The Evolution of the American Salad Bar
by Lisa Elbert, Tastemaker in Residence
The revolutionary style of service has shaped the way we eat today.
April 25, 2018
The salad bar is as American as freedom. It’s a sneeze-guarded, self-serve haven for trailblazers and picky eaters, where you’re free to pile whatever you want, and as much as you want, onto a plate with reckless abandon—even though you know that in 15 minutes, you’re going back for more just because you can. Standing in front of a salad bar, you face no limitations. You have the power to create your happily-ever-after-salad and get the highest ROI possible. In salad-bar world, tongs are the keys to happiness, and happiness, for many, is at the bottom of a vat of ranch dressing.
Despite any debate regarding the de facto birthplace of the American salad bar, the concept was disseminated sometime in the mid- to late-20th century, and it has since evolved, revolutionizing the way we eat. The founder of Chicago-based restaurant group Lettuce Entertain You, Rich Melman, was one of the early developers of the concept. He opened his first restaurant, RJ Grunts, in 1971 with a salad bar adaptation that played a role in popularizing the genre.
“I actually read about [the salad bar] in the late '60s,” said Melman. “There were so many of these steak and lobster places that were popping up, and I think the one I read about was at Chuck’s of Hawaii. It was very rudimentary: it was like, chopped up iceberg lettuce and maybe five toppings. They’d give you a bowl, you’d make your salad, and your steak or fish would come later, and that was it. I thought it was interesting and I filed it away.”
Fast-forward a couple of years when Melman was opening RJ Grunts, and the kitchen was too small for a salad station. “I thought, maybe there’s a way to do a salad bar in the dining room,” he said. He implemented the salad bar out of necessity; the reason it ultimately proved successful was just collateral.
“I think back to When Harry Met Sally, and how exacting [Sally Albright] was about ordering, and, you know, people just know what they want, and they can be very picky about what they want. So when it came to salad bars, you just took what you wanted and as much as you wanted.”
The dispute over which salad bar was first is hotly contested, so we may never know the single mastermind behind the salad bar concept. Norman Brinker is often credited as the founding father through his now-shuttered chain of Steak & Ale restaurants founded in the 1960s, but the Freund family of Freund's Sky Club Supper Club in Wisconsin will tell you their custom-built bar was the first, debuting in America's dairyland years prior. A few other key salad bar pioneers include Ohio's fast food champion of the 60s, Rax Roast Beef (now known as Rax Restaurants), and Hawaii-based steakhouse chain, Chuck's Steakhouse.
What we can say for sure is this: The salad bar, originally implemented to tide guests over until steaks hit the table, was suddenly a way to give guests total control—a self-service model that hinted at the future of American dining.
The lauded salad bar at RJ Grunt was anything but rudimentary. “There’s a science to making a great salad. It starts with the right product: Having great greens, ripe fruit, the best vegetables. We put a lot of time and energy into seasonality and doing the right thing with the product,” Melman said.
Melman used his background in other kitchens and delicatessens and cooked what he knew to add some personal pizazz to his iteration of the salad bar, like chopped liver and egg salad. “Instead of just iceberg and a few toppings, I would say we started with about 30 choices, maybe more, and it just kept growing and growing.”
Now, fast-forward 40-something years, and the basic principle is continuing to grow. There’s a reason places like Sizzler (the ultimate all-you-can-eat buffet is really just a salad bar full of hot food, but also salad) are still in business. Newer concepts have popped up, like the fast-salad chains that are essentially just full-service salad bars without the unlimited option. (All hail the Olive Gardens of the industry—keep those breadsticks coming.)
“I think a lot of these healthy concepts have versions of salad bars. Restaurateurs realize the value of these kinds of places; the value of giving guests what they want,” said Melman. Food halls and grocery stores have picked up on it, and they also capitalize on the build-your-own ideology, because consumers value the freedom of choice that comes with it. So many concepts operate on the principle that Melman helped pioneer because of the intrinsic value in granting people the privilege to do as they please with their plate. Because despite everything we may have learned from Thoreau’s observations at the pond, we are not a society of minimalists.
It’s a revolutionary style of service that has shaped the way we eat today. We live in an age where restaurants print disclaimers on menus disallowing substitutions and modifications in an attempt to keep the integrity of chef’s dish intact. With self-serve bars, substitutions or modifications or unwanted items can’t exist—God forbid a melon makes its way into your savory salad, could you even imagine? It is because of salad bars and salad bar-adjacents that we can live dangerously and throw chopped liver onto our iceberg if we damn well please, and we can indulge in the salad of our dreams without the embarrassment of asking for extra "crunchy things."