Culinary Curiosities: How the Salad Bar Allegedly Got Its Start

True confession: I get a little thrill every time I see a well-appointed salad bar. To many they may seem boring and ordinary. I can’t blame them. They are found in the corporate cafeteria, the school lunchroom, and the grocery store. It’s easy to get in a rut, serving yourself the same pile of bland lettuce drowned in ranch dressing. But to me, the hot/cold bar, filled with a variety of raw and prepared ingredients, is an invitation to create a one-of-a-kind meal. The days of chopped iceberg lettuce and tasteless cherry tomatoes are gone. Now you can get fresh baby greens, real Parmesan cheese, and aged balsamic vinegar.

It’s hard to tell who actually invented the salad bar. A number of them started to spring up in the 1960s, and by the 1970s were a popular addition to restaurants. Americans may have got the idea during the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, which featured a Swedish smorgasbord. The all-you-can-eat buffet, originating in Vegas and spreading quickly across the country, also provided another way to think about feeding and pleasing hungry diners. As early as 1951, Russell Swanson, owner of Swanson Equipment in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, built a unique bar for chilled salad fixings for the nearby Sky Club supper club. But restaurateur Angelo "Andy" Gangi claimed he got the idea for a salad bar at his South Florida diner in 1964 after he observed the food service in the Officer’s Club at the nearby Homestead Air Force Base.

But the person who really brought salad bars into the mainstream was entrepreneur Norman Brinker, the man behind friendly, casual-dining chains like Chili’s and Bennigan’s. In the late 1960s, his Steak and Ale restaurants featured a serve-yourself salad bar to keep customers happy and busy while waiting for their entrées. Soon, all-you-can eat salad bars were natural accompaniments to almost all mid-range steakhouses. In the 1970s, R.J Grunts, a famous Chicago restaurant started by Richard Melman and Jerry Orzoff, featured a huge salad bar with more than 40 ingredients. With a wink and a nod, perhaps, to that massive spread, Melman went on to found Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, an industry empire of 100-plus restaurants.

Today the salad bar has morphed into a full meal service at many grocery stores. Hot and cold items, pre-prepared foods, and soups beckon at lunchtime or dinner. A well-stocked grocery store salad bar can be as popular as a sit-down restaurant. Serving the grab-and-go lunch crowd, or the value-conscious family, the salad bar fills a growing demand for quick, nutritious and plentiful meal options. Grocery store salad bars charge by weight so prepare for sticker shock at the checkout if you load up on all the goodies.

But with a few considered choices, the salad-by-weight can still be economical. Savvy salad bar regulars recommend choosing a smaller container so you don’t pile on more that you’ll really want to eat. Begin with lots of greens and lightweight veggies. Get your dressing on the side so it doesn’t make your salad a heavy, soggy mess. Some items are more cheaply bought elsewhere in the store, such as nuts from the bulk aisle or fresh fruit from the produce section. Frugal shoppers know that some ingredients such as mesclun, feta cheese, and sundried tomatoes can cost less at the salad bar than on store shelves. Want to make a quick burrito or omelet at home? Get your pre-cut veggies and cheeses at the salad bar.

Today’s salad bar is no dusty steakhouse relic. My dad’s old advice, "Don’t fill up on the rabbit food!" doesn’t hold up anymore. The abundance and high-quality ingredients have brought the old-fashioned salad bar straight into the age of fast, tasty, on-demand, personalized dining. Salad days are here to stay. 

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