"I saw few die of hunger; of eating, a hundred thousand." -Ben Franklin

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Eating Paleo at Chain Restaurants

Eating out while living Paleo/Primal is quite simple-- you can almost always find meals that are just protein and veggies. Yes, many protein dishes are served with pasta, rice, bread, or potatoes, but restaurants can be quite accommodating to healthy eaters and will substitute the starches with extra veggies (or a salad) instead. Since I began low-carbifying my meals seven years ago, I've learned how to eat out at a lot of chain restaurants, since chains are the easiest places to eat out with friends due to their casual atmospheres and reasonable prices. In this post, I'm going to examine some of these chain restaurants and discuss their most Paleo-friendly options (if any).

I'd never heard of JJ's before coming to Penn; however, there are locations all across the U.S. This sandwich joint offers a plethora of sandwich options at really great prices (making it quite the popular place here on campus!), but the best part is that they offer the "JJ Unwich," a lettuce wrap that contains the "same ingredients and price of the sub or club without the bread." Great! I don't have to waste bread or eat sandwich contents with a fork and knife! Also, the stuff is high-quality: "Meat and veggies are sliced fresh in-house everyday - no additives, no vegetable-based fillers, no fake stuff - it's the best of the best." Sweet! I love the JJ BLT (because who doesn't love BLTs?!), and if you order off the "Giant Club Sandwiches" menu, there's twice the meat (#17 Ultimate Porker: double BLT + ham). While many of these options have cheese (dairy isn't Paleo), either ask for the Unwich without it, or follow the 80/20 Primal rule and go for it!

I've read on multiple blogs and websites that Chipotle* is a favorite chain restaurant for the Paleo/Primal lifestyles, and I absolutely understand why! (I haven't read anything about Qdoba, but since these chains are very similar, I'm going to talk about them together.) When we think of Mexican food, quite a few unhealthy foods come to mind: tacos, tortillas, corn, chips, rice, beans. However, Chipotle and Qdoba both offer a salad option so you can skip the tortilla or taco shell but still have all of the yummy ingredients in your typical burrito/taco. Obviously skip the rice, beans, corn salsas, and dressings; also skip the cheese and sour cream if you don't want dairy. But go crazy on the meat, guacamole, salsas (just not the ones with corn or beans!), and veggies.
*Note: Chipotle cooks with soybean oil, whereas Qdoba does not.

This is celebrity chef Bobby Flay's burger chain (out here on the East Coast), and it's both delicious and reasonably priced. When I first started low-carbifying my meals years ago, I'd always order burgers at restaurants without the bun since it doesn't get much more Paleo than straight-up protein (and veggies, if you like them on your burger). I don't have to do that at BBP, however-- there's the option of the Topless Burger Salad, which is "any burger served on top of baby greens with Balsamic dressing." My favorite is the Bobby Blue Burger: a BLT burger with blue cheese-- so delicious! Of course, any of these burgers can be ordered without the cheese if you don't want the dairy, and obviously don't order fries or any of the burgers that have potato or corn chips on them. Otherwise, BBP is Paleo-friendly!

I'm not a huge fan of Chili's, but there are a few Paleo-friendly items on the menu (however, they use soybean oil for most of their cooking...). First, let me just say that you should skip all of the appetizers, chilis, and soups-- they all contain beans, chips, cheese, and/or corn. Also skip the fajitas, burritos, and tacos for obvious reasons. There are a few Paleo-friendly salads: the Cobb salad (order without cheese if dairy bothers you), Caribbean salad, and the House and Caesar salads (without croutons) are probably your best choices-- the other ones contain things such as tortilla strips or corn. There are also a bunch of sandwiches and burgers that you can Paleo-ify if you order without the bun and fries (moreso the burgers-- they all sound amazing!). The chicken and fish options aren't all that great-- they're all breaded and/or served with crazy amounts of starch or other non-Paleo foods. My recommendation is the Monterey chicken, but hold the potatoes, or the Grilled Salmon, but hold the rice. I'd say go for the Ribeye or Sirloin steaks if/when at Chili's, though, because they aren't cooked in soybean oil and you can't go wrong with steak-- just hold the starches and double the veggies!

Applebee's is a bit more Paleo-friendly than Chili's. The menu is extremely diverse, so obviously just avoid all of the non-Paleo foods: chips, pasta, bread, tortillas, croutons, fried/breaded anything, rice, potatoes, fries... If you're reading this blog, you probably know better anyway. The Grilled Shrimp 'N Spinach Salad is a good option, as is the Caesar if you hold the croutons. Their WeightWatchers and fish menus are also pretty good-- just hold the rice, starches, and bean & corn salsa, and don't eat anything fried. Most of the chicken dishes are pretty good as well, if you don't mind the dairy; if you do, go with the Chipotle Lime Chicken and say no to the rice and beans. All of their steaks sound absolutely delicious (hold the starches!), but the Ribeye and NY Strip are the only two that aren't cooked in soybean oil and don't contain dairy, so I'd absolutely recommend those as the most Paleo-friendly foods on the menu.

Friday's is quite similar to Chili's and Applebee's, but it seems to be the most Paleo-friendly out of the three*. Unlike the other two restaurants, most of the meals at Friday's let you choose two sides, instead of coming with rice or potatoes-- good news for healthy eaters! Also, some of the meals that don't let you choose your sides are completely Paleo-friendly, like the Shrimp Key West; further, most of the salads are decent options too (just hold the croutons and avoid the ones with beans, corns, or tortilla strips). Almost everything on the Jack Daniel's and "Steaks, Ribs & More" menus are pretty good choices (if you don't mind the JD BBQ sauce)-- so much meat! The chicken dishes aren't all that great at Friday's, though-- they're all smothered in cheese or served with pasta. So, similarly to Chili's and Applebee's, go with a non-JD steak dish if you want to avoid dairy or questionable sauces.
*Note: For some reason, Friday's doesn't disclose their nutritional information, so everything might be cooked in soybean oil. Eat with caution...

For a restaurant chain that has "cheesecake" in the title, the Cheesecake Factory actually seems to have a few Paleo-friendly options*. Besides the plethora of salads on the appetizer and "Small plates and snacks" menus (just be mindful of the ingredients!), a good appetizer option is the Thai Lettuce Wraps-- you can choose not to eat the carrots or use the sauces, but you can't really go wrong with chicken wrapped in lettuce. As for entrees, the Chicken Madeira, Weight Management Grilled Chicken, Chicken Marsala, Chicken Piccata, and the Fresh Grilled Salmon or Mahi Mahi aren't bad options-- just hold the potatoes, rice, or pasta. The entree salads aren't that great since most of them contain corn, beans, crisp wontons, or noodles, but I recommend the Clubhouse, Cob, or Salmon. Like at other restaurants, the steak options are the most Paleo-friendly for dinner; but if you're there for brunch, though, go for the eggs-- but say no to the toast and starches. (And, of course, say no to all desserts. But that's a no-brainer.)
*Note: There's no nutritional information on their website, so beware of here too if you don't want anything cooked in soybean oil.

Chains to Avoid:
Panera: This chain is a favorite with my friends back in New York (and in my Standard American Diet days, it was one of my favorites too), but since turning Paleo, I've done my research and found that there is only ONE item that is 100% okay to eat: the fresh fruit cup. (However, it contains fruit with high sugar content, so... just be aware of that.) Most of the salads (which you'd figure might be alright) have ingredient lists that are longer than all of my midterm study-sheets combined! The only one that seems to be okay to eat is the Classic Cafe Salad, but I'm not sure if you can order it without the dressing (which is full of fake stuff). My recommendation? Just avoid Panera!
Così: Like Panera, Così is a bread-based chain restaurant that doesn't have many healthy options. The website doesn't offer a detailed ingredient list like Panera's, but it does offer some allergen information-- all of the salads contain dairy, wheat, and/or soy. If you don't mind the dairy, then some of the Così salads might be okay, such as the Wild Alaskan Salmon, Tuscan Steak, or Greek, but... I'd still say avoid Così because I'm going to assume that their ingredient lists rival Panera's.
Au Bon Pain: This chain is quite similar to Così and Panera-- it's primarily starch-based and extremely unhealthy. Since the website offers nutritional information, I checked out their "healthier" options and found that all of their salads have crazy-long ingredient lists and contain a ton of chemicals and fake stuff. Avoid!
Friendly's: Besides the fact that the food isn't all that great, absolutely every item on the menu contains soy, and 99% of them contain wheat of some sort as well. The Sirloin Steak Tips is one of the very few that doesn't contain wheat-- if you're forced to eat here and don't mind the soy, order this without the starches. My friends at home love this place, but I just meet them before/after lunch or dinner because of how few options there for a Paleo enthusiast like me.
Olive Garden: This place is awful. Everything is starchy, sodium-loaded, and just all-around unhealthy. I encourage you to read this blog post by Dr. Galati and listen to his analysis of how terrible this "fast food Italian" restaurant is for you. The healthiest/most Paleo-friendly meal I can find on the menu is the Venetian Apricot Chicken, but its sodium content is still crazy-high. Find somewhere else to eat!
All fast food restaurants: Duh. Fast Food Nation should be required reading!

My favorite chains:
Pax Wholesome Foods: This NYC-based chain is one of my absolute favorite places to eat. While they offer quite a few delicious pre-made salads, their "customize your salad" option is what really makes this place great. They offer a plethora of ingredients to choose from, so go crazy on the veggies, meats, nuts, and seeds! Avoid the questionable dressings and go with EVOO or Balsamic, and you've got a really great Paleo meal! If you're there for breakfast, you can order eggs any style, or customize an omelet-- just avoid the potatoes!
Saladworks: This chain is primarily in the Northeast, but there are a few scattered locations on the East Coast; however, the site says there are plans to expand to California and the Midwest too! Similarly to Pax, there are both pre-made salads and the "customize" option, so you can be sure to find a Paleo meal with fantastic ingredients!
Steakhouses: It doesn't get much more Paleo than a steakhouse, so any of these chain restaurants (Outback, Charlie Brown's, Longhorn, etc.) are perfect for Paleo eaters! Skip over the appetizers, sandwiches, and pasta dishes and go right to the meat-- not only will you get a delicious steak, but most of these places let you choose your own sides as well. A steak (or fish-- most have some pretty fantastic seafood options) with a salad and/or seasonal veggies? Sounds perfectly Paleo!

Quote of the Day:
"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world." -J.R.R. Tolkien

Lunch: Baby spinach with tomato, egg, beef, almonds, sunflower seeds, and EVOO


  1. Watch out for the Margarine?Butter Boondoggle! Most restaurants nowadays view margarine and butter as the same thing. Hold the "butter" at most steakhouses if they don't have a good answer for the difference between the two.

    Also. Watch out for the sugar in the BBQ Sauces. The commercial stuff is nearly all sugar.

    Great Post!!! I'm linking this to my friends.

  2. Great advice thanks. i've been hesitant to venture out to local Ask London for fear of not being able to find anything to suit my Paleo diet but when you think about it meat and veg isn't that crazy an order. you've just got to be carful what they cook it in...

  3. Great post. I also lost plenty of weight and am a Paleo nerd (and almost minored in music comp.) I ended up doing a U.S. History major at University of California, Riverside. If me doing a 25 page paper on the growth of the Paleo diet in the U.S. for my senior seminar doesn't reveal how big of a Paleo nerd I am I don't know what will haha. How can we contact you via e-mail?


  4. Great post. I hope that one day soon we can get some great soy-free options at places like Friday's and Applebees.

  5. Thank you! This is one of the BEST posts I've found on this topic. I'm a frequent business traveler, and recently decided to "go paleo" and lose some weight. When out on the road, it's VERY easy to cave in and pull through a fast-food drive thru for something quick/easy while driving.

    I'm going to summarize all your suggestions into EverNote so I'll have it at my fingertips during my next moment of weakness! :)

  6. I know this is an old post but the herb grilled salmon at Olive Garden is actually very good and not nearly as salty as everything else. It comes with a side of mixed veggies. You can also ask for the sausage/meat sauce over mixed veggies instead of pasta but that does have a ton of sodium. I still love Olive Garden :)

  7. Hi! Such interesting info. I'm just getting into Paleo and also live in Philly. My husband and I love going out to eat - do you have some restaurant recommendations?

    PS: SO SO SO happy that they finally got rid of the McDonald's at CHOP.

    1. I know this is an old post, but I wanted to respond--I don't eat out a ton in Philly, but some places I have been to several times are Fare and Rotisseur. Tallulah's Garden was also great: their menus was less paleo-friendly but the kitchen was willing to make substitutions and our waitress was really understanding.

  8. Paleo lunch is so much harder than dinner. I get tired of soup, salad, and lettuce wraps. Any lunch suggestions or ideas would be so much appreciated! Especially those from restaurants. Thanks.

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  11. "*Note: Chipotle cooks with soybean oil, whereas Qdoba does not"

    From Qdoba's allergen/ingredient PDF: http://www.qdoba.com/downloads/Qdoba_Allergen_Info.pdf they say that all of their proteins (and veggies) are cooked with Soybean oil, except for pork. However, their pork is seasoned with verde seasoning which includes corn starch, and other crap in it. :(

  12. Panera currently has a 'hidden' menu, with a couple things that are paleo.

  13. Qdoba is a total no-no! Their salsas are loaded with corn syrup and even their meats are coated in corn starch.

  14. Great post! I must say your list of restaurants is very helpful for food lovers. I am big fan of chili’s restaurants and I am happy to see my favorite restaurant on your updated list.

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