"I have a good friend that used to say, 'you know it's a vegan or a vegetarian or a health food restaurant if the service sucks and it doesn't look so pretty,'" said dietitian Ashley Koff.
She emphasizes "used to" because health food restaurants today are turning up the style and panache to get consumers to bite.
"I think we serve very satisfying, appealing food," said Dr. Andrew Weil, owner of True Food Kitchen.
Coconut curry, wild salmon and kale salad are just a few favorites on the anti-inflammatory menu at True Food, which marries Asian and Mediterranean flavors. Packing the house in Newport Beach and now Santa Monica, Weil feels there's now an understanding that healthy can be synonymous with tasty.
"There's overwhelming scientific evidence that this is the healthiest way to eat and it doesn't mean giving up everything you like," he said.
At Akasha's in Culver City, grass-fed meat shares the menu with tofu dishes and hemp baked goods.
As for chain eateries, Darden Restaurants of Red Lobster and Olive Garden fame developed Seasons 52, another O.C. hot spot where the menu changes weekly due to seasonal produce. And a few of Applebee's 550 calorie menu items recently beat popular plates and now accounts for 8 percent of sales. Even Denny's and IHOP have gone with low cal, low fat options.
"The chefs there understand not just how to make something look good but also how to use the ingredients to make something taste great," said Koff.
So if you want healthy when dining out, order up and tell a friend because financially restaurants can't hold a spot on a menu if higher fat fare is selling better. The same goes for the kitchen where space is at a premium so only the most popular items get a place.