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the dish

Seared tuna and salad is one of the many options at Tractor in downtown Vancouver.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Earls beef brouhaha is a game changer.

On Tuesday, the proudly Canadian chain of upscale eateries announced it has stopped serving Alberta beef in its 59 Canadian restaurants. Instead, the Vancouver-based company has begun buying the 910,000 kilograms of meat that each year goes into its best-selling burgers and steaks from a U.S.-based supplier with the Certified Humane designation.

The stringently audited program, which operates in both countries, requires its ranchers to raise their cattle in humane, not overly crowded conditions, without the use of antibiotics, steroids or added hormones. It also slaughters them in calming, low-stress abattoirs designed by Temple Grandin, a world-renowned researcher of animal behaviour.

This groundbreaking move to conscious sourcing from the United States was primarily a matter of supply: There aren't enough Certified Humane cattle ranchers in Canada to meet Earls's demand. The ensuing public backlash and threatened boycott of the company mainly stems from wounded national pride.

The main takeaway from the headlines should be this: Canadians want healthier options when dining out.

Healthier doesn't necessarily mean meatless. But it does entail more organic, non-medicated meats, more vegetables and whole grains; less fat, sugar and refined carbohydrates.

Lunch is always the trickiest. Why is it so difficult to find a quick midday meal that isn't wrapped in a bun or cooked in a deep fryer? Why are the healthier dishes on most restaurant menus so bland and unappealing? It shouldn't be so hard to eat well.

The tide is slowly turning, and perhaps Earls's commitment to conscious sourcing will speed things up. These three new fast-food outlets in downtown Vancouver are trying to make everyday foods quick, healthy and delicious. None is truly great, but the concepts are solid.

Interestingly, none offers calorie counts or nutritional information. I know that I recently complained about the calorie counts on the Bistro Verde menu in Nordstrom. And I still maintain that while shopping for clothing, most diners would rather remain ignorant about the fat content in their salami flatbread. But for people who are actively watching their waistlines or sodium intake – the types these three restaurants presumably attract – this supplemental information would likely be welcome.


1903 W. 4th Ave.,Vancouver; 604-222-2557; Open Monday to Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.

335 Burrard St., Vancouver; 604-979-0500; Open daily, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; breakfast Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.

The downtown Tractor (there is another in Kitsilano) looks like it was plucked out of a Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Goop guide. The room is bright and airy with high ceilings, lots of glass, glossy white counters and brushed-copper light fixtures. You feel better already, just walking in.

An expansive salad buffet is the main draw. Eight to 10 salads are prepared fresh each day. There are several vegetable-heavy salads, but also more substantial pasta, quinoa and couscous varieties. Each salad has a bright-tasting pop – blueberries, cranberries or black olives. And the dressings are nicely balanced.

The salads come by the scoop ($3.50 for about a cup). You can choose to build a bigger meal by adding a choice of protein (grilled chicken breast, albacore tuna steak, organic tofu or grilled avocado); soup or stew (the Thai veggie has a terrific lemongrass bite); or sandwich (half or whole).

Overall, this is the best tasting of the three. The service was the friendliest. And the mix-and-match concept is swell.

SMAK Fast Food

1139 W. Pender St., Vancouver; 604-559-7625; Open daily, 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Celiacs, rejoice. Almost every item on the menu (even the toast) is gluten-free, and those that aren't are clearly labelled.

This downtown counter-service restaurant is primarily a take-out joint. There are only a few tables and window stools. Although small, the food selection is quite vast.

Beyond oatmeal (it does a roaring breakfast trade), hot bowls served on brown rice are the biggest sellers. Butterless Butter Chicken (the sauce is made from almonds) is okay. The tomatoes taste fresh and the spicing is deep, if not overly piquant. The salads aren't too flashy, but are nicely composed. Even the Everyday Salad has a satisfying textural mix with crunchy edamame, zucchini, peas, broccoli among the softer greens.

Supplemental proteins can be added to any salad, bowl, sandwich or smoothie. The beverage selection, which includes seasonal shrubs and sugar-free, vegan hot chocolate, hits higher than most.

Overall, this is a good option for grabbing a quick meal on a busy weeknight after hitting the gym.

Field & Social

415 Dunsmuir Street, Vancouver; 778-379-6500; Open Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It's all about salads and high-concept design at this handsome hipster room that looks a lot better than it tastes. At $11 to $14.50, these salads aren't cheap. And even though they sound ambitious, they don't deliver.

The Sen Lek Smoked Tofu is a carbohydrate overload – all rice noodle with a small scattering of carrot and cilantro. The roasted hazelnut needs more chili and lime to make it zing. The Naan O Sabzi is heavy on romaine lettuce and light on everything else that makes it sound enticing – marinated Persian cucumber, sheep feta rolled in black seed, torn flatbread.

By 1 p.m., the restaurant had already run out of quite a few items. A victim of its own success? The earlier lineups were huge and the kitchen was short-staffed. There is obviously a big demand for healthy lunches in this busy downtown corridor – and room for improvement.

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