If we’re going to celebrate anything about the decade of wide-legged flare pants, precariously cropped tops, and espresso martinis, then it’s high time we slow clap for the salad bar.
The early origins of the American salad bar are disputed—though it’s believed to have emerged sometime in the 1960s, as a “before” course to steak or lobster or something orders of magnitude more exciting than limp iceberg. By the 1970s and ‘80s, fast food restaurants and other chains like Wendy’s and Sizzler ushered in salad bars with an aim of diversifying and “freshening up” existing options. But it wasn’t until the ‘90s that these troughs of greens and fixings ballooned and became ubiquitous. In 1994, Florence Fabricant likened the salad bar to a new kind of cafeteria—a celebration of abundance and sometimes even the main course itself, with dozens of composed sides and toppings to peruse, with something for every palate and preference.
It’s time again to give them their due. And this time, at home. We’re not only living through a ‘90s reboot; we’re also in an era of making up for lost face-time—of maximizing the number of minutes available to gossip over ice-cold martinis, rather than fretting to get a soufflé out on the table at an exact stage of rest. So make like a midsized storefront near any office building in New York City in the year 1996, dim the lights, and throw a salad bar party.
Ready your fighters.
No one is coming to your ‘90s salad bar party to be served. Salad bars are all about freedom and chaos—they’re an invitation to be picky, gluttonous, or to go really hard on one specific and weird item and basically ignore everything else. Self-service is key. Tongs will serve as an extension of your guests themselves as they peruse your side-by-side offerings (yes, you should set up a series of platters and bowls in a row to reference the real thing—plus plenty of ice to keep everything chilled, unless you’re planning on your guests eating pretty much immediately).
Bet on a basic base.
You are not a farmers market. Start with chopped romaine, mesclun mix, shredded cabbage, or baby spinach—or if you're truly feeling fussy, remove the ribs from kale, slice into ribbons, and massage the leaves to tenderize. Then move right along...
Give your leading lady the star treatment.
Rather than trying to serve 10 different proteins and ending up with mediocre chicken breast and defrosted shrimp as though you are an actual 1990s salad bar purveyor, pick one really great protein that still tastes stellar at room temp—two, max—and give it the royal treatment. Think sesame-roasted tofu, or exceedingly crispy chicken cutlets, sliced and served with lemon wedges. Or soy-miso-marinated salmon. Vegetarians in the building? No one will complain about beautifully rendered six-minute eggs, halved for optimal drip, sprinkled with Maldon and drizzled with chili crisp.
And make a supporting actor out of carbs.
If there’s anything we learned from the early 2000s’ fast-casual improvements upon the ‘90s salad bar, it’s that a well-prepared grain or toothsome noodle can promote a boring bowl from sad salad to exciting meal. Take note, and select a single carb that complements your choice of base. If you went kale, consider something tender and nutty, like bulgur wheat. For a limper lettuce, call in a complex grain that won’t cause wilt, like fluffy, oil- and salt–seasoned quinoa (cooked in broth for bonus flavor), or crispy rice. A tangle of chewy udon noodles would play Mercutio beautifully to almost any crunchy base.
Fancy a side salad.
Cheeky little side salads—say, a dead-perfect tarragon chicken salad, a simple lentil salad, or marinated olives—differentiated the ‘90s salad bar from the scarcer bars of yore. Pick one or two exceedingly easy options that complement your offerings, portion onto lettuce leaves, and nestle within one of your serving platters. If you don’t know where to start, grab a rotisserie chicken, some fresh herbs, and a dollop of mayo. When in doubt, go sweet and salty, then hit with a touch of acidity: toss pickled red onions into those lentils, or add chopped green apple to that herby chicken.
Lighten your load.
The ‘90s salad bar was frequently a pay-by-the-pound fiasco. As an homage, over-index on the crispy-crunchies: those ingredients that pack the most gratifying flavor and texture, but that won’t weigh down the (completely imaginary) bill. Think: bacon bits, fried shallots, tortilla strips, sliced radishes floating in ice water to keep them crisp, julienned carrots, and homemade croutons.
You simply must have a tiny vegetable.
The year is 1990. The baby carrot hit shelves just four years prior, broccolini is about to have its big debut, and cherry tomatoes are everywhere. If you can find any tiny in-season vegetables to round out your own throw-back salad bar, by all means, please do. (If you can’t, just drain a few marinated sundried tomatoes and put them out for show. When people run out of 90s topics to discuss, someone can point to the bowl.)
Call in your creamy king.
A creamy, fatty element is critical for rounding out a ‘90s salad bar—but please forgo the burbling pool of cottage cheese. Instead, consider offering sliced avocado drizzled with lemon to keep it green, grilled halloumi, or crumbled feta for completeness.
Dress to impress.
Ditch the most authentic of offerings (a simple balsamic vinaigrette) and spring for more variety. Create a DIY condiment station at one end of your salad bar with multiple salt, fat, acid, and heat options. Olive oil; mayonnaise; red, white, and rice wine vinegars; lemon and lime juice; soy sauce; fish sauce; sriracha; anchovies; fresh herbs; brown sugar; chili crisp; crushed garlic; Dijon mustard; grated fresh ginger and crushed red chile flakes are all staples you likely already have, or can obtain with little fuss.
Prepare to get sloshed.
It wouldn’t be a ‘90s party without high-ABV cocktails in glasses ill-suited for stumbling guests. Make a big batch of cosmos, or appletinis, and set up a sidebar with martini glasses and an ice bucket for yet another round of self-service.
Don’t forget a dessert that masquerades as an exciting trick.
While melted chocolate is not traditional to a salad bar, no 1990s dinner party is complete without a performative and over-the-top dessert—think molten chocolate cake, or raspberry coulis poured tableside over vanilla scoops, or crème brûlée. Feel free to purchase these from a local bakery, but do be sure to over dramatize the first bite, which should be in concert with some sort of visual effect (oozing chocolate centers, raspberry rippling over the surface of a sundae, or the shattering of a sugar lid). The ‘90s were, after all, not a time of great culinary restraint.