast, Tender Greens offers any of its six proteins as a center-of-the-plate item with two sides as part of its Hot Plate. The menu suggests mashed potatoes and any one of six Simple Salads as the sides.
The Hot Plates group is “one of our most popular items,” says Kirsten Walker, executive chef of the California chain with 23 units. “Consumers really want choices. The proteins are the star, and the sides are how people may want them that particular day.”
In some ways, the Hot Plates are a throwback to earlier days—a comfort food experience. “It harkens back to when I was growing up,” she says. “I had a sit-down meal with starch and protein and veggies on a plate.”
The proteins are relatively simple, including the Salt and Pepper Chicken, which has garlic, oregano, and thyme; the Herb Brushed Albacore, grilled rare, with sea salt, lemon, and olive oil; and the Backyard Marinated Steak, grilled medium rare.
While the Hot Plates are popular at dinner, “a lot of people will have them for lunch,” Walker says. “It’s not unusual to see a couple of businessmen eating plates and still be out the door in 20 minutes.”
Across the country, in New York, The Little Beet puts choice at the forefront with its Create Your Plate, which is marketed as a choice of one of five proteins along with two sides from among four warm and five cool options.
“It’s an opportunity for someone to go in and say, ‘I don’t want bread or filler, just protein and vegetables or grains,’” says Andy Duddleston, managing partner of the six-unit chain that has expanded to Washington, D.C. “We have a ton of different options, and you can mix it up with all different textures and temperatures.”
The company, which focuses on healthful food that tastes good, offers entrées like a Coleman Farms chicken breast that is brined for four hours, seared, and finished through low-heat slow cooking. “It has awesome moisture,” Duddleston says.
The Creekstone Farms antibiotic-free steak is marinated in olive oil, shallots, thyme, and garlic and prepared medium, while the salmon from Newfoundland is marinated in ponzu sauce and olive oil. The most popular sides are roasted sweet potatoes with smoked sea salt, Pecorino, and olive oil, and charred broccoli with crushed pepper and lemon olive oil.
The Little Beet also features its proteins in bowls and large, sushi-like rolls, but Duddleston estimates nearly two-thirds of guests select the plates.
Katy, Texas–based Dish Society, a fast casual 2.0 concept that features counter service by day and table service at night, features the Farmers Plate, which includes a protein and two sides.
“Everybody eats salads and sandwiches for lunch, so we had to add those, but when I go out to lunch, I might want a hot plate, like grilled chicken and steamed vegetables,” says founder and chief executive Aaron Lyons. “So we’ve incorporated them.”
Farmers Plates make up about 40 percent of lunch sales for Dish Society. There are six proteins and 10 sides on the menu. Lyons says the quintessential Farmers Plate would be the grilled chicken—a full chicken breast—with truffle macaroni and cheese and Brussels sprouts sautéed with balsamic vinegar and bacon crumbles.
The 8-ounce flat iron steak, citrus-glazed salmon, and other proteins are slightly pricier than the chicken. Popular sides include mashed sweet potatoes, organic red quinoa tossed in citrus vinaigrette with pico de gallo, and seasonal vegetables.
When the owners of the Denver area’s Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn full-service restaurants created limited-service Brider, they were looking to make “something more convenient with our style of cooking,” says Steve Redzikowski, executive chef and co-owner.
Unlike the oak-fired oven that is central to Oak and Acorn, Brider uses a rotisserie, and there are three items cooked this way that are used in the restaurant’s plates: a herb-rubbed half chicken, porchetta, and lamb leg. Meatballs are roasted in an oven.
The rotisserie items are marinated for 24 hours. “The chicken is brined, then marinated and rotisseried,” Redzikowski says. “It’s very flavorful and approachable.”
Guests can choose one of four groups of sides: American, with lemon and chile–wilted kale and roasted potatoes; Asian, including fried rice and kimchi; Mediterranean, with Feta, tzatziki, harissa, couscous, and more; and Indian, which has curry, jasmine rice, and coconut.
The plates are usually available only after 4 p.m., although they can be made before then by special request. “We want people at lunch to be able to get served in less than 10 minutes,” Redzikowski says, adding that the plates may take longer. At dinner, the plates are 65–70 percent of the dishes served.
It’s not just American limited-service restaurants that feature an entrée and side. South Africa–based international chain Nando’s PERi PERi sells its flame-grilled, butterfly-cut chicken on a china plate with one of many side options.
“This is authentic cuisine of southern Africa,” says Sepanta Bagherpour, head of marketing in the U.S. “There are a lot of African and Portuguese influences,” and serving the chicken with a side is “how it’s done in the streets of Mozambique.”
The chain, which has more than 30 units in and around Washington, D.C., and Chicago, gets its name from sauce made from piri piri, or African bird’s eye pepper, which grows across southern Africa.
Some of the sides at Nando’s reflect the influence of the Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to enter that region. There are crusty Portuguese rolls and house-made Portuguese rice featuring spicy yellow rice with chile peppers and herbs. Other popular sides are macho peas, which is pea mash with whole peas, parsley, mint, and chilies, and chile-dusted chips that are served with a mayo dip dubbed perinaise.
The chicken is marinated for 24 hours before cooking, Bagherpour says, and served on a plate with one of several types of sauces, as well as the side. Although sandwiches and salads are also on the menu, “the chicken entrée and side is the most popular item.”