I guess everything is Chipotle now. Though in the case of Naya, it’s the Chipotle version of their fancier, sit-down restaurant Naya Mezze & Grill. But conceptually it’s a straight build-a-bowl joint, only instead of adobo chicken and salsa, you get shawarma and hummus. I think this is what the industry has deemed “fast-casual,” but to me it’s just become the Chipotle model. A model that very much fits the busy life of Manhattan office workers sick of eating boring salads and half-assed sandwiches from grab-and-go places like Pret.
And, yes, I realize this isn’t going to be as calorie friendly as that no-dressing, kale salad from your chopped salad joint of choice, but it is ultimately soooo much more satisfying of a visit. Granted, Naya is only one in a number of fast-casual, fill-a-bowl Mediterranean/Middle Eastern chains of its ilk — Dill & Parsley and The Hummus & Pita Co. among them — but this is the only one that I’m aware of that has a “parent” restaurant as its anchor. Like an actual adult establishment where they serve high-class Lebanese food to actual people wearing actual pants and shoes that one would wear for a lunch or dinner on the town. And I suppose in that, Naya has some gourmet cache that these other chains don’t. Like all of their food was crafted by an real chef in a honest-to-goodness restaurant before being kind of mass produced for bowl distribution to the working flotsam and jetsam. And they must be doing something right, because as of this review they have eleven locations, with several more opening soon, in Manhattan alone. That’s a lot of hummus.
The question I have is if the market can support that much baba ghannouj (their spelling of the traditional eggplant and tahini dip)? It feels to me — and this is based on absolutely nothing but my sleep-addled brain — that they’re over-expanding. They have 20 locations listed on their site, most of which are in NYC bouroughs. And, yes, people like the convenience of being able to walk in, order a bowl consisting of a base, a protein and a topping and be on their way. But, unlike the aforementioned salad establishments, there is no way you’re doing this more than once a week. I absolutely love this type of Americanized Middle Eastern food. I’d eat chicken over rice with white sauce from a cart every day if I could. But I’d be 400 pounds and probably drop dead of a heart attack on Sixth Ave. just for lack of veggies before I made it into my second month. I can’t even really see a lot of folks hitting this place up — regardless of the convenience and quality — more than once every couple of weeks. Whereas they would eat their dumb plastic orange bowl of greens every single day without a second thought. It just seems like an odd business plan to me is all.
And now that I’m done concern trolling a restaurant about whose finances I know absolutely nothing, I’ll get to the food. It’s decent. For a place scooping it from a metal warming tray into a cardboard bowl. Can I say it’s authentic? Well, like any scoop-and-scoot place, we lose a bit of that just based on the restaurant’s time with and time invested in their product. The care put into it has to be less just to keep profits at a certain margin. But, of course, the consumer’s expectations also have to be at a certain level to make that convenience trade worthwhile. Odds are they’re gulping the grub at their desk in record time before a meeting, or eating it in stages throughout a few hours while they run back and forth to those same meetings. Or like seemingly half the city, sitting in NJ working from home. Which, again, goes to my questioning their business plan of expanding so greatly while half the working human population normally in NYC during the week is in Westchester or Long Island eating PB&J sandwiches left over from their kids’ lunchboxes. But I digress.
Ultimately, Naya is a great choice if you want a break from the usual salad and sandwich rut. Is it better or even differentiated enough from the few other Middle Eastern fast-casual joints in the city? I mean, not really. Despite its higher-end pedigree. Is it superior to eating from a cart? Well, it certainly feels a bit healthier. And the chicken a bit more… premium. And is less likely to be infested with whatever things might jump from those Midtown streets. But barely. I think the best thing here is that they don’t limit your toppings. You can load up on dips and spreads and pickled veggies to your heart’s content. There’s none of that four bucks extra for guac nonsense here. But, yeah, it’s a great choice if you want to hit it up once every couple of weeks. It’s filling, generally tasty and definitely satisfying (varying somewhat depending on your eating conditions). Will it stand the test of time? Only the great food service gods know that shiz. And they are fickle, fickle beings.