Technically, people could braise short ribs, grill chicken souvlaki and roast a seasonal mix of vegetables by 5 p.m.—so their kids can have choices on the way to hockey practice—but it’s not likely.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on,” says Brett Schulman, CEO of CAVA, the fast-casual Mediterranean concept with 18 Northern Virginia locations, is “bringing value and adding quality people can’t do on their own for the price.” Selling a lot of lamb chops means CAVA can work directly with Virginia’s Border Springs Farm to turn high-quality protein into harissa-spiced meatballs over grains and greens bowls hovering around $10.
CAVA is part of the sweeping health-conscious, fast-casual segment helping today’s food-focused families eat according to a moral code, while staying on budget. Where McDonald’s drive-thru was once the answer to sustenance between one activity and the next, the option is less palatable to a post-Super Size Me generation of parents. By committing to not eating fast food, or to eschewing all those Styrofoam containers, the definition of what constitutes cheap eats is bound to broaden.
Riding the coattails of the local, sustainable food movement, a growing number of eateries are aiming for that sweet spot.
Taco Bamba follows the CAVA model too, using cheaper cuts, but cooking them well, for high-volume, high-caliber tacos across its four NoVA taquerias. It doesn’t hurt that founder Victor Albisu understands how to run kitchens, growing up in a restaurant family and spending over a decade in fine dining.
Chef Spike Mendelsohn aims for a similar busy-weeknight demographic at Vim & Victor inside Springfield’s sprawling The St. James healthplex. On a weeknight, sweaty family members swing through the wellness center’s restaurant, sometimes sitting down together over butternut squash hummus and artisanal personal pizzas (and being a member isn’t a requirement for diving into a dragon fruit smoothie bowl at $12).
“We’re trying to have something for everyone here,” says Mendelsohn, a Top Chef alum who’s branched out from his burger-and-pizza roots to a passion for the healthy-ish food offered here.
That means green papaya salads and turmeric lattes cozy up to cast-iron chicken wings and a two-patty burger (hey, there’s a Beyond Meat one, too) on the menu. This L.A.-style health food comes with higher dollar signs, but paying fair prices for well-plated nutrients is how to achieve economical and ethical eating.
Haute Dogs and Fries offers busy families a pair of loaded hot dogs—with meat sourced from Loudoun County—for under $10 in Old Town Alexandria (or delivered by Grubhub). Finding the intersection of quality and affordability often means paying more than Happy Meal prices. But there are some things diners are willing to pay more for—namely, convenience—and some they aren’t.
After nearly closing earlier this year, the owners of Alexandria’s Society Fair look for a midway point between the former chef Cathal Armstrong’s good-food-costs-more mantra and their customers’ affordability index.
Dan Fisher, who cooks for and owns the marke
t-and-eatery with his wife, Nadine Brown, says doing absolutely everything in-house is no longer the best value—for them or their customers.
They’re moving toward take-home cassoulet or lasagna for two at $14 and away from custom rack-of-lamb orders. The easier, grab-and-go options are staying, like signature $8 sandwiches and $49 date-night bags for two on Fridays.
“Getting dinner together on the nights I’m home is hard,” says Fisher, “We live in the real world, too.”