Battle of the Bowls: How Atlanta’s fast-casual restaurants stack up

Grain bowls, avocado toast, “superfoods” galore: Atlanta is awash in fast-casual restaurants. Here’s how they stack up.

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Battle of the fast-casual Atlanta bowls
Brown Bag Seafood Co. (left) vs. Upbeet

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

Sweetgreen
Multiple locations

This LA-based behemoth is a big force behind the American turn toward fast-casual: hearty lunchtime salads, grain bowls, etc. To find out what all the fuss is about, head to the company’s first Atlanta location at (where else?) Ponce City Market, or one of a few more recent outposts around the city. Or, if not, just imagine Starbucks with salad; that’s pretty much the vibe, and the level of quality.

Representative dishes: Obviously, a kale caesar with roasted chicken. Grain bowls, served over quinoa or wild rice, come in varieties like the Harvest Bowl (chicken, sweet potatoes, apples, goat cheese) and the Shroomami, with sesame tofu, portobello mushrooms, veg, and miso sesame ginger dressing.

Perks: Sprawling enterprise though it may be, Sweetgreen sources certain items locally, like rosemary focaccia from Alon’s.

Bowls: •••••


Local Expedition Wood-Fired Grill
Sandy Springs, Alpharetta

Danny and Diana Kim opened the first Local Expedition in Alpharetta in 2016, adding a second closer to the Perimeter in 2020. The menu leans Mediterranean but is all over the global map, with LA street corn, Chinese chicken salad, and an Atlanta favorite—wings.

Representative dishes: Those wings are smoked and then grilled, giving them more than the usual amount of flavor, though sides like caramelized Brussels sprouts suffer from the kind of cafeteria drabness that comes with being prepped ahead. Better: french fries prepared in the same style as that corn, served under a shower of cotija cheese and parsley.

Perks: “Community meals”—family-sized servings to take home.

Bowls: •••••


Maepole
Summerhill

This Athens import put down roots in Atlanta last year serving a fast-casual menu with plenty of gluten-free and vegan options, as well as a distinctive Southern accent.

Representative dishes: Build your own bowl starting with a base of greens, brown rice, sweet potatoes, or quinoa, then adding protein and veg—or choose from a few seasonal plates that included, on a recent visit, a (quite salty) “Low Country” combination of tofu, braised greens, hoppin’ John–esque bean salad, and turmeric-ginger vinaigrette.

Perks: Interesting “extras” to punch up your entree, including a crunchy nut-seed mix, vibrantly colored chow chow, and kimchi.

Bowls: •••••


Sankranti
Dunwoody

Owner Srinivasa Nimmagadda has declared his intention for this counter-service joint—the first of a planned chain—to be a kind of Indian Chipotle, with bowls, rolls, and salads. As with Chipotle, the food is decent but tastes like it’s been watered down a little for mass consumption.

Representative dishes: Curry bowls served with your choice of topping—paneer or chicken tikka masala, chana masala, lentils, et al.—with options to add on items like veggie samosas and parathas.

Perks: Mango lassi!

Bowls: •••••


Battle of the fast-casual Atlanta bowls
Upbeet

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

Upbeet
Westside

This Westside eatery is basically the platonic ideal of its particular genre, serving “organic bowls, smoothies, toast, and superfood lattes” in a white-walled space with lots of plants.

Representative dishes: The menu is divided into “grains” and “greens,” with an option to build your own bowl; tasty preset options include the Aloha Bowl (tuna poké over bamboo rice with mango, jalapeño, and ginger miso dressing), the Curry Up (chicken over brown rice and chickpeas with cilantro, sweet potatoes, and curry coconut dressing), and a buffalo chicken salad.

Perks: Literally every trendy drink you can imagine. Golden milk? Matcha? Butter coffee? “Smoothie bowls” with add-ins like collagen and whey protein? Here’s your hookup.

Bowls: ••••


Brown Bag Seafood Co.
Westside, Midtown

Donna Lee launched the first Brown Bag in Chicago in 2014 and has since expanded to more than a dozen locations, including two in Atlanta with a third on the way. The gist: sustainable seafood, served in various formats—sandwiches, tacos, and “boxes” over different configurations of grains and greens.

Representative dishes: The marquee item is the lobster roll, which wasn’t cheap to begin with but is currently retailing for $34 due to weirdness in the supply chain—not exactly a casual price tag. More modest options include salmon, shrimp, and a catch of the day. Hot tip: Get your fish as part of a Veggiebox—over lightly sauteed vegetables, including Brussels sprouts and spinach—and you’ll have plenty of room for a side of tater tots.

Perks: Specialty boxes tailored to specific diets, like a keto-friendly salmon salad and a paleo-friendly shrimp situation.

Bowls: ••••


Karv Kitchen
Chamblee

The family behind this Chamblee joint with fast-food vibes—the Papadopouloses—also own Athens Pizza in Decatur. Here, they follow the Chipotle model, whereby diners select a protein to be served either in a wrap or atop a “stack” with rice, fries, roasted potatoes, or keto-friendly collards and beans.

Representative dishes: Proteins include marinated chicken or pork souvla, long-braised lamb or beef, falafel, or tofu, but the toppings are really where you can play with flavors: Choose among Greko (tzatziki and pickled onion), Manzo (the spicy route, with peri-peri sauce and Greek cheese), and more.

Perks: Salads and veg-forward sides are no afterthought here (cabbage slaw with kalamata olives, tempura-battered zucchini and eggplant chips), but the big draw is the doughnut-like “loukoubombs,” in classic
lemon-honey, strawberry, and chocolate.

Bowls: ••••


Lamb Shack
Buckhead

This ghost kitchen, offering takeout and delivery only out of the luxe Greek restaurant Kyma, gives you access to chef Pano I. Karatassos’s fine cooking—sans high prices and dress code. Karatassos launched it as a way to highlight a popular Kyma meze—flaky lamb pie—but that’s just one menu item among many.

Representative dishes: Pick your protein and go from there, with options including slow-cooked lamb, olive oil–baked salmon, Berkshire pork with smoked paprika, and a rich, supertender octopus; all are available in pita (pick your spread—roasted red pepper, olive puree, tzatziki, et al.—and various vegetable garnishes) or as a Greek salad.

Perks: You can take home a whole bottle of rosé if you want—plus Greek coffee, beer, and perfect little baklava.

Bowls: ••••


Recess
Inman Park

First launched in 2018, this Krog Street Market stall—part of the Castellucci restaurant empire—took a pandemic hiatus, reopening this past winter in slightly reinvented form with sandwiches (pulled chicken with kale pesto), sweet potato fries, and salads. A second Buckhead location is in the works.

Representative dishes: There are a lot of pleasant components to a bowl called My Farro Lady, with charred broccoli, a cooling slaw, pickled raisins, and turmeric cauliflower, plus a protein if you want to add one—options range from carnitas to maple-dijon tofu to a seven-minute egg.

Perks: Recess’s KSM neighbor is Todd Richards’s Soul: Food and Culture stall, so for dessert you could grab one of the beautiful slices of Southern-style cake that typically grace the countertop—and a beer from Hop City, just around the corner.

Bowls: ••••


Belles of the Bowl

Battle of the fast-casual Atlanta bowls
The Daily

Photograph by Wedig + Laxton

The Daily
Berkeley Park

Building off the success of their Charleston, South Carolina, brunch restaurant Butcher & Bee, Melody and Michael Shemtov opened this cheery daytime cafe in an old Trabert Avenue industrial building earlier this year, serving fresh, trendy fare off a menu that changes seasonally.

Representative dishes: Toasts (avocado with za’atar, smoked salmon with lemon-caper schmear), wraps (a very good breakfast burrito made with Poco Loco flour tortillas), and—among various options—a loaded avocado bowl with a gooey egg, chili crisp, greens, and pickled onions.

Perks: Drinks include standard coffees and fresh-pressed juices, but keep an eye out for unusual seasonal specials, like molasses spice and black sesame lattes.

Bowls: •••••


Little Rey
Piedmont Heights

This Tex-Mex joint from Ford Fry is admittedly a little more ambitious (and frankly more fun) than your typical fast-casual counter, with options like breakfast tacos, soft-serve, and a fulsome menu of drinks, including margaritas and lots of beer.

Representative dishes: The centerpiece is pollo al carbon—brined, marinated, and wood-roasted chicken that’s served in a variety of formats, from a juicy half bird (with tortillas, beans, cilantro rice, and smoked onions and jalapeños) to individual tacos to arroz con pollo. If you’ve gotta get the grain-bowl fix, try the Esqueleto, with beans, quinoa, sweet potato, and avocado.

Perks: Sloppy apps to pair with that bev menu, from queso fries to smoked chicken wings with salsa macha.

Bowls: •••••


Flower Child
Multiple locations

From Phoenix-based Fox Restaurant Concepts, Flower Child is way better than you might expect from a nationwide chain that traffics heavily in fast-casual cliches. Avocado toast, avocado caesar, avocado hummus? You can get all that here, plus various grain bowls, cauliflower “risotto,” gluten-free mac and cheese—you get the drift.

Representative dishes: The Mother Earth bowl is a fortifying—and deeply satisfying—mix of textures and flavors, with roasted sweet potato blanketed in a piquant red pepper–miso sauce, umami-rich mushrooms and broccoli pesto, and more; add marinated tofu, or another protein of your choice, for a few bucks more.

Perks: Seasonal sangria. And for dessert, a rich, smooth, coconutty—and vegan!—chocolate pudding.

Bowls: •••••


Daily Chew
Piedmont/Morningside

In 2021, meal kit maestro Julia Kesler Imerman launched her first brick-and-mortar, a sweet little cafe with a bit of outdoor seating. Daily Chew is open only till 3 p.m., but that’s no impediment to dinner: One of the banner dishes here is the perfectly cooked whole rotisserie chicken, which comes with fantastic sauces (hummus, green tahini), several sides, and assorted veggies and pickled things—perfect for toting home for later.

Representative dishes: Avocado toast “supreme” (with fried eggs and feta), cauliflower shakshuka, a seedy granola bowl with Greek yogurt, and various pitas, including one stuffed with salmon and lemony labneh.

Perks: If you’re in a huge hurry, grab the soba noodle salad—gingery dressing, plenty of edamame—straight out of the cold case (and grab a tahini chocolate chip cookie too).

Bowls: •••••

This article appears in our August 2022 issue.

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