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The Beauty and Bounty of the Steakhouse Salad Bar

How the serve-yourself buffet became a star feature of American dining

With neon-hued Mandarin orange segments, chilled pasta spirals tossed in vinaigrette, and an incongruous amount of cottage cheese, steakhouse salad bars are a tableau of vintage dining. Some offer slice-it-your-self wedges of Swiss cheese, others lay out sweet squares of zucchini bread or massive bowls of pre-mixed Caesar salads, with a sidecar of filets for the anchovy-inclined. There are salad bars that bookend meals with crocks of hot soup and fresh fruit displays, and others that lend themselves to baked potato garnishing sprees.

Whether you’re making your way to the buffet at Charlie Brown’s in New Jersey, the Sirloin Stockade in the Midwest, or any national outpost of Bonanza, as is the case with the most fascinating tales of food lore, the origins of the steakhouse salad bar are as numerous as its serve-yourself options. Some say that this smorgasbord-style starter has roots in Midwestern supper club culture, others claim that a retired actor in New England sparked the trend. And there are those that hold firm that the nation’s first salad bar was first laid out in Hawaii. When piecing together the history of the American salad bar for the New York Times in 1994, Florence Fabricant keenly observed that the side show had become the main event: “The salad bar has bent the meaning of salad entirely out of shape.”

Photo: Perry Nelson/Flickr

Perhaps the most well-known of the steakhouse salad bars was pioneered by the late Norman E. Brinker, whose restaurant portfolio included everything from West Coast drive-through staple Jack in the Box to fern-adorned neighborhood pub chain Bennigan’s to Chili’s, where his creation of the sizzling fajita platter helped put that chain on the map.

Throughout his career, Brinker focused on creating a convivial climate in his restaurants, a concept best embodied with the opening of Steak and Ale in 1966. This British-style ale house attracted the suburban market by combining the luxury appeal of a steak dinner with a fully interactive experience. An early menu titled “Bill of Fare for Lords and Ladies” lines up entrees (or the “Featured Presentation” in Steak and Ale parlance) served with “a salad of your own making.”

In a 2002 interview conducted seven years before his death, Brinker broke down his decision to introduce a salad bar. “I looked at what was the problem with restaurants,” he told Dallas NPR correspondent Bill Zeeble. “You'd go in, the waiter would come up to the table, maybe he wouldn't, and then he'd take an order, and disappear for a while. You'd fill up on bread. I said, ‘I want to let the customer see what he's getting.’ And that includes a salad.”

In Brinker’s mind, the addition of a serve-yourself salad bar satisfied diners on several levels: It occupied guests during the wait between placing orders and receiving entrees, and it created a greater sense of value and customization. “The customer can get a salad while the waiter is turning in the order and delivering it,” Brinker explained. “The speed was much faster. And you, the customer, ate what you wanted from the salad bar, right off the bat.”

But while Steak and Ale helped popularize the salad bar concept in the 1960s, it wasn’t the first restaurant to offer one. In the Midwest, the Freund family claims founding-father rights to the salad bar, introducing the concept at the Sky Club in Plover, Wisconsin in 1950. “All dinners include as many trips to our famous salad bar as you wish, choice of potatoes, and beverage,” reads an early menu. “A whole loaf of homemade bread, garlic toast, carrot bread, too. Tell the waitress what you want for dessert, it goes with your dinner.”

When it was first introduced at Sky Club, the salad bar was displayed on a custom-designed refrigeration unit. Some 67 years later, the bar is home to well-loved salad makings like romaine, boiled eggs, and croutons, along with a fascinating selection of recipes straight out of the ‘50s. Here you’ll find cheese spread and pate ready to grace saltine crackers, pineapple and pistachio-studded Watergate salad, and a Goblet salad that layers ground gizzards with sour cream, parsley, and chicken salad.

Vintage postcard advertising the Sky Club restaurant. Courtesy Sky Club

Sky Club might have kicked off the salad bar trend, but American steakhouses like Steak and Ale were quick to follow suit throughout the 1960s. Thousands of miles west of Wisconsin, Hawaiian-based chain Chuck’s Steakhouse also lays claim to the steakhouse salad bar. Dave Adams worked for a few locations of Chuck’s in Connecticut before opening his own Myrtle Beach outpost 1979. According to Adams, the bounty of the salad bar came in stark contrast to the steakhouse’s barebones menu, a simple line-up of six items hand-printed on a Lancers wine bottle.

With choices ranging from New York strip to filet mignon, beef kebabs to lobster tail — and a lone baked potato functioning as the only side option — the salad bar afforded diners an opportunity to control the pace of their meal.

“We’d take your order,” Adams says. “But we’re not going to turn ‘order-in’ until you go to the salad bar.” This allowed hungry guests the chance to get down to business or linger over cocktails for as long as they’d like. Service at Chuck’s was friendly and familiar, with waitstaff placing steaks directly on “salad bar” plates at the table. Of course, guests could request a second plate if they were feeling fancy.

Reminiscing about the salad bar of ’79, Adams is quick to point out that it had very little to do with the 50-item array that Chuck’s lays out today. Back then, there was a serve-yourself selection of standards like shredded iceberg and red cabbage, plump cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, and pickled beets. House-made dressings were a big draw. Adams jokes that even in the early ’80s, blue cheese dressing was considered an exotic addition.

But it wasn’t until that decade when the salad bar really blew up, partially thanks to the steakhouse chain Bonanza and its sister restaurant, Ponderosa. This Western-themed chain was the brainchild of Dan Blocker, the actor who played hulking and lovable Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza. The first location debuted in 1963 in Westport, Connecticut; the burgeoning chain opened up to franchise opportunities in the late ’60s. Those two brands have become synonymous with rambling salad bars offering everything from chilled salads to hot sides and desserts.

In Connecticut, the Tartaglia family bought Bonanza Steakhouse franchise rights, continuing its counter-service model until the early ’80s, when the full salad bar was introduced and the family’s restaurants were rebranded and renamed American Steakhouse.

“In the ’80s, we were expanding all over the state of Connecticut,” says second-generation CEO Isabel Tartaglia. What began as a bowl of lettuce and a quartet of dressings expanded into a full-fledged salad bar with 12 items on offer. “It was a big deal; there weren’t many restaurants like that around here.” Aiming to differentiate the restaurants from their cowboy roots and keep up with the “everything in excess” approach of the ’80s, American Steakhouse then focused its attention on transitioning the salad bar to a borderline buffet.

Since rebranding, the Tartaglia family has expanded American Steakhouse’s salad bar to include hot dishes, many of which came from the family’s Italian heritage. These days, you can pair your steak dinner with pasta marinara, eggplant Italiana, pickled mushroom salad, and bright giardiniera.

But while the retro appeal of salad bars is unmistakable, re-imaging the concept for a younger generation doesn’t always fly. In early 2015, Philadelphia-based chef Kevin Sbraga hoped to resurrect ’80s salad bar nostalgia at Juniper Commons, an ode to the restaurants that he grew up with. A portion of his inspiration came from the Pub, a well-loved and well-worn steakhouse just over the bridge in New Jersey. This perennially packed relic is home to two impressive, mirror-image salad bars featuring bowls of cubed ham, carrot slaw, and generously dressed Caesars perched on crushed ice. It’s a sight to behold, but one that ultimately didn’t hold up in Sbraga’s table-side reinvention. Opting to reimagine a generously stocked bar as an elegant wooden tray with tiny ramekins of rendered bacon, sliced olives, and chopped eggs, the end result lacked the bounty of its inspiration. Juniper Commons and its ’80s ambition shuttered within six months of opening.

Photo: Perry Nelson/Flickr

The salad bar might not be seeing any nationwide revivals anytime soon, but the OGs of this over-the-top steakhouse appetizer are as busy as ever. Rich Melman, founder of Chicago’s Lettuce Entertain You restaurant group, got his start in the salad bar game with R.J. Grunts. The illustrated menu of the 70s restaurant comes complete with an 10-panel comic depicting Melman and his partner Jerry Orzoff, and Grunt’s 50-plus item salad bar was a sensation from its inception in 1971. It also served as a jumping-off point for what went on to be a James Beard-award winning restaurant group.

In Connecticut, American Steakhouse doesn’t see the salad bar’s appeal dying out anytime soon. “We’re busy as all get out,” Tartaglia says. “It’s a generational thing. Our customers came here when they were little, and now they’re bringing in their families.” Even the chains are making a comeback: Ten years after closing down the last outpost of Steak and Ale, parent company Legendary Restaurant Brands is in the process of reviving the chain in Mexico City. In June 2016, Steak and Ale CEO Paul Mangiamele announced a partnership with the ONBD Group’s Emilio Orozco de la Garza. The two are hatching a plan for Steak and Ale 2.0, a polished-casual concept complete with de rigueur salad bar.

At Chuck’s, Dave Adams was seriously considering phasing out the salad bar back in 2012. Drought conditions in California caused produce prices to skyrocket, making the all-you-can-eat element of his restaurant a serious detriment to revenue. Adams decided to hang in there for one more year, and half a decade later, he’s glad that he did. “What’s old is new again and it’s kind of neat, really. We’ve seen a lot of old time steakhouses go out of business,” he says. “But that’s what makes us unique.”

Caroline Russock is the editor of Zagat Philadelphia and the founder of Beach Graze, a new site devoted to exploring the best of Caribbean cuisine.
Editor: Erin DeJesus

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