Luxury evolves. It adapts and mutates. It means one thing to one generation and another to the next. In my youth (I’m male, British, early forties) the purest form of luxury existed in the soft textures of the fur coat and the mysterious yuppy pleasantries of the ‘wine bar’. Caviar, champagne, oysters – they’ve never gone out of fashion. But other luxuries have entered the fray, giving us a chance to curate our own sense of what ‘luxury’ is, according to and depending on our own culture, background, and sense of identity.
Consider the act of eating lunch. There was a time when a great lunch was a heavy lunch. Steak and potatoes, claret in a leaded glass, cloth napkins, liveried butlers, hushed whispers and chandeliers.
Again, that was then. Life changes, as do diets. Live in New York – or London, or Hong Kong, or any great city – and you are likely to be fit. You walk a lot. You work out (hard) and then you play (hard, but not 1980s-hard). You are often visible in your work, so you need to look good. To not look fit – even if you don’t feel it when shoehorning yourself out of bed at 6am on a cold January morning – is to risk social obloquy.
Now, let’s consider lunch again. What if lunch was a salad – but not one of those boring green ones. Or the ones with lots of carrot in. Or one of those heavy Germanic ones filled with potatoes and mayo. What if they actually tasted – whisper it – really good?
Great salad bars aren’t a new thing. But they are, particularly in the great urban centres of the United States, starting to become a serious deal. During a recent trip to New York, a friend and I popped into Sweetgreen, a fast-growing chain with salad bars in seven states including D.C. and California.
At first, our chosen lunch joint – the outlet on Kenmare Street, between Lower Manhattan and Nolita and a stone’s throw from Canal Street metro station, looked unprepossessing. Clean? certainly. Friendly? overwhelmingly so.
But then I started to look at the fare. And the prices. And the detail. For this is no ordinary ‘salad’ bar. This gives the word a good name. Salad suggests something that comes ‘with’ something else – a side-order, or a starter at best. At Sweetgreen, they go out of their way to give your stomach a proper workout.
Take my choice, a Spicy Sabzi. It contained organic baby spinach, shredded kale, organic tofu, spicy broccoli, raw beets, carrots, spicy quinoa, sprouts, basil, dried chilli, carrot chilli vinaigrette. I then loaded it with a couple of tasty-but-low-fat sauces, and – presto! – lunch at a shade under $10 and just 380 calories. My friend decided to create her own, loading up with green goodness and shrimpy goodness. We took our cavernous bowls to one of the tables and settled in, umming and aaahing over the sheer leafiness of our lunches, and reveling in the smugness of being good to ourselves. (Later that evening, of course, we hit the bars, but for the rest of the afternoon our bodies were buzzing with gratitude).
There are seven regular salad dishes, and a mouth-watering set of seasonal dishes that rotate as winter rolls into spring then summer. All the ingredients come from farmers that Sweetgreen trusts implicitly – the kind of farmers who look like the Marlboro Man would if he vaped, earthy types with hoes and gravelly voices and an intuitive sense of when a turnip is ripe. Sweetgreen works with schools to spread the religion of good eating. These are good guys.
So, to return to my point. That lunch, for me, was luxury. I was in the midst of an all-day shopping trip. The evening would be spent out at a very nice restaurant drinking a more than ample helping of ale and wine. I didn’t need an energy-sapping sandwich, nor did I need to sit down and absorb a heavy lump of protein. What I needed – what, to me, was new and exciting and luxurious – was that salad. And that’s what I got.