Casual Outfits

A postcard arrived at Daily Nutmeg’s office a few weeks ago, announcing elevated elements like an “open kitchen” and a “lounge area with fireplace” at the new Wendy’s on Whalley Avenue. “Fast casual” is the industry term for this kind of approach—an attempt to hit the sweet spot between fast food and casual sit-down dining. A 2017 Washington Post article describes the trend as “affordable, freshly prepared and high-quality meals delivered at breakneck speed.” Fast casual restaurants are counter-service establishments like Chipotle, Shake Shack and Panera, featuring edgier interior design, ostensibly healthier menu items and sometimes chefs with “fine-dining pedigrees.” It looked like fast-food Wendy’s was trying to move in on the trend.

We’d noticed the same thing happening on Chapel Street, where Taco Bell had raised its bar with a new “Cantina”—one of 300 to 350 such locations nationwide intended to “express the local vibes with artwork, open kitchens, and digital menu boards,” Food and Wine magazine reports. It seemed like a good time to stop in at some of New Haven’s downtown fast casual joints and take the pulse of local trends.

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The “high quality” of fast casual food may be for real, or it may be an ingenious marketing ploy. Chipotle, on Chapel Street at Temple, boasts “sourcing the very best ingredients we can find and preparing them by hand.” Also on Chapel Street, Panera’s “food promise” includes serving food that’s “clean, savored & enjoyed, nutrient-rich, raised responsibly, personalized and transparent”—meaning they report on their “responsibility journey.” But you’re taking all that on trust.

Something you can see with your own eyes at New Haven’s fast casual establishments is the environment in which the food is served. The fast casuals have ditched fast food’s molded plastic booths in favor of trendier or cozier decor. Fireplaces seem to be a common draw. In addition to Wendy’s promise of one, Panera and Shake Shack, both on Chapel Street, each have one. This makes sense in a New England market, and it has a particularly cozy effect at Panera, which was homework central at lunchtime on the Wednesday of my tour. Chipotle, on the corner of Chapel and Temple Streets, sports stainless steel tabletops, orange faux leather stool covers and a pegboard wall as part of its neo-industrial look. The Taco Bell Cantina has a garage door-style facade. (Will it roll up? Warm weather will tell.) If the chain’s bell logo, light-projected onto the sidewalk, entices you inside, you’ll find a small lounge area with cushy black armchairs and white stone end tables, a small bar looking into the kitchen and repurposed wood tables. At Shake Shack, the wood tables bear the label, “Handcrafted in Brooklyn, NY. This surface was once part of a bowling lane,” in keeping with the fact that the restaurant also includes foosball and tabletop shuffleboard.

Alcohol also ups the game. Taco Bell Cantina serves beer, margaritas and flavored “twisted freezes” with vodka, rum or tequila. Shake Shack has a beer menu and wine by the glass and by the bottle. Beer and margaritas are also on the menu at Chipotle.

But beyond the chains, New Haven has its share of local-born fast casual establishments, which have taken up the made-to-order model pioneered by Subway (a Connecticut company). Among them are Tikkaway (Indian), Pitaziki (Mediterranean) and Junzi Kitchen (Northern Chinese). International food and restaurant consultants Baum + Whiteman put out a 2019 forecast that sees more independent restaurateurs opening fast casual eateries but with slightly more upscale food and at slightly more upscale prices, despite the fact that it will still be served from a counter in a dining space designed for a quick bite rather than a lingering meal.

I’ve had many a delicious lunch from Tikkaway, located a bit off New Haven’s fast casual beaten track on Orange Street at Chapel. Serving rice bowls, salad bowls and whole wheat wraps with Indian-inspired fillings like chana (chickpeas), lamb and paneer (a variety of cheese), Tikkaway’s main dishes ring up at $6.50 to $8.25. I decided to stop in at the other two to sample their fare.

Pitaziki, on Temple Street next to Temple Plaza, offers a cheerful lime green and white decor and serves bowls, wraps and pitas as well as specials and sides. Its sign advertises “Quick, Vegan, Gluten Free, Vegetarian, Halal.” I tried a whole wheat wrap with shawarma chicken ($8.25) and added in (at no extra cost) chickpeas, baba ganoush, couscous, onion and white sauce. The server crisped the wrap in a sandwich press before serving—a nice touch.

Junzi Kitchen, which gets a shout-out from the Baum + Whiteman report as an up-and-coming enterprise, was founded by four Yale students in 2015. It has the tightest seating of any of downtown’s fast casual joints—a shallow, low counter with stools and one table, all in blonde wood. But the food makes up for any lack of space. I ordered a bowl of “spring”—thinner and rounder—noodles with furu sesame sauce and added in pork, bean sprouts, sweet potato, green cabbage, cucumber, long beans, scallions, cilantro, bean threads and chili oil ($9.88). The menu also includes Chun Bing ($5.88), a specialty wrap filled with “seasonal vegetables, braised meats and flavorful sauces.”

A “fast casual” search on Trip Advisor also turns up longtime local favorites like Louis’ Lunch and Claire’s Corner Copia, which hardly fit the “trendy” label, having been around since 1895 and 1975, respectively. But they’re offering up a similarly quick and easy experience (albeit, one meaty and one vegetarian) at reasonable prices. This is not to forget downtown’s innumerable coffee shops, delis, pizza joints and other chains like Five Guys, Salsa Fresca, Garden Catering and The Halal Guys.

As for Wendy’s, whose promotional postcard launched my fast casual tour, unfortunately, it wasn’t all it was promised to be. The “lounge area” is a modern wood-framed outdoor patio, too cold for now. My inquiry about the “fireplace” flummoxed employees. Maybe it’s the heating around the top of the patio, one suggested. The “open kitchen,” meanwhile, wasn’t noticeably different from the kitchen setup in any other fast food joint. There are 3 new menu items—the Barbecue Cheeseburger, S’Awesome Bacon Cheeseburger and Peppercorn Mushroom Melt ($5.39-6.39). But the biggest change seems to be that customers now have to place their own orders on touchscreens at the entrance and pick them up at the kitchen counter.

Similar touchscreens are in place at Taco Bell Cantina, but when I stopped in there, orders were still being taken at the counter, too. At Wendy’s, there’s no such option. A helpful employee was posted at the kiosks to assist and to take cash payment from customers who didn’t have a credit card. Even so, of the four customers I observed or spoke with, three were aggravated and unimpressed. The kiosk experience was neither fast nor the kind of “casual” diners were looking for.

If that very limited survey is indicative of broader consumer preferences, Wendy’s will have to adjust fast, and not casually.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 (of Wendy’s) and 2 (of Junzi Kitchen) photographed by Dan Mims. Images 3 (of Pitaziki) and 4 (of Taco Bell Cantina) photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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