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Tender Greens Is (Barely) Ahead in the Race to Shovel Bland Salad in Your Face

Critic Ryan Sutton takes a first look at the newly opened NYC location of the Danny Meyer-backed chain

Tender Greens in Flatiron
The new Tender Greens in NYC
Photo via Yelp

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” is the Michael Pollan bromide that acts as an inspirational coda near the bottom of every receipt at Tender Greens, a lifestyle jargon spewing fast casual salad spot in Flatiron that, based on two early visits, serves one of the city’s best spicy fried chicken sandwiches — and some pretty spotty plant dishes.

There are 26 West Coast outlets of Tender Greens, whose “food revolution,” according to its website, started in 2006. The 27th location is the first in New York, situated in the former Craftbar space at 900 Broadway between 19th and 20th streets. The style of dining is queue up, counter-service, pay-before-you-eat. Danny Meyer, who has been opening up fast-casual spots like Martina, took a minority stake in the chain last year.

The restaurant specializes in the type of breezy, seasonal, quinoa, baby kale, free-range, certified-by-an-acronym, no hormones or antibiotics build-your-own-plate fare that a growing class of New Yorkers would prefer to consume than tacos at a small street cart, sandwiches from a classic deli, or noodles from a great Sichuan spot. I devoured my chicken sandwich adjacent a small placard asking for “tender love” on social media, and across from a piece of word art that reads: “Kermit. Weed. Money. Salad. Envy. *Things that are green.” The art sits above a bunch of salt shakers that don’t work too well, and a vat of free water with no cups.

It feels like there are more salad spots than taco carts in Manhattan these days. It also feels like the fare at Tender Greens is tailored in its bland international indistinctness for the type of crowd that gets excited about Ed Sheeran music, airlines that revamp their first class cabins, and The Edge apartment complex in Williamsburg. Tender Greens is a three-minute walk from two different SoulCycles, a five minute walk from a Flywheel, and across the street from an Equinox. Nothing is more expensive than $16, but the restaurant, with its bottled sparkling water harvested from maple trees, is built for those with enough money to be fluent in the language of tree water.

One day, in the not so distant future, we’ll look back at Sweetgreen, Tender Greens, and Dig Inn, and we’ll remember that one was better (probably Tender Green, alas), even if we can’t remember their names, just as no one can really distinguish among the Freddy Prinze Jr. romantic comedies of the late 1990s and early aughts. In any case, here are some early thoughts about what to eat at Tender Greens, what to avoid, and what to expect.

Tender Greens fried chicken sandwich
The fried chicken sandwich

My main advice: Eat proteins, mostly fried chicken here. The white meat fried chicken, which hangs over the boundaries of the bun, boasts a gorgeous mahogany hue and a dense crunch. Some bites are soft and salty, while others require a bit of a chew. The sandwich drips with slaw and spicy pickles; the heat level is just enough to produce a gentle tingling sensation on the lips. Those who want more spice can add a squirt or two of hot sauce, which is really just Cholula poured into a label-free squeeze bottle. Apparently that company’s branding isn’t sexy enough for Tender Greens, where patrons drink cold brew out of La Colombe cans. The sandwich easily ranks with, and perhaps even surpasses, the fried chicken efforts of both Shake Shack and Fuku, though this one’s a touch more expensive at $14; the other two are under $10.

The doors are too heavy: Even if you work out and are in pretty good (but not great) shape, like I am, the bathroom doors and front doors are hard to open IMO.

The credit card-only greeting: One of the first things a diner sees upon entry is a placard that breaks down the venue’s credit card-only, cash-free policy into four bullet points. Among the highlights: “It’s more sustainable — no more armored cars driving around and associated waste.” So, to be clear, it’s about the environment (and a “faster checkout”). No big deal if people are excluded, I guess!

Tender Greens charcuterie
The charcuterie platter

On pacing: If Tender Greens is going to serve a charcuterie platter, like they did on a recent evening, maybe they should bring it before the mains, instead of after? The platter, which came with bresaola, lomo, sopressata, 300-day-aged gorgonzola, and taleggio, was perfectly tempered — but after the mains, assaulting one’s palate with cured meats can be tough.

The Nicoise salad is close to perfect. It’s a mix of silky rare tuna, not-overcooked quail eggs, green beans, black olives, super sweet roasted tomatoes, potatoes, and a assertively tart sherry vinaigrette. There’s nothing new about this dish; it’s just executed better than most any other version around town.

The fried chicken platter is great if you like a crispy, dark, well-seasoned crust. It’s not so great if you like white or dark meat that tastes like it was touched with any type of salt. Get the chicken sandwich instead, or just eat the crust!

Tender Greens fried chicken plate
The fried chicken plate

The lobster salad is a mix of baby gem, watercress, celery and apple slaw, citrus herb breadcrumbs, and tarragon dressing that works fine as a mix of bitter, sweet, and tangy flavors. It works less well as a lobster salad; the bland tail meat, from the Luke’s Lobster chain, has about as much oceanic flavor as chicken breast.

The roasted seasonal vegetables were a SELL during a recent lunch and dinner. Sweet potatoes were undercooked to the point of being al dente, while roasted cauliflower exhibited no spices or acidic zing. It was just a vegetable, cooked in an oven, and put on a plate.

The mashed potatoes do not come with the option of a side of gravy. That can fly in a steakhouse where the mashed are loaded with butter. But when they’re (pleasantly) coarse, and served with a reasonably lean steak, the taters need a rich, fatty gravy to tie everything together. That’s the rule. Otherwise you have something that looks like cafeteria food.

Speaking of steak, a cashier asks if it’s okay to serve the beef medium rare. It comes out medium-well. The lean meat, the restaurant’s best seller, isn’t so much about the intrinsic flavor of steak as it is using beef as a reasonably neutral protein delivery mechanism.

The side of California sprouted rice tastes like what would happen to rice if someone either undercooked it or left it out to dessicate overnight. The bland, super al dente grains are nearly inedible.

Tender Greens chipotle salad and falafel
The chipotle salad and falafel

The falafel is spiced with coriander and cumin, imparting the brilliantly crunchy chickpeas with a tang that is both heady and floral.

The chipotle chicken salad is another winner. The mix of cilantro-lime dressed romaine hearts with cotija cheese acts as a nice foil to skin-on chile-rubbed chicken, which is about as tasty as any of the really good rotisserie chickens available at a local Gristedes for much less.

On service: My order did not include the arancini I paid for. I was asked to confirm the purchase via a receipt, which I had thrown out because this was not Best Buy. This took approximately 10 minutes to sort out. They gave me a free cookie but it had f&cking raisins in it.

So there you go. That’s Tender Greens in a nutshell. It all recalls the type of monotonous New York Danny Meyer foresaw when he announced he was moving the old Union Square Cafe due to a rent hike. As he wrote in a Times op-ed in 2014: “It is sad that the more ‘successful’ a neighborhood becomes, the more it gradually takes on a recognizable, common look, as the same banks, drugstore chains and national brands move in. Be honest: Would you rather have one more bank branch in your neighborhood, or another independent restaurant?”

Well, there used to be an independent restaurant here, and now there’s a chain in which Meyer is an investor. I hope you all enjoy your New York Salad City.