The phrase “hospital food” used to be synonymous with gelatin and mystery meat, but the competition for fast-casual and upscale restaurant brands in urban hospitals is intensifying as patients and visitors raise their expectations of the health care experience.

Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago completed a 70,000-square-foot dining and retail space in late November called “Shop & Dine Northwestern,” which includes local fast-casual brands with a healthful positioning like GRK Greek Kitchen, Sopraffina Marketcaffè, Protein Bar and Saigon Sisters, as well as a large Au Bon Pain. The hospital has begun leasing for the second phase of the hospital’s growth plan, including 17,000 square feet of retail space in a 1 million-square-foot, 24-story outpatient facility to be completed next fall. The Chicago-based franchisees of LYFE Kitchen have agreed to put their second unit in the development.

The hospital sought out the restaurant tenants in most cases — not the other way around — but several operators said Northwestern Memorial’s advantages of the steady deluge of foot traffic and its prime location a block away from Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” on Michigan Avenue were instantly apparent.

“We thought it was a no-brainer,” said Matt Matros, founder and chief executive of Chicago-based Protein Bar.

The healthful-food concept opened its 10th Chicago-area unit at Northwestern Memorial and also has three locations in the District of Columbia. The experience has been so positive that Matros enthusiastically would welcome more health care foodservice opportunities.

He and his fellow operators likely will get their chance, not just at Northwestern Memorial but at other urban hospitals around the country, where administrators increasingly are treating the foodservice options as an extension of patient care and as a crucial benefit to their staffs and neighborhoods.

“The trend in restaurants is that folks are trying to cater menus to healthier, fresher options, and given that we’re in health care, it was important for us,” said Gina Weldy, vice president of real estate for Northwestern Memorial. “In the work environment we’re in now, people eat three meals a day near the office. These concepts give us the ability to offer that.”

Those objectives for the hospital align nicely with a fast-casual restaurant’s operating conditions, Matros said.

“I like that it’s a 24-hour environment,” he said. “While we’re not 24-hour, there are people [at the hospital] all the time, during [our] breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack [dayparts]. For the people working the midnight shift, their breakfast might be at 7 o’clock. It’s not just doctors and nurses, either. There are lots of support staff, biotech sales reps and pharmaceutical sales reps.”