They aren’t buying burgers and fries. Well, in the literal sense they are. They’re placing their orders at the shiny-bright stainless-steel strip that forms the counter and then rises on both sides to climb the walls and span the ceiling, wrapping the rim between restaurant and kitchen. When their names are called, patrons collect — in 100 percent compostable corn-fiber faux-plastic boxes and recycled-paper bags — their beef burgers and chicken burgers made with hormone-and-antibiotic-free meat, their vegan veggieburgers made with mushrooms and walnuts, their cheeseburgers made with organic American cheese, and their fries that aren’t actually fried. But that’s the point.
Those two-handed, tomato-onion-pickle-trimmed burgers powerfully invoke thae roadside-grill burgers of an earlier, earthier, pre-Whopper America. Even their prices — $4.50 tops, as little as $6.75 with soda and fries — are engagingly nostalgic. Organic catsup on every table awaits the fries, cut finger-thick and available in both regular and sweet-potato versions. At a long refectory-style table facing a lime-green wall across which spreads the life-size white-painted silhouette of a tree, diners listen to alt-rock through overhead speakers, study, and help their toddlers insert faux-plastic, 100-percent-compostable corn-fiber straws into similarly eco-friendly cups of house-mixed low-fat chocolate or strawberry milk. They’re buying burgers and fries at Amanda’s, but they’re really buying a promise.
Amanda West, who opened this neo-fast-food experiment two months ago, is not a chef. Having worked in high tech for years, the Peninsula native took a job at Niman Ranch, whose high-quality product and sustainable practices impressed her. “That was 2004,” West says, “the year Super Size Me came out.” She was horrified at how eating at McDonald’s for thirty days made filmmaker Morgan Spurlock sick and fat. Yet she still loved fast food in principle. She was convinced that an America without fast food wouldn’t be America.
“Hamburgers and French fries — that’s what we eat,” West says. “Men crave meat. Women crave salt and fat. It’s our comfort food.” Meanwhile, healthier ingredients such Niman’s meats “were mostly served at fancy restaurants, to a certain class of people. I really wanted to get those ingredients out to as many people as possible in the form of nutritionally balanced fast-food meals — you know, Whole Foods meets In-N-Out Burger.”
Enrolled at Stanford’s business school, “helped by dozens of classmates, from med students to graphic-design students,” she created a business plan for a restaurant that would be “approachable and comfortable and for everyone, but healthy. Four years ago, hardly anyone was talking yet about trans fats or corn syrup.”
Neither is used at Amanda’s. It belongs to the Berkeley Health and Human Services Department’s Eat Well program, which maintains a set of principles for participating restaurants: no free soda refills, and at least one dessert must include at least one serving of fruit. Amanda’s house-made sodas and flavored milks are sweetened with agave and stevia, so they taste lighter than their commercial counterparts. Prepared by Immaculate Baking and baked in-house, the crumbly lemon-ginger and chewy chocolate-chip cookies — hearty at only seventy calories each, but a bit too small to be worth 75 cents — are sweetened with organic cane sugar. Twelve different three-course meals total less than six hundred calories each. Nothing is fried. The burgers are grilled. The potato “fries” are baked. The organic apple “fries” are raw. The buns on the burgers are whole-wheat, the onions in the burgers olive-oil roasted to a delicate languor. The greens in the salads are organic, the dressings low-fat. It’s all part of a worthy premise, and that premise is a savvy promise which is embodied in the restaurant’s motto: Feel Good Fresh Food. It’s brilliant, really. With the exception of the neutral but necessary “food,” each of those other three words is like a shot of sheer hope. In these numb, dumb, toxic, trust-nothing times, who doesn’t want to feel? Good? Eating what’s fresh? In mad-cow-disease times, it’s a meat eater’s mantra, a covenant of the kind of comfort that won’t kill us.
Nutritionists helped West devise the restaurant’s menu, whose salad category is called “Greened.” Way to spotlight the word of the decade! Consultants also helped her design the space, a bold showplace of surprising colors and surfaces that could double as an art gallery. (It is an events venue, featuring a calendar of eco-issue speakers.) A blond recycled-wood floor echoes wooden slats ribbing the ceiling, between which peek lofty vintage roof beams, painted white. Durable orange plastic chairs ring the refectory table, a rear counter, and tiny tables indoors and out.
On a weeknight, at least half the diners were dining alone. This location half a block from Downtown Berkeley BART attracts lone diners, and eating at a shared table makes one look and feel less alone. As we savored our fries and drinks and Summer Seasonal Salad, whose bleu-cheese chunks and candied almonds amid organic peach slices, carrot ribbons, and Belgian endive (served with a whole-wheat roll) satisfied two protein-hungry vegetarians, we watched several solo diners drift in and sit directly across from strangers at the shared table, eschewing empty seats elsewhere.
Jim said the beef in his Original Burger was adroitly seasoned, its trimmings lending a perfect flavor-texture balance. Trimming burgers sounds simple: Any idiot can add onions. But it’s actually an art in which too-sweet or too-sloppy spells doom. This clearly well-researched condiment mélange also enhanced our Real Veggieburger with Cheese and Real Veggieburger with Avocado, whose patties tasted temptingly like medium-well meat and proffered exciting nut-starbursts in every bite but tended, frustratingly, to fall apart. Halfway through, I was eating mine with a knife and fork. Phyllis found the Grilled Citrus Chicken Salad to be a masterpiece of counterpoints: soft white beans with crisp jicama; mild white meat with sweet-sour lime vinaigrette, no-secrets celery with sneaky-sharp radicchio. But Tuffy decreed both the regular and sweet-potato fries a bit stiff. “There is a truth that no one wants to admit,” he ventured, “and it is that, despite good intentions, some things need to be deep-fried.”
The greening of American fast food starts here.