Greenleaf Restaurant has been a fixture on Ashland's Plaza since 1985. Pictured here is Chicken Picatta, made with Smart Chicken. - Jamie Lusch

Greenleaf Restaurant: 'Fresh, healthy, yummy'

Just as writer Michael Pollan has his "Food Rules: An Eater's Manual," Daniel Greenblatt has a meal plan for customers at his Greenleaf Restaurant.

"They would eat healthier if they ate family-style."

Start with a big salad for the whole family to share, says Greenblatt. Select entrees with more vegetables, maybe a stir-fry with some protein, the pasta primavera or a veggie-topped pizza, and let everyone take a portion.

Then enjoy a bit of "comfort food" — fish and chips or breaded chicken strips — but distribute the fried stuff around the table. No one needs an entire order of french fries, he adds.

"I want people to be able to eat whatever they want," says Greenblatt.

The Ashland restaurateur doesn't spell it out, but "moderation" is the underlying message in his written suggestions, recently affixed — with Pollan quotations — to Greenleaf's front window. The ethic goes beyond running a restaurant to the 55-year-old's home cooking. Mealtimes always include a "serious, big salad," followed by more vegetables or legumes, and they often exclude meat. If his wife and two teenage daughters aren't home, Greenblatt may steam a head of broccoli, season it with a little butter and salt and "call it dinner."

A vegetarian he's not. But after making his first vegetarian acquaintances in 1973 and adopting their diet for about a decade, Greenblatt built a career in the natural-foods movement. He followed the trend in its heyday to Boulder, Colo., where he cooked at the cooperative restaurant, Carnival Cafe.

Ashland's reputation lured Greenblatt to town in 1980, and he landed a job at Ashland Food Co-op, where he worked in the "management collective." Groceries carried over to his first concept for Greenleaf, which opened in 1985 as Greenleaf Grocery and Delicatessen. In a downtown area wanting for restaurants, Greenleaf offered counter service and takeout of hot and cold dishes with a wide selection of beverages, plus fresh produce, bulk foods and other pantry staples.

"It was a pretty vibrant scene," recalls Richard Katz, general manager of Ashland Food Co-op, where he initially worked with Greenblatt. "Daniel had a great following."

Greenleaf's menu — particularly its take on vegetarian dishes — was novel in Ashland at the time, says Katz. But despite its innovation, the hybrid, restaurant-grocer model didn't work, and Greenblatt removed Greenleaf's grocery cases and shelves, replacing them with booths, after just a couple years.

"People need a parking lot to do grocery shopping," says Greenblatt. "Downtown, they're here to eat."

So to his deli menu of sandwiches, soups and salads, Greenblatt added pastas, stir-frys, stuffed potatoes and a variety of hot specials. The Mediterranean flavors reflected traditions of Italian and Greek immigrants in Greenblatt's native New Jersey but still appealed to the natural-foods palate.

"We're not trendy," says Greenblatt. "Everybody can find something to eat here."

Over the years, Greenblatt expanded to gluten-free and "cleanse" menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He purchased more and more organic ingredients, free-range eggs and natural Smart Chicken — all noted on the menus. More recently, Greenblatt has seen the food industry embrace many products he long favored in response to the general public's demand for and appreciation of healthful food.

"It's awesome," he says.

Yet even as Greenleaf draws numerous customers with specialized diets, Greenblatt fields occasional criticism that he's not "vegetarian enough," "vegan enough" or "organic enough." Instead of ascribing to dietary dogma, however, Greenblatt satisfies his own culinary conscience and — in the process — the majority of customers'.

"A person could assume that we're using the cleaner product here," says Greenblatt. "The burger's going to be the healthier burger."

And unlike many restaurants that resort to premixed, preseasoned, prebreaded and prefabricated food, Greenleaf continues to make soups, sauces, dressings, granola, cookies and almost everything else from scratch — even the spinach-filled, savory pastry spanikopita, widely available in frozen versions. Exceptions are breads, bagels and desserts purchased from small, local bakeries.

Prices for most Greenleaf dishes are in the $10-to-$12 range. There's a lower-cost alternative for vegetarian, vegan and organic food next door at Grilla Bites, which opened five years ago. Yet Greenleaf sales have increased every year, says Greenblatt. "Huge overlap" between the two establishments forces Greenleaf to stay on top of its game, focusing on food quality and skilled service, he adds.

"I have no problem with the competition."

Neighboring restaurants in fact imitate a key Greenleaf amenity: its outdoor seating. About two decades ago, Greenblatt constructed decks overlooking Ashland Creek, which flows behind his and other Plaza restaurants. He also lobbied the city parks department to improve the creekside alley, an unsightly repository of restaurant trash bins.

Initially rejecting Greenblatt's proposal, the parks department added a designated Dumpster area several years later. Officially known as Calle Guanajuato, the alley now numbers among the Rogue Valley's most coveted, summertime dining destinations.

"People would wait forever to sit outside," says Greenblatt.

And even when Greenleaf's clientele quadruples in summer, he adds, the restaurant's "fresh and healthy and yummy food" is still worth the wait.

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