Will Tender Greens be the winner?
Will Tender Greens be the winner?
Photo by Courtney Hamilton

Battle Bougey Cafeterias: Urban Plates vs. Tender Greens

Conceptually, Urban Plates and Tender Greens are the same place: your middle school cafeteria line meets farm-to-fork food. Their menus are nearly the same: entrees, salads, and sandwiches assembled around lean proteins or vegetable preparations. (Though Urban Plates does distinguish itself by offering braises and "pizzettes," or flatbread pizzas.) Each also offers a display case at the end of the food assembly line brimming with beautiful pastries and cakes--the vegan and gluten free options marked, of course. Pricey fresh fruit beverages, highbrow soda, teas, coffee, beer and wine account for the remaining refreshments.

Both eateries even attract the same patron mix: moneyed businessmen, ladies who lunch, and college foodies. They're even close to each other--the University Town Center Tender Greens and Urban Plates are a five-minute-drive apart. So, if you're lunching in Irvine and have a hankering for upscale, home-style food, which do you choose? We've pitted the two against each other in three categories: ambiance, price, and most importantly, food.

Ambiance Beyond political ideology and crayons, the color green has been conceptualized into a catch-all for anything kind of eco-friendly or healthy. In an effort to convince you that eating there is good for your body and the environment, both Urban Plates and Tender Greens have cornered the market on green, covering their interiors ad infinitum with the color. If it's not green, it's some type of recycled material or reclaimed wood.

The biggest difference between the two is that Urban Plates is much cozier. The lighting is a bit dimmer, a large communal table sits in the center of the restaurant, topped with a centerpiece of CSA box-worthy produce, and cheeky puns on the name are everywhere: napkins read "in case you mess UP," cups invite you to "drink UP." Eating at Urban Plates is like attending a dinner party at a yuppie couple's home, complete with eclectic, Pinterest-worthy décor and hosts that ceaselessly fuss over your comfort. Soft drinks get refilled every few sips, and I was still chewing my last bite when the server offered to take my plate away.

Such devoted service happens at Tender Greens too, but the homey feel at Urban Plates is traded for minimalist, modern décor. Tender Greens' interior feels slightly like an expensive, forest-green tiled waiting room. It's bright and airy, but the booths are like wooden park benches rather than Urban Plates' plusher counterparts. Both eateries feature large, open dining patios ideal for people-watching.

Price At both restaurants, all plates, sandwiches and salads are the same price: $10 at Urban Plates and $11.50 at Tender Greens. Some may find the $1.50 difference negligible, but Urban Plates' decision to cap the price at $10 is smart. It's the ceiling before food ventures from inexpensive to mid-range, or from $ to $$ in Internet terms. Of course, adding a $3 drink or a $4 dessert is going to boost either meal into overpriced territory.

Or will Urban Plates take the cake?
Or will Urban Plates take the cake?
Photo by Courtney Hamilton

Food I ordered nearly identical meals from each restaurant: the Urban Grilled Steak plate at Urban Plates and the Backyard Marinated Steak plate at Tender Greens. The Tender Greens plate comes with the option of grilled vegetables or salad, mashed potatoes, and a slice of bread, while Urban Plates boasts many more side options, but I opted for a salad, mashed potatoes, and bread for a proper comparison.

Urban Plates' Urban Grilled Steak plate: What makes a steak urban? Was the cow a Midwest transplant living in Brooklyn? Did it dress exclusively in Urban Outfitters? Whatever the case, the slivers of grilled steak are a tender medium rare, but despite claiming to be "seasoned," they're rather flavorless. The mashed potatoes, however, are Thanksgiving-table worthy. With a knowing glance, the server heaped an extra half portion of these buttery rich potatoes on my plate, then topped it with a satisfyingly salty gravy. Brushed with a bit of olive oil and fresh herbs, the slice of grilled focaccia is fluffy, with texture added from the grill. The superfood salad, an assemblage of kale, lima beans, blueberries, apples and carrots, comes completely undressed. No matter your health fanaticism, raw kale needs dressing, or else it proves a rough, scratchy mess to eat.

Tender Greens' Backyard Marinated Steak plate: As though made with this article in mind, Tender Greens' steak plate is the very inverse of Urban Plates'. Apparently trading the urban setting for a backyard, the steak slices are composed of tougher end pieces but boast a healthy coating of butter and salt. The mashed potatoes, when pitted against Urban Plates' potatoes, fall flat. They lack the richness and depth of flavor (butter) of their urban counterparts. The bread, a flimsy crostini, is drenched in oil and thus soggy rather than crunchy. The romaine hearts salad, however, comes adequately dressed with a tangy Caesar and shreds of parmesan cheese.

Verdict: With a cozy interior, plentiful side options and a cheaper bill, Urban Plates beats out Tender Greens by a slim margin. Eat UP, and maybe you'll solve the mystery of what makes a steak urban.

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