Thursday, September 1, 2016

Cafeteria Comeback Continues in Irvine

Urban Plates
13380 Jamboree Road
Irvine, CA 92602

If there was one kind of restaurant that I thought was pretty much dead and buried, it would be the cafeteria. Not all that long ago, they seemed almost archaic. They were places that I imagined elderly people would grab a tray, select some jello and some really dry turkey, find a seat, and not have to shell out a lot of money for it. Part of this perception of mine was based on the fact that my grandparents used to frequent Clifton's Cafeteria back in the day, before their recent lackluster revival, (read about our trip here).

Now there seems to be a rebirth in this genre of cafeteria style restaurants, not that they want to seem to embrace it. Only Lemonade mentions the word cafeteria on their website when describing their concept, while Tender Greens and Urban Plates seem to shy away from the use of this word, and favor using words like casual and quick dining. They are for the most part cafeterias, as you have to grab a tray, go to a counter, picking your items as you go, paying at the register, and finding your own seat. We had been to Tender Greens before and liked it, and now it was our turn to try Urban Plates.

There are now ten locations of Urban Plates around Southern California, with three of then being in OC, (another Irvine location and one in Brea). This Irvine Marketplace spot is located very close to Lowe's and shares a wall with Starbucks.  Opened for over two months, the crowds have definitely found this place, as we arrived here at just before 6 pm on a Friday night, and were met with a line nearly to the door.

The line did move pretty quickly, though. The line is split between those who want salads and those who want plates or sandwiches. There is also a station for braises, stews, and soups. For the plates, there are about six options, while there are eight sandwich offerings. We found that there were plenty of people behind the counter, and the process went pretty smoothly until you reach the bakery and beverage section. Here is where it kind of bogged down for us, as the cake case was not manned, and they were pretty slow getting drinks and ringing up the food. This caused the food to lose some of the warmth that it once had. This could have been remedied by a self-serve drink station to speed things up. Anyways, with trays in hand, we navigated through the lively dining area, with its mix of communal tables and more secluded booths, out to their front patio.

First up we'll take a look at my mom's selection, the Chicken Salad Sandwich ($11). I'm sorry I did not get a close-up shot of this sandwich that my mom enjoyed so much. The chicken salad at Urban Plates is made up of free range chicken, walnut, apple, sage, grapes, celery, red onion, arugula, and garlic aioli. A lot of things went into this, and all of the flavors still melded well together. It had a good texture to the chicken salad, and the flavor was on point. I was a little worried that the ciabatta was going to be a little too bready, but no complaints from my mom. Sandwiches come with chips and your choice of one hot or cold side. My mom got the garden tomato mozzarella salad, which she seemed to enjoy.

Katie tried the Oven Baked Salmon ($13 on this evening. This rectangle of fish came with a mustard glaze drizzled over the top of it. Katie felt the fish was fresh and tender, and the mustard glaze really made this pop. With the plates, you get to pick two sides, and she went with the roasted rosemary potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts with turkey bacon. She felt the Brussels sprouts were the better of the two. Cooked til tender, these sprouts really impressed way more than the rather pedestrian roasted potatoes. Some extra seasoning would have elevated these spuds.

My dad was feeling a little adventurous at Urban Plates and wanted to give their Braised Beef and Mushrooms ($11) a try. This comforting meal was made up of slow cooked beef in a red wine sauce, with carrots, mushrooms, and onions placed on top of your choice of white or brown rice. My dad enjoyed this meal and called it a classic stew. He liked the sauce this came with and enjoyed dipping the bread in it at the end of his meal. I thought the beef was a little on the overcooked side, but my dad enjoys his meat a more well done than myself.

I don't remember who I had heard it from, but on my restaurant wish list that I keep, I had this restaurant listed, and next to it, I had written down about their meatloaf. I decided this was an omen, and gave their BBQ Turkey Meatloaf ($12) a shot. I'm of course not really into ground turkey, but the texture of this was pretty good, and the barbecue sauce kind of disguised the usual bland flavor profile of ground turkey. Not a bad meatloaf, but I've had better. For sides, I picked the mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese. I thought the mashed potatoes were good, but the gravy was a little boring. The mac and cheese were fine, but the cheese did not cling to the noodles too well, and what was left in my bowl looked like a cheese soup. The long strip of focaccia was okay but would have been better cut into a smaller, more manageable pieces, and maybe some butter or seasoning provided.

As much as I thought that my entree was kind of lackluster, I thought the baked items excelled at Urban Plates. My first experience with a Hummingbird Cake ($5.50) was a few years ago, and you could say I'm hooked. I'd describe this kind of cake as a carrot cake, but substitute the carrots for pineapple. The base of this cake is banana, which is rum soaked with pineapple added, and then iced with a very mild cream cheese frosting. I did not really get a lot of banana from this cake, but I liked the moist texture, and the cinnamon flavor went perfectly with the frosting. Really tasty.

As if we did not have enough sugar, I could not resist this Chocolate Peanut Butter Pretzel Crunch Cupcake ($3). This moist and decadent chocolate cupcake was topped with one of the better peanut butter frostings I have encountered and was then drizzled with chocolate ganache and peanut and pretzel crumbs. Excellent, and my only complaint was that this was not big enough. Next time, I'm getting two.

After this initial visit to Urban Plates, we went one more time with our food friends. On this visit, I tried their Grilled Steak ($12), which was a much better pick than the meatloaf I had on my first visit. I liked the flavor of the steak, and it was cooked to a wonderful medium rare and was tender. The potatoes were adequate, and the sprouts were the better of the sides on this evening. I also tried some of the macaroni and cheese on this night, and it wasn't as soupy as our original visit.

We had a few qualms about Urban Plates on our second trip. On both visits, the food was not hot, but was more lukewarm by the time we made it to our table, as there was again another bottleneck when getting baked goods, drinks, and paying our bill. There were also some consistency issues that we noticed. Our friends Christian, and his wonderful wife, Janette had about double the serving size of cake as Katie and mine, but we also had some of their pretty solid cookies, so no need to make a big deal about it. They took the time to weigh the entrees, so maybe they should do the same when serving slices of cake.

So what do these two visits tell us about Urban Plates? We'd definitely make a return visit here when we are in the area. The entrees were good enough, but what I'd really crave are their baked goods. This is not your grandparent's style of a cafeteria. I have not made it to Lemonade yet, but I have been to Urban Plate's other cafeteria style competitor, Tender Greens, and thought they were pretty similar. Both had issues with the temperature of their food, they had similar menus, and their price points are almost exactly the same. Happy to see cafeterias making a comeback, and looking forward to seeing if there are more on the way.

Out of five butterflies, (because I learned that the official insect of the city of Irvine is the Western Swallowtail Butterfly), five being best to zero being worst, Urban Plates gets 3 butterflies.

For more information about Urban Plates, head to their website here:


  1. I have the exact same complaint about Urban Plates. The food is good, but who wants to eat food that is cooled off by the time you get to your seat? It's kind of a deal-breaker. I'm greatly surprised that they haven't really done anything to fix this problem.

  2. MikeHu - It would be an easy fix as far as I'm concerned. Have someone staff the desserts, and equip the place with a soda fountain so people can get their own drinks. That would definitely speed up the process.