Angie Panter of Great Harvest Bread Co. in Medford carries loaves of gluten-less bread to the cooling racks. - Photo by Bob Pennell

Readers' Picks: Healthy Eats

Best Natural/Whole Foods Restaurant

Best Healthy Lunch Stop

Best Salad Bar

A chain of just five restaurants based in Chico, Calif., has become the 500-pound gorilla in the Rogue Valley's whole-foods dining scene.

Grilla Bites swung into Medford and Ashland four years ago with local partners who have since purchased the businesses from founder Fred Marken. Its menu grounded in organic ingredients, Grilla Bites serves Oregon Healthy Living readers' favorite natural, whole-foods meals, with lunch and its signature salad bar also cited as stand-outs.

"Our customers are a very demanding, educated customer," says Harlan Ward, who owns the Medford restaurant.

Ward serves breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday at the restaurant on Medford's East Main Street.

Grilla Bites on Ashland's plaza, owned by Tom DuBois, is open daily for lunch and for dinner Monday through Saturday.

Each proprietor interprets his core menu of burgers, sandwiches, soups and salads slightly differently. For DuBois, locally produced and sustainable foods take pride of place. More than half of his summertime produce comes from local farmers, he says, and locally raised, organic beef and bison are menu mainstays.

Ward recently has shifted focus to meet demand for gluten-free bread and baked goods, a strategy that culminates this month in a new identity. Dropping out of the Grilla Bites chain, Ward has renamed his business Organicos, for a brand of vegan, organic doughnuts and rice bread that he wholesales locally. Under the new moniker, Ward will continue to serve the specialties that make Grilla Bites so popular, along with new dishes.

"We're all that Grilla Bites was and more and better," Ward says.

Grilla Bites customers run the gamut, Ward says, from sufferers of celiac disease, an autoimmune reaction to gluten in wheat-based foods, to cancer patients who make organic, raw fruit and vegetable juices staples of their recovery.

"Tatooed college students" stand shoulder to shoulder with attorneys in the lunchtime crowd, he adds.

Comprising about 50 items daily, including seafood and several types of tofu, Ward's salad bar — priced by weight — remains one of the restaurant's most popular features. Even an economy that has been particularly difficult for local restaurateurs hasn't dissuaded loyal customers willing to pay for healthful food, sometimes on a doctor's recommendation, Ward says.

"We kind of become intimate in people's health."

DuBois says he and his wife, Monika, also have seen growth since purchasing Grilla Bites a year ago. He credits local residents, who make up more than half of his clientele, even in Ashland's high tourist season. Because the restaurant's ambiance doesn't imply it's part of a chain, many customers never suspect Grilla Bites isn't unique to the town, he adds.

"I'm sure there's a lot of people in Medford who don't know we're here and vice versa."

For more information, see the website www.grillabites.com.

Other favorites: (Natural/Whole Foods Restaurant; Healthy Lunch) Ashland Food Co-op; Pangea; (Salad/Salad Bar) Ashland Food Co-op; Kaleidoscope Pizzeria & Pub

Best Healthy Breakfast

After taking breakfast to gourmet heights, Patty Groth is cooking up a book of recipes from her Morning Glory Restaurant.

The book will deliver all the butter, eggs and cream that endear the Ashland eatery to locals, who say Morning Glory also delivers on the health front.

The 13-year-old business was at the fore of a more recent movement toward health: organic and local foods. Groth purchases seasonal produce from local farmers and smokes her own meats. Syrups, sauces and condiments are homemade.

"We don't use any processed food," Groth says.

One of Groth's more healthful items, Moroccan oatmeal, is cooked to order. Customers often split her large portions. If all else fails, many patrons get some exercise with their meal, says manager Christina Schmidt.

"Our parking lot's always full, so people have to walk here."

See the website www.morninggloryrestaurant.com.

Other favorites: Ashland Food Co-op, Dragonfly Cafe and Gardens

Best Bakery

Rising to the challenge of gluten-free baking, Great Harvest Bread Co. developed more than recipes for sufferers of celiac disease.

The decade-old bakery on Medford's Genessee Street developed a loyal following over the past year with customers who have autoimmune reactions or intolerances to the protein contained in wheat and other grains. Even before co-owner Dan Allen explored gluten-free, his bakery enjoyed a reputation as a local favorite.

The next year should see Great Harvest moving to a larger location, Allen says, and expanding its bread menu to prepared sandwiches and other lunch and coffee-shop specialities. Great Harvest will continue to mill flour for its traditional breads, with separate quarters for preparing gluten-free offerings, which have risen exponentially.

"I only see growth in that area," Allen says.

A nationwide chain, Montana-based Great Harvest has more than 200 stores, including 10 others in Oregon. For more information, see the website www.greatharvest.com.

Other favorites: Apple Cellar; Artisan Bakery Cafe

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