The Dish List: Urban Plates

What: Urban Plates

Where: 3972 Barranca Pkwy, Irvine 92606

How Much: $2-10

Hours: Mon-Thu, Sun 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.

Fri-Sat: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Rating: 3/5

Upscale cafeteria-styled restaurants, the most spoken of in Irvine being Lemonade and Tender Greens, have been making a comeback to the food service industry of Orange County since the start of 2013. Urban Plates has joined this hype as of September, but whether or not this restaurant is capable of holding its own against other similarly styled eateries is still U.P. in the air.

Courtesy of Elizabeth Lee

Courtesy of Elizabeth Lee

Located at the Crossroads Shopping Center, Urban Plates stands alone in its assembly line dining experience. In accordance with its motto “Eat UP: Farm to Plate & Won’t Break the Bank,” the restaurant uses freshly delivered produce from local farms to prepare reasonably priced comfort foods.

Comfort can be found not only in the food, but also in the general environment of the restaurant. The wood flooring and décor create a cabin retreat ambiance, the ideal dining atmosphere for customers who need to slow down their busy day to catch a breath. The earthy, musky shades of the room are warm and inviting, accentuated with furnishings such as muted lighting, garden centerpieces and cushioned seats.

All that, however, can only be discovered after you brave the food-ordering process, which can be daunting, especially for first-time customers. The assembly line style of ordering is not yet common knowledge to the average person, but luckily, each one of the servers I encountered at Urban Plates was friendly, helpful and understanding. They guided me through the ordering process from the beginning to the very end, offering me samples every step of the way.

First you decide what kind of entrée you want for your meal — urban greens, urban plates, sandwiches or braises — and go to the station serving your choice. Then you can choose from a variety of soups, like organic fresh carrot and ginger soup and free range chicken noodle soup; cold sides, like quinoa and edamame, garden tomato mozzarella salad and pesto pasta; or hot sides, like macaroni and cheese, roasted rosemary potatoes and pasta bolognese to accompany your main dish.

Just before paying for your meal, you have the option of selecting a seasonal pastry and a drink, like an organic antioxidant ginseng mint green tea or an orange, carrot and ginger “replenisher.”

It was through samples that I formed my meal. For my first time experience, I chose to enjoy Urban Plates’ half braised beef and mushrooms in red wine sauce over mashed potatoes paired with a chargrilled focaccia and the pineapple, watermelon, basil and mint “urban replenisher.”

The best decision I made that day, and possibly the whole week, was ordering the drink. Unlike the heavy assault of flavor I get from Lemonade’s drinks, this beverage was subtly sweet and full of real watermelon pulp. It was the embodiment of refreshment in a jar.

Unfortunately, the actual entrée I purchased was not as memorable as the drink — in fact, it was not a memorable dish. The food was not bad and tasted fine, but did not make an impression on my taste palate.

As a person who is familiar with both Lemonade and Tender Greens, I would say Urban Plates is where the two other upscale cafeteria-styled restaurants meet halfway. Like Lemonade, Urban Plates offers flatbread pizzas and braises, and like Tender Greens, Urban Plates offers the option to eat one type of protein in several different ways.

What I enjoyed the most about my dining experience at the restaurant was its ambiance. Lemonade’s trendy, bright environment fit its theme, but does not allow for the warm, homey atmosphere a comforting meal should be enjoyed in. Though Tender Greens excels in providing a slow and relaxed dining experience as well, Urban Plates offers more food options.

With that being said, I find it unfortunate that I cannot say I had a fantastic lunch my first time at the restaurant. The comforting environment and perfectly satisfying drink would have been a match made in heaven with a delicious entrée, but the fact of the matter is that I would not return to Urban Plates just for its food.