Visions of grandeur
Lyfe execs dream of a national chain, but Palo Alto prototype needs some basic fixes
Lyfe Kitchen received a lot of press before and after its October opening, much of it self-written thanks to an almost hyperactive PR effort.
The concept restaurant is part of a company founded by former McDonald's executives and a venture capitalist, with the executive team also including Fortune 500 consultants. The 100-seat Palo Alto address is the prototype that execs hope will soon blossom into a 250-restaurant national chain.
And the food? It's made eschewing butter, cream, high-fructose corn syrup and fried items. Menu items are all under 600 calories with less than 1,000 mg of sodium. The mantra is to produce great-tasting, nutritious food — and get it to the table quickly. It's a step up from fast food, falling into the fast-casual category, where food is swiftly made to order.
The menu at Lyfe (an acronym for Love Your Food Everyday) was developed by two high-profile chefs. Art Smith is Oprah's former personal chef and now a celebrity chef in his own right, and Tal Ronnen is a leading vegan chef, cookbook author and caterer to the stars.
The conscientious planning didn't stop in the kitchen, either. The interior properties are made from recycled and sustainable products: bamboo flooring, soy-based foam upholstery, low-voltage Xenon lighting, recycled stainless steel and aluminum, and Douglas-fir bleacher wood salvaged from colleges and high schools. Table tops are cleaned and sanitized with ionized water. Even the men's room uses a Sloan hands-free waterless urinal.
For some people, it's the future. For others, it's just hyperbole.
On the surface, Lyfe is almost the anti-McDonald's, but it really isn't and I'm sure management doesn't view it that way. It's a business opportunity, pure and simple, and there is nothing wrong with that.
The executive team understands fast food: an unpretentious menu using nominal ingredients, an efficient kitchen where the number of footsteps to complete an order is minimal, high-tech appliances, state-of-the-art communications, fresh ingredients, and durable dining-room seating that is comfortable enough but discourages long-term table use. Check, check and check; they've got it.
But not quite all of it yet. On a recent visit, I found that the sweet corn chowder ($3.99), made with cashew cream and chopped herbs, was supposed to be topped with multigrain croutons — but there were none on mine. The chowder was tasty, with the dish arriving before I had my coat hung up. Okay, fast. But the surface of the soup was tepid at best while the interior was boiler-hot, suggesting the bowl had been zapped in a microwave. The kitchen should have stirred the soup to even the heat.
Fourteen seconds later, the two fish tacos ($8.99) and the side of sweet potato fries ($2.49) were piled onto my table. The tacos were light on fish but loaded with shredded veggies to fatten them out: carrot, cabbage, jicama, cilantro, onion, avocado. A larger portion of fish would have made the price more palatable.
The sweet potato had been cut, fry-like, and baked. The fries were bland and limp despite being burnt around the edges. The potato would have been better had it been crisped, or at the very least seasoned. It was a near-flavorless filler.
Better was the grilled artichoke ($3.99) with lemon aioli, which made a fine appetizer. The BBQ chicken flatbread ($7.99) featured free-range chicken, sweet corn, roasted onion, cilantro, agave barbeque sauce and a five-cheese blend that was especially good. Both dishes would have been great to share. Alas, there were no extra plates at the table or at the water/utensil station, which made sharing difficult.
On the subject of dishes: The white dinnerware is chic and matches well with the decor but grrr, they are odd-sized plates and knives are impossible to place over the edges. They simply fall off and clatter on the table or slide down into the food on the plate.
I liked everything but the price on Art's unfried chicken ($11.99). The chicken was about the size of a small boneless breast, breaded and baked. It was fork-tender and the accompanying Brussels sprouts and squash, bathed in cashew cream and Dijon vinaigrette, were delightful. Despite the small ration of chicken, it was filling.
Desserts are all $3.99. The lemon pound cake topped with fresh fruit was satisfying. The volcano cake was very chocolaty, but a word of caution on the minute slice of non-dairy banana rum cheesecake: The pecan crust was soggy while the pie had a soupy texture and was way too sweet. A botched effort, in my opinion.
While Lyfe has a token selection of beers and wines, it excels with coffees, teas, smoothies and coolers. The cranberry-pomegranate cooler ($2.99), with cucumber and agave, was refreshing and delicious.
Lyfe is an ambitious project whose foundation is right here, right now. The prices might put some people off; the portions of some dishes could be enlarged; and a couple of items need rethinking. Overall, though, Lyfe is what it claims to be: a restaurant that delivers naturally prepared, satisfying food, quickly.
167 N. Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Sat. 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: patio
Party facilities: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent