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The New Fast Food

Those lucky Californians. They have In-N-Out Burger, the 185-restaurant chain that's been around since 1948 and has attained near-cult status for cooked-to-order burgers and fresh-cut french fries. And they've got Topz, the company with the guilt-free selection of lean burgers, baked "fries," and real-fruit shakes. So what's been on the menu in the rest of the country? Envy. There just haven't been fast-food chains offering much beyond the standard-issue fare.

Until now. Suddenly, a new generation of quick-service restaurants, as they're known in the industry, has taken root on the East Coast. From O'Naturals in New England to Evos in Florida, these renegades are out to offer healthier (if not faster) versions of America's favorite on-the-go meals. While still tiny (New York-based Better Burger has three locations, compared with the more than 5,800 Wendy's outlets in the United States alone), the new companies are drawing up franchise plans, inking real estate deals—and dreaming about taking on the majors.

The timing might just be right; after all, this is the post-Super Size Me era. But how's the grub at these new joints? To find out, my husband, Steve, and I and our kids, Hannah, 11, and Daniel, 7, visited five new counter-service chains. We sipped, slurped, munched—and jotted down our findings. Here, the family field report:

O'Naturals

This soulful chain, brought to you by the folks who produce Stonyfield Farm yogurt, wears its politics on its sleeve—and on its walls (THESE PANELS ARE CONSTRUCTED FROM POST-HARVEST WHEAT CHAFF, announces a little plaque), its floors (WE ARE A TEST SITE FOR ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY CLEANERS), and its tables (that's organic ketchup in the squeeze bottles). There's a friendly, join-the-community feel to the place, which has a sofa to curl up on, a bookcase with on-message reading matter (Babar's Yoga for Elephants, Natural Capitalism), and world music quietly playing over the sound system. SITE VISIT 100 Market St., Portsmouth, New Hampshire. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Flatbread sandwiches (chicken, wild Alaskan salmon, or beef raised without antibiotics or growth hormones), $5.75-$6.75. Also soups, salads, and Asian noodles. KIDS' MENU Macaroni and cheese, baked chicken nuggets, "tortilla dog," or melted cheese flatbread—all with carrot sticks and ranch dressing, plus an eight-ounce cup of O'Naturals fountain soda or a half pint of organic milk, $4. FUN FACTOR A play area has a wooden dollhouse and a toy railroad. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Oatmeal cherry cookies and Rice Krispies-style treats. DANIEL SAYS "Can I have another hot dog?" BOTTOM LINE Some families will find the whole scene a bit too earnest, but the food is good and the place welcomes kids with open arms. If you're the sort of parent who doesn't want your kids clamoring for Coke or Sprite, this chain's for you.

Four restaurants (two in Maine, one in New Hampshire, one in Massachusetts), with more planned for the Greater Boston area (www.onaturals.com).

Fresh City

This seven-year-old chain, a division of a Massachusetts company that also owns the Boston-area Souper Salad spots, gets points for being right where travelers need it. You'll find Fresh City at Bradley InternationalAirport in Hartford, Connecticut, and at five rest stops on the Massachusetts Turnpike, alongside McDonald's (which, in fact, runsthese Fresh City food-court operations). The around-the-world menu ranges from Mexican burritos to Thai noodles, but despite Fresh City's name and its farmer logo, the food had the most processed, homogenized quality of all the new chains we tried. Tellingly, the sauces, slaws, soups, and muffin mixes are shipped from a central distribution center to Fresh City restaurants, where the final cooking and assembling are done. SITE VISIT 45 Gosling Rd., Newington, New Hampshire. BURGER/FRIES EQUIVALENT Wraps (chicken, steak, shrimp, or duck with a variety of fixings), $4.99-$6.29. Also salads, soups, and stir-fries. KIDS' MENU Cheese quesadilla, Caesar salad, or teriyaki chicken with rice—plus a 22-ounce cup of soda or Nantucket Nectars apple juice, and a bag of Fresh City potato chips (at select locations), $3.99. FUN FACTOR After placing our order, we g0t an electronic key to insert in a cradle at our table; when our food was ready, the key lit up. WHAT'S FOR DESSERT? Brownies and three kinds of cookies. HANNAH SAYS "I like that they kept the quesadilla simple." BOTTOM LINE You can find decent food here (Steve was happy with his chicken burrito, and the only thing wrong with the kids' quesadilla was the mega soda and chips that came with it), but some menu offerings (smoothies made with orange sherbet) sound healthier than they really are.

Twelve locations in New England, with plans to expand in the Northeast and along the Eastern Seaboard (www.freshcity.com).

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