Why Are Grain Bowls Suddenly Everywhere?

Plus 10 delicious, healthy and hearty examples from across the U.S.
March 10, 2015
by Elaheh Nozari

The one-dish meal is having a moment. Formerly just a standby of health-food joints and hippie co-ops, the grain bowl is branching into the world of big-time chefs, fast-casual chains and trendy restaurants. The simple dish owes its recent popularity to a flurry of recent trends, including the gluten-free craze, the love all things whole grain and a push toward vegetable-forward dishes that is influencing all kinds of restaurants, from low- to high-end. 

Though its contents may vary, most grain bowls follow a simple blueprint. A grain base, like rice, quinoa or farro, is layered with ingredients that can encompass all food groups — from greens like kale and spinach to raw, pickled or cooked veggies. Nuts and seeds, be they almonds or chia, might be sprinkled throughout, and so might cheese, like chunks of feta or grated cheddar. Nonvegan protein is a heavy hitter in grain bowls too, like sliced chicken or a poached egg.

“[Grain bowls] are a natural reflection of the current health consciousness in today’s food culture,” says Alissa Wagner of New York’s hip health-conscious restaurant Dimes.

“I think that people want to have vegan options beyond raw veggies, hence the multitude of grain options and the reintroduction of fermented veggies,” explains Jennifer Toomey of LA’s Superba Food & Bread, where the grain bowl is topped with fermented carrots and radishes. “With the increase in wheat allergies over the past several years, folks wanted to have a grain other than wheat that’s healthy and tastes good.”

Grains — be they gluten-free like quinoa and black rice or whole wheat grains like bulghur and farro — give chefs a license for creativity and diners a variety of diet-friendly options. “You can enjoy a grain bowl whether or not you eat gluten,” says Jessica Koslow of LA’s Sqirl.

“The versatility of grains lets people broaden their palates while staying healthy,” adds Toomey.

Another reason for grain bowls’ popularity? They’re very customizable. Many fast-casual restaurants that serve grain bowls have a create-your-own option, while others, like Superba, easily allow customers to leave out or add in ingredients based on their individual likings. For example, Superba serves its grain bowl cold, but offers a warm chicken add-on that’s great for people who a) want protein, b) “crave the warm-meets-cold textual differences,” says Toomey. Though their grain bowl isn’t gluten-free, it can easily be adapted for people with wheat allergies by using a base of just red quinoa and black rice.

In the end, however, a big reason for the dish's popularity is very simple: they are filling. “It’s the perfect meal to sustain you throughout the day — and you feel great after eating one,” says Wagner. They appeal to all sorts of eaters — those who usually go for a salad, or those who like something more carb-heavy. “They’re a simple way to give more substance to a salad, and they appeal to a hearty appetite,” says Michael Stebner, director of culinary at East Coast salad chain Sweetgreen, which offers three grain bowls on its signature menu, plus one on its changing seasonal menu. Read on for 10 of the most interesting grain bowls we found on menus across the U.S.

Boston: Spicy Avocado & Lime Bowl at b.good

This New England-based fast-casual chain emphasizes its healthy lunch menu, which boasts four types of kale and quinoa bowls. Launched last April, their spicy avocado and lime bowl features a quinoa and kale base with Southwest-inspired accouterments: sautéed veggies, avocado, black bean, corn, grape tomato, queso fresco, lime, cilantro, chipotle purée and a red pepper vinaigrette.

131 Dartmouth St.; 617-424-5252

Chicago: Grain Bowl at Baker Miller

The seasonal theme of Chicago bakery restaurant Baker Miller's menu means its grain bowl is always changing, but the housemade cracked soft winter wheat is a constant. The recent autumn grain bowl tops winter wheat porridge with roasted squash, preserved cherries, roasted Brussels sprouts, feta cheese and a soft egg.

4610 N. Western Ave.; 312-208-5639

Dallas: Green & Grains Bowl at HG Sply Co.

The "Green & Grains" bowl at this Paleo-inspired Dallas farm-to-fork spot combines a medley of grains (barley, wild rice and quinoa) with baby greens, orange slices, dried cranberries, avocado, toasted almonds, plus a topping of crispy quinoa in honey-sherry vinaigrette.

2008 Greenville Ave.; 469-334-0896

Los Angeles: Grain Bowl at Superba Food & Bread

Chef Toomey inherited the grain bowl on Superba’s menu when she took over as executive chef, but she’s constantly revamping it. It was originally made with regular quinoa, but she’s updated it to include rye berries, bulghur and black rice, as well as red quinoa. “We added the rice for a little variance of texture,” she explains. Each bowl is served with a circulator egg and a collard green slaw made with fermented carrots and radishes. In the works are new ingredients like roasted potatoes, crispy bacon and fresh chiles.

1900 S. Lincoln Blvd.; 310-907-5075

Various East Coast Locations: Harvest Bowl at Sweetgreen

East Coast salad hot spot Sweetgreen rolled out its first grain bowl at its New York City NoMad location 18 months ago. The harvest bowl, an organic wild rice blend with apples, goat cheese, kale, almonds, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and balsamic vinaigrette, was met with immediate success and is available at every outpost of the chain’s Boston, DC, Philly and New York locations.

San Francisco: Savory Daily Grain at Outerlands

The savory daily grain (currently featuring quinoa) at San Francisco’s Outerlands is made with a savory broth of mushrooms, ginger, garlic, scallions and Fresno chiles. “I sauté a mixture of kale, bok choy and chard on the pick up, add the quinoa, then the broth. People usually order it with an egg, or sometimes with bacon, avocado, or all three,” says chef Brooke Mosley.

4001 Judah St.; 415-661-6140

Portland, OR: Green Bowl at Blossoming Lotus

This organic and vegan specialist in Portland dedicates an entire section of its menu to food-allergy-friendly grain bowls. The gluten-free green bowl features a base of super greens and your choice of brown rice or quinoa, topped with steamed kale, cucumber, edamame, avocado and miso-sesame vinaigrette.

1713 NE 15th Ave.; 503-228-0048

Los Angeles: Sorrel Rice Bowl at Sqirl

Aside from being the most popular, the sorrel pesto rice bowl is one of the few dishes that's been on Sqirl's menu since the cafe opened in 2012. The vegetarian and gluten-free dish includes brown rice, nut-free pesto, preserved lemon, fermented hot sauce, black radish, feta and a poached egg. When creating the menu, owner Jessica Koslow sought to incorporate the crops of Koda Farms in Dos Palos, California. “Koda Farms grows an organic heirloom brown rice that cooks like quinoa and has a nutty flavor and wonderful texture. I always want the bran and germ intact,” she explains.

720 N. Virgil Ave.; 213-394-6526

Fort Lauderdale: Roasted Bowl at Green Bar & Kitchen

The roasted grain bowl at this minimalist Fort Lauderdale cafe features quinoa and brown rice with cauliflower, broccoli, sweet potato, zucchini, yellow squash and caramelized onions, topped with housemade garlic aïoli and smoked Santa Fe dressing.

1075 SE 17th St.; 954-533-7507

New York City: Farro Bowl at Dimes

“The perfect bowl contains a balance of acid, salty and sweet. I like to pair some raw elements with cooked ones to keep it interesting, and a great sauce that pulls it all together,” says Wagner. Take the farro bowl, which includes broccolini, fennel slaw, sweet potato, pistachio and ginger-turmeric tahini. “I love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavors,” she explains.

143 Division St.; 212-240-9410