Lighten up! The quick and easy guide to healthy dining in the Twin Cities

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The Skinny Buddha will sustain you in your battle against carby, sugary cravings.

There are almost as many definitions of what constitutes healthy eating as there are restaurants in the Twin Cities. Do you embrace the local, organic, sustainable ethos? Have you adopted the paleo diet, or gone gluten free? Raise your hand if you’re a vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, or climatarian (a diet whose primary goal is to reverse climate change — tall order, that). Maybe as we welcome 2016, you’ve decided to go the “everything in moderation” route, and want to enjoy eating out without blowing a week’s worth of calories on one meal. Whatever your motivation, we’ve got you covered.

The tried-and-true trailblazers

These days even fast food places are touting organic ingredients, but many local restaurants highlighted sustainable, local, and organic ingredients long before it was trendy. While none of these restaurants is strictly vegetarian or gluten-free, they all offer options for those who are. Pescatarians and paleos alike can be rest assured that their proteins have been ethically sourced.

Birchwood Cafe has served “good real food” in the Seward neighborhood since 1995, sourcing products locally and basing the menu on what’s available seasonally. The folks at Birchwood call this the frost season; to fend off the cold, try the haddock a l’orange, pan-roasted fish with root vegetables, parsley pistachio salad, and thyme beurre blanc.

Vegetarian, vegan, gluten free, French Meadow caters to all of the above. The vibe is casual for breakfast and lunch; you order at the counter, find a seat, and wait for your food to come to you. Dinner switches to table service. The focus here is on sustainable and organic ingredients, featured in dishes like vegan Bolognese served over house-made pappardelle. An Uptown go-to for 30 years, French Meadow recently opened a second location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.

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The Piggy Pork Chop at Wise Acre Eatery proves that local can be luscious.

Spoonriver’s Brenda Langton opened one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the Twin Cities, the late, lamented Café Brenda, where she perfected the often maligned veggie burger. It has so many fans that it is still on the menu at Spoonriver. This vegetable, rice, and nut burger brings so much flavor and texture to the table that you’ll never miss the meat. But if you want meat, your Spoonriver server will be able to tell you what farm it came from.

Tao Natural Foods has been a landmark on Hennepin Avenue for more than 40 years, and you can still feel the presence of hippies past and present. The café has a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu, and it’s a great place to grab a fresh-squeezed juice or smoothie for a quick breakfast or mid-afternoon pick-me-up. The Breakfast Bounce, with bananas, cold press coffee, peanut butter, wheat germ, and coconut milk might have convinced Elvis to give up his fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches.

Chef Beth Fisher at Wise Acre Eatery cooks with ingredients (everything from produce to pork) from Tangletown Gardens’ farm in Plato. The establishments share an owner, so they’re not kidding when they talk farm-to-fork cooking and eating. On any given day, between 75 and 95 percent of the kitchen’s ingredients will be from their farm. Vegetarians will swoon over the Kennebec gnocchi with caramelized shallots, maple rosemary roasted squash, spinach, and jalapeno, while carnivores will not want to miss the pork chop.

Vegetarian’s nirvana

These restaurants offer vegetarian tasting menus, a true luxury considering that often the options when eating out are a salad or a side vegetable.

Heartland offers a three-course vegetarian menu for $35. The current menu includes black turtle bean falafel with green peppercorn aioli and radish slaw; winter squash ricotta ravioli with spinach and brown butter; and a strawberry-rhubarb pie with Chantilly, pecans, and currant coulis.

The three-course vegetarian menu at Restaurant Alma goes for $42. Diners choose three of five options, including celery root soufflé, fresh ricotta gnudi, coconut and rice crepe, warm roasted beets, and masa corn cake.

St. Paul’s Tongue in Cheek ups the ante with an eight-course herbivore tasting menu for $80. Vegetarians across the Twin Cities rejoice.

Fast-casual

There has been a recent surge of casual health-focused restaurants around town, making it easier than ever to grab a quick, guilt-free lunch or dinner when you’re at work, cruising the mall or out running errands. No more excuses for hitting the drive-thru window for “food."

Agra Culture, with locations in Uptown and Edina, focuses on the mantra "eat well, be well." Choose from sandwiches, salads, flatbreads, or the more substantial Agra Plates, like the Paleo: chicken with pineapple salsa, roasted squash, and zucchini.

Freshii gives shoppers a fast-food alternative at Mall of America, Southdale, and Gaviidae Commons with a wide variety of salads, bowls, burritos, juices, and smoothies.

People’s Organic has expanded to six locations, so there must be something to this fast-casual healthy thing. The restaurant boasts that its seasonal and local approach makes it 100 percent natural non-GMO and over 50 percent organic. 

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A beautiful and healthy plate of radishes from Birchwood Cafe.

Calorie counters

If you want to know the nutritional breakdown of your food, look no further than Marin in downtown Minneapolis and Mill Valley Kitchen in St. Louis Park. The food at both locations is California spa cuisine filtered through a Minnesota lens. Think grass-fed beef tenderloin with potato puree, spinach, and balsamic cipollini. Stats on calories, fat, protein, carbs, and fiber are listed for each menu item.

Hiding in plain sight

Here are a few restaurants that might not leap to mind immediately when picking a healthier place for dinner. You can feel virtuous while still hanging at some of the trendiest spots in town.

If more vegetables are your goal, Libertine, that beacon of carnivorous indulgence in Uptown, might seem an odd choice, but the “Not Animal” section of the menu offers some delicious choices, like crispy tofu with charred broccoli.

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A soul-satisfying bowl of lobster bisque with fingerling potatoes and Honeycrisp apples from Restaurant Alma.

The menu at Eastside lets you have it your way in a decidedly un-Burger King fashion. Mix and match dishes from the snacks, small plate, and sides for a custom meal, or choose one of the larger plates. Options like the wood-roasted carrot salad and house cured salmon with deviled egg make it easy to load up on the veggies and pull back on the carbs.

Don’t let your carb-phobia keep you away from Scena. While the focus is on Italian flavors, it’s not all about the pasta. The crudo is perfect for the pescatarian, the piadini (flatbread) will satisfy the vegetarians, and the grilled swordfish takes care of paleos.

Got another favorite spot for healthy dining? Tell us about it in the comments section, on our Facebook page, or click below to send us an email.


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