Raising The Bar

A peek into the history of the salad bar.

It's a peculiarly American ritual: arriving at a restaurant, shedding our coats and purses, and then traipsing eagerly to the salad bar to load our plates with all manner of greens, vegetables, croutons, garbanzo beans, bacon bits, hard-cooked eggs, sprouts, cold cuts, crackers, and dressings. An abundant salad bar exemplifies America's individualized, do-it-yourself ethic: everybody eats what he or she wants—and as much as he or she wants. The salad bar perpetuates any number of self-serve dining traditions, from the Swedish smorgasbord to the buffet-style food stalls ubiquitous in Southeast Asia. But some of the first American salad bars, direct forerunners of those we know today, emerged in the 1930s and '40s, when civic leagues would hold "salad bar luncheons" accompanied by a fashion show or a bridge party. Restaurants soon picked up on the trend: in 1948, Welch's, a restaurant in Long Beach, California, advertised a "sparkling coral salad bar" that featured "the plumpest red tomatoes, tall steeple-y romaine, chives, cheeses, and croutons". In the 1970s, the salad bar soared in popularity, thanks in part to entrepreneurs Rich Melman and Jerry Orzoff, owners of the restaurant conglomerate Lettuce Entertain You. Their first establishment, R. J. Grunt's, in Chicago, boasted a salad bar containing more than 40 items, all smartly arranged beneath flattering lighting. "It's all part of a basic formula," Melman told the Chicago Tribune in 1978. "We have specific lighting effects to make the food come out at you." By the end of that decade, the salad bar craze had entered the realm of family-style chain restaurants like Bonanza and Ponderosa and, eventually, fast-food outlets like Wendy's. Today, restaurant salad bars are on the wane, but the concept has found new life in gourmet food stores and suburban supermarkets all over the country, and the array of fresh and, increasingly, organic ingredients on offer is more tantalizing than ever.