Updated: Dec. 27, 2019 at 11:08 a.m.
A fast-food chain based in England is bringing health-minded cuisine to the District.
LEON serves several typical fast food dishes like salads, burgers, chicken nuggets and french fries, but its chefs focus on making each plate fresh and healthy. John Vincent, the company’s co-founder, said during the restaurant’s celebratory event at 655 New York Ave. that LEON is founded on a mission to produce what food “would be like in heaven.”
“The touchstone, the idea – what if God did fast food?” he said.
Vincent and Henry Dimbleby, a co-founder, opened the first LEON location in London in 2004. Vincent reminisced on eating at McDonald’s when he was a child but recalled that the food made him feel “not so well.” He said that while LEON has some fast-food qualities like a drive-thru, the dishes emphasize reducing grease and sourcing locally grown foods.
Today, the chain can be found at 70 different spots, mostly in England. In addition to its New York Avenue location, LEON is at 1724 L St. NW and 1350 I St. NW. Restaurant owners also plan to expand into Virginia with an upcoming Fairfax location.
Its menu is inspired by British, Indian and Mediterranean flavors with dishes like a full English breakfast box ($7.25), Moroccan meatballs ($10.50) and lentil masala ($7.50). LEON accommodates gluten-free, dairy-free, vegetarian and vegan customers.
At its celebratory one-year event in D.C., samples of the restaurant’s several dishes were put on display. I first dipped into the lentil masala, which was served with a thick, creamy coconut curry base and made for a satisfying meal for non-meat-eaters.
A crowd favorite at the event was the “Jack Bites” ($5.30), a signature appetizer and snack. These vegan bites are fried in a gluten-free coating and filled with vegan cheese and jackfruit. The samples were served warm with a side of barbecue sauce, but customers can also opt for a side of ketchup, aioli, tarragon mayo or chili sauces.
I found myself going back for seconds of the Moroccan meatballs, which were coated generously in a tangy tomato sauce that is simmered with warm spices and sun-dried tomatoes. They’re finished with parsley and mint and sprinkled with a medley of toasted seeds that give the meatballs a crunch. The meatballs were served a la carte at the event, but the dish typically comes with brown rice, cabbage, kale slaw with a lime and dijon mustard vinaigrette.
If you’re looking for something to satisfy a fast food craving, LEON’s burgers and sandwiches are a convincing substitute for the greasy, processed meals you might expect at a drive-thru restaurant. Try the barbecue chicken sandwich ($8.95) with bacon and cheddar, LOVe plant-based burger ($7.95) or a crispy fish sandwich ($7.95) with house-made tartar sauce and a side of its crispy baked waffle fries ($2.75).
LEON’s fresh take on fast food dishes is accompanied by its organic soda flavors like cherry cream, blood orange and coconut. In addition to the revamped soda fountain, LEON serves kombucha ($3.50), hot tea ($1.95) and several coffee drinks that are roasted locally at Swings Roastery in Alexandria, Virginia.
Vincent, one of LEON’s co-founders, said he wanted the first U.S. locations to be in D.C. because it is the capital of the country and “home of the free world.” He said LEON aims is to create “a movement that can save the human” with healthy meals.
“I want LEON on every high street to be the statue of responsibility – thank you for coming to our statue,” he said.