Palette Food + Juice officially opened its doors on January 30th, 2017.
That date was significant for the rest of the world for a different reason: it was Inauguration Day, and also the inaugural Women’s March, one of the biggest international protests of the ascent of President Trump and everything he stands for. Palette’s owners Melissa Nester and Molly Keith debated delaying their grand opening one day to attend the march themselves, but eventually stood firm: this restaurant was their strongest form of protest.
More specifically, the thoughtfulness and care these two imbue their food with allows them to provide nourishment for their community, honor and care for the planet, and support local infrastructure. Spending any amount of time with the pair will reshape the way you think about food — and actually eating what they serve at Palette will take that process even farther.
Melissa and Molly met in their late teens, both Southern transplants looking for work in Hollywood and chasing the dream of LA. A lifelong friendship persisted even when the early acting and hair styling gigs didn’t, and a shared passion for conscious eating evolved into an ongoing conversation about what their dream restaurant would encompass.
Firstly, it would serve food sourced locally and made fresh daily, no preservatives. Second, it would have the flexibility to accommodate all the strict eating habits various friends had adopted over the years, from vegan to vegetarian, dairy-free, paleo, gluten-free, and more. Third, and the only non-negotiable: the majority of what they served would feature vegetables that were grown organically, ensuring their food was actually nourishing.
“I’ve always thought food could heal you, and I really believed the way you eat makes a difference in your life and how you function,” Nester remembered during an interview one Friday morning in January, sitting at a table in the Atwater Village spot while her staff readied their offerings for the day. “Molly and I would go out to eat together and realize nothing in LA was really what we wanted to eat. We’d be like ‘eh, ok, let’s go to Tender Greens again, or let’s go to Cafe Gratitude again. But it wasn’t exactly what we wanted. We wished for a place with basic, clean food, no hidden ingredients, no weird additives, no sugar. Food that we could really trust the sources it came from.”
Keith suggests it must’ve been Nester who finally insisted they open their own spot, because of her background running her own businesses. “She’s the entrepreneur of the two of us,” Keith laughed. “I’m like the mad scientist. My non-negotiable on the menu was the vegetables. If you just stick with the food that’s growing in 200-300 mile radius, you’re good. I took a certification class in sustainable agriculture so I could learn about practices, and I’d also done a lot of research and made a lot of connections with California farmers over the years.”
Molly’s field work and research included a stint at Apricot Lane Farms, the one portrayed in a recent documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, which is well worth watching if sustainable farming interests you. But Keith went beyond sourcing locally grown goods, she wanted her kitchen to feature not just the kind of mustard greens sold in the store, for instance, but the other seven kinds that are readily available, yet don’t find ready placement in the supermarket.
Studying the patterns of North American eating habits by reading authors like chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill Farm, who wrote The Third Plate, and every Michael Pollan book — “all the food thought books” — she began to incorporate some of her findings into Palette’s setup. Her research revealed that when Europeans moved to America, they were operating from a sense of lack, and immediately began overeating when they encountered the abundance on this continent.
“There was so much space and abundance they started eating in a way that they were never able to in Europe,” she explained. “So that’s how you get the majority of the plate being fourteen ounces of meat, and then a little potatoes and a little vegetables. But over the hundred or two hundred years this country has been in existence, we’ve seen the detriment of that diet.”
Portions for the bowl and salad offerings at Palette do include a serving size of meat, but it’s about equivalent to the grains, greens, and vegetables that are offered in the same dish. As a fast-casual restaurant, customers order at the counter, selecting a base of brown rice or farro wheat berries, greens, beans, and lettuce, along with three roasted vegetable offerings, which rotate seasonally, and at times, even daily.
Chicken, tempeh, bison, bone broth, and eggs (pickled or fried) can all be added to either the small size ($7) or large ($11) for additional cost, and an assortment of dairy-free housemade dressings and finishing touches like sprouted mung beans or dandelion greens top off the final dish. They also serve sandwiches, a variety of fresh juices, and retail items like homemade lacto fermented hot sauce, locally-made jams, and super local urban honey.
For Melissa, who has no experience working on the restaurant side of things, the availability of prepared food of this quality in a fast-casual setting is still a revelation, and she credits Molly’s knowledge for sourcing proper ingredients and instituting a framework where everything is prepared fresh. “Whenever I got food that actually tastes like this, I had to sit down for two hours through two or three courses and spend a hundred or even two hundred dollars,” she remembers, incredulously. “What people don’t realize when they come in here is they’re getting the same quality as fine dining — honestly better at times. Because, Molly has worked at these restaurants before and she knows what they use. The farmers pick it one day, we get it the next, and then it’s put out fresh.”
For those wondering why a relative rarity like bison made their menu, there’s a method behind that madness, too. Because bison are native to North America, they don’t require any care or interference. They can roam free, eat grass, and have, what Michael Pollan calls “one bad day,” when they’re ready to be sourced for meat. Not only that, but because they’re an animal that’s indigenous to the continent, they offer the best source of red meat for Americans.
“Bison is indigenous to America, so it’s going to be the least damaging to our infrastructure,” Keith asserts. “They also have the same omega three and omega six — the essential fatty acids — ratios as salmon, so if you eat it, it doesn’t throw off your balance. My whole philosophy is if you just eat food that’s food, and not processed, then you’re fine.”
After eating the food at Palette and drinking their bone broth, Melissa has healed her gut, and other regulars have told the owners similar stories of restorative effects, like a regular who calms her eczema flare ups with their food, or an immune system boosted so much that one patron went a whole year without getting sick.
For my part, eating farro wheat berries with bison and bone broth in the early weeks of January was a delicious experience, and the food made me want to come back to meet the women who ran the store — but I wasn’t prepared for the way my body craved a return to the shop. I’ve been back four times since that first bowl, trying the chicken, tempeh (not for me) and eggs in turn, creating new vegetable combinations and figuring out which of the four homemade sauces I like best.
As an avid burger and steak lover who has only recently begun to experiment with a plant-based diet, I was shocked that I found myself daydreaming about vegetables… and bison. But this red meat hit the salty, tangy and textural marks of beef without the bloat and depression that inevitably tend to spring up after a fatty steak or a cheeseburger. Listening to my body’s cues in a more focused way has made it clear, beef makes me feel like hell. But bison didn’t. One afternoon last week when my usual lunch craving hit, I was thinking about sprouted mung beans and roasted beets, not a chicken sandwich. My body was trying to tell me something.
“People think vegetables won’t make them full, but they will, because they actually nourish,” Molly explained. “We wanted to be the place where people ate like three or four times a week to keep themselves healthy, and then they can go to the other places the rest of the time. It’s an alternative to all the rich food, heavy on salt and garlic, heavy on dairy… we wanted it to be a place where you could just reset.”
In Melissa’s mind, the amount of care and thought that goes into this food is just as essential as the organic farming, lack of preservatives and fresh preparation. “The energy behind everything matters too,” she said. “It’s thoughtful, tasteful, and transparent. There’s just a lot of thought and a lot of caring involved in it. And a lot of time. All the care that’s taken shows in the food.”
The menu at Palette is available for pickup and delivery here.