Where: 1710 Pearl St., Boulder, CO
Pros: Zeal offers a dining experience which accommodates a wide range of restrictions and tastes. Zeal’s partnership with The Conscious Cleanse features a selection of detox-friendly meals, but even the regular entrees are almost 100% gluten free and organic. Try the healthy happy hour plates with a cold-pressed juice flight.
Cons: Some of the plates are quite simple. While this can be a good thing, in some cases dishes fall short of flavorful and just taste like health food.
While Coloradans have long been considered a healthy people, going out for a bite to eat in the area can more often than not lead you to a burger or pizza—not exactly virtuous. Don’t get me wrong, Denver and Boulder are home to some great vegan and vegetarian haunts, like Watercourse, City, O City, Leaf, and Beet Box. Meanwhile, the spread of health-oriented fast-casual chains like LYFE Kitchen, Protein Bar, and Native Foods Café certainly indicates that the culinary landscape is changing. More and more consumers are looking for affordable, quick, and health-conscious meals.
But the question still remains for eaters—what constitutes a truly healthy meal? Is it vegan? Considering that there is such a thing as vegan mac and cheese, probably not necessarily. Is it something low in calories? Organic? Free of unpronounceable ingredients, gluten, or dairy? A new crop of local healthy restaurants are popping up to answer the omnivore’s dilemma. Take Olive & Finch, for example. O & F is the sort of place that touts healthy with its juice program and salads, yet still serves meat (roasted in house), white bread (carefully sourced), and cocktails (made with organic juices). Then you have Vital Root, the restaurant Justin Cucci plans to open early next year, which will source vegetables grown on site for energizing raw and vegetarian fare. And then there’s Zeal, which has been open for almost a year. Zeal offers a completely unique take on the concept of a healthy restaurant. Zeal aims to please all sorts of eaters—ranging from juice cleansers to red-meat-loving gluttons—all under one roof.
When Zeal co-owner Wayde Jester decided to open up a healthy restaurant, he was aware of the fact that most people don’t necessarily equate healthy food with tasty food. Jester wanted to open up a space that could bridge the gap between both worlds. He created Zeal as a gathering space perfect for a social, celebratory meals, all the while accommodating various dietary restrictions, and offering organic, cleanse-friendly foods.
Located on the Pearl Street Mall in the space that formerly housed H Burger Bar, Zeal is comprised of a grab-and-go section stocked with juices and wraps, a flashy bar, open kitchen, and brightly lit dining room. One of the first things you may notice when you sit down at the bar is that along with the standard beer and wine taps, there’s another tap dispensing liquids in hues ranging from emerald green to blood red. These juice taps are part of Zeal’s tricked-out system for dispensing their freshly cold-pressed juices. The juices are funneled into kegs where they never come into contact with light or oxygen, helping keep the nutrients intact. While juicing and juice cleanses have been all the rage the past few years, Zeal reinvents the health food staple by offering juice flights. Flights include four double shots of the seasonal cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices. While I did enjoy the red juice ($6.50) of beet, apple, ginger, and lime, my favorite was the yellow juice ($6.50) , a zesty and hydrating blend of pineapple, lemon, cucumber, and jalapeño.
Unlike some other healthy eateries, Zeal boasts a full bar, as well as a daily happy hour. By offering happy hour, Jester wanted to facilitate an inclusive environment of gathering and community. The bar centers around light, fresh cocktails made with those same cold-pressed juices. Try the spicy gingersnap drink, a wintery blend of vanilla infused Bone Vodka, ginger liqueur, lemon juice, cinnamon, and Fever Tree ginger beer. For those looking to detox and retox at the same time, try the juice shooter. Just $5 buys you a shot of the organic spirit of your choice and a juice chaser (and according to Bon Appetit, green juice would make a fantastic chaser for that Suerte Tequila). There’s even a mid morning happy hour offering up discounts on the smoothies and juices.
Though the beverage selections at Zeal sometimes threaten to steal the show, the globally-inspired menu is worth mentioning as well. The selections can be a little overwhelming at first, as the menu is loaded with code symbols referring to different dietary guidelines. What the symbols do communicate, however, is that the majority of the dishes are free of soy, nuts, dairy, and wheat, and plenty are vegan and cleanse friendly. Zeal has partnered with the Conscious Cleanse, a program developed by Boulder nutritionists to facilitate a vibrant way of eating and living.
What really sets Zeal apart from the crowd is the commitment to organic and GMO-free food. While many restaurants advertise using “organics whenever possible,” one has to wonder about the validity of this claim. At Zeal, just about everything is organic. The goal, to provide “flavorful food in a healthy package,” is certainly met with the “gusto” salad ($9), featuring greens, Manchego cheese, brazil nuts, and a bacon-cranberry vinaigrette. This salad offered a compelling mix of sweet and salty that could easily upstage an entrée. Unfortunately, some of the other starter bites weren’t quite as successful. An eggplant and parsley dip served in cucumber boats lacked salt and had a slightly bitter aftertaste. The fact that this it was billed as a spicy eggplant coupe ($8) seemed to me a overly-fancified description of a rather simple canapé.
Luckily, the core of the menu is comprised by flavorful and hearty bowls which feature combinations of proteins, grains, and sauces. There’s also a selection of a few different hot plates like yakitori skewers and shrimp piccata. While it may seem strange to view a menu which includes a veggie burger topped with cashew cheese and a shaved pork banh mi side by side, in practice, it works. While the dishes don’t offer calorie counts, you can be sure that you’re still getting some of the most holistically healthy food out there.
What’s most impressive about Zeal, however, was how truly awesome you’ll feel after eating a meal there. Instead of locking into a groggy, post-meal food coma, you’ll feel clear headed, energized, and ready for a few more hours of productivity. The aim to please everyone seems to be working. Zeal has acknowledged that Boulder is full of athletes, yoga enthusiasts, juicers–and also those looking for a stiff drink. The inclusive approach to healthful living is a beautiful thing, and hopefully an indicator of the future of healthy and sustainable restaurants.
All photography by Delmy Gooch