Oh, the glory of a restaurant soup and salad bar! The exotic ingredients stretching for miles! The infinite choice: do you want clam chowder? Macaroni salad? Cottage cheese with mandarin oranges? Or a pile of iceberg stacked high as can be with kidney beans, cucumbers, raw broccoli, sunflower seeds, faux bacon bit thingies, French dressing, and beet slices? Who can resist?
Actually, does anyone born after 1995 feel this way? I wonder if salad bars are going the way of the dodo, embedded as they are in so many floundering restaurant chains, while Whole Foods has turned the grocery salad bar into an art form, and Sweetgreen, Chop’t, Fresh & Co, and their ilk stake their claim as the newest variation on the trend.
But none of the new-breed salad bars fill me with any joy, whereas I was something of a salad bar connoisseur as a kid. Twice a week, as part of my parents’ custody agreement, my dad took us out to dinner for a few hours—and living in the suburbs outside Pittsburgh meant that grade-B chains were as populous as family-run Italian joints. (We split the difference between the two.)
So, every Tuesday and Thursday, we cycled through our usual rotation: Ruby Tuesday, Ground Round, Ponderosa, Hoss’s, Eat’n Park… man, if you know about Hoss’s and Eat’n Park, you’re most definitely from western PA.
Though each had their merits—Hoss’s was overall the most bountifully stocked, Eat’n Park always had clam chowder on Fridays, Ruby Tuesday had the oddest (read: most interesting) mayo-based side salads, I was just happy to have autonomy over my meal for once. Not beholden to anyone but my own stomach, I could follow whatever craving I was feeling.
But choice can be paralyzing. And with so many options always at the ready, I tasted and tested and ended up with a standing salad bar order. My usual assemblage? Romaine mix, peas, hardboiled eggs, beets, olives (black or green, or both, I’ll take any), crispy chow mein noodles, blue cheese bits, and then blue cheese dressing for good measure.
Soup and dinner rolls, cottage cheese, and other “composed” salads came with the second round of salad bar grazing, finishing with a soft-serve sundae. Because, seriously, when there is a free ice cream machine, you do not pass that up. What an extravagance! What a culinary adventure!
And that’s exactly why I feel no euphoria toward today’s build-your-own salad spots. What was cool about the restaurant salad bars of my youth—something that is lost in the fast-casual conveyor belt line—is the idea of the salad bar trip being an experience. It wasn’t meant to be a healthy, grab-and-go lunch option; going to the salad bar was a multi-course meal deal, at once thrilling and comforting.
And while I’m happy to snag a bowl at Cava or fill up a box at Whole Foods, and I love that tofu is finally an acceptable protein option almost everywhere I go, the mentality has shifted. It might be healthier, it might be fresher, but it cannot offer the same magic as the old (literal) comfort food of the restaurant salad bars from our childhood.
Bonus round: who else has vividly nostalgic love for the old-school Wendy’s salad bar, which had pasta- and Mexican-focused bars, and a baked potato bar to boot? I can still remember the exact taste of the weirdly sweet meat sauce for the spaghetti, and the salty nacho cheese sauce that would congeal within seconds of leaving its steaming tray.