I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with salad bars. I loved them and everyone else hated them.
Growing up in the suburbs of New York City during the 1970s, salad bars were few and far between. Even fast food was virtually unknown. Well, we had a takeout place called Chicken Delight. (Anyone remember their catchy little TV jingle, “Don’t cook tonight, call Chicken Delight?”) I remember what a big deal it was when a McDonald’s opened on Route 59 around 1969 or so. There were a few little local hamburger stands, but most people just ate at home. All of the families I knew had two parents who ate dinner with their kids every night, even if both parents worked. It was another time, for sure.
When we did go out to eat, it was usually for ethnic food. That meant either pizza or Chinese or one of the kosher delis. I had never even heard of Mexican food.
There were exceptions, of course. For the travelers, there was Howard Johnson’s over by the Thruway. Or you could get a meal in one of the department stores, such as W.T. Grant in Nanuet (all you can eat fish, every Friday night!) or Stern’s across the New Jersey border in Paramus. And yes, I do remember the leaping flames from the grill (and the heavenly odors wafting through the doorway) of Wolfie’s, near the entrance to Bergen Mall.
All these diverse eateries had one thing in common: No salad bar.
The first salad bar experience that I can remember occurred whilst visiting my grandparents in South Florida. Starting when I was about thirteen years old or so, we’d make the 1,300 mile trek in the station wagon at the start of every Christmas vacation, and occasionally at other times of the year as well (Easter break or summer vacation). The first place we always wanted to head for dinner was Red Lobster, which had not yet come to Rockland County. (Giant baked potatoes rolled in salt! An exotic thing called hush puppies, with both tartar sauce and cocktail sauce!) A night or two later, I’d be begging to go to Black Angus for dinner. The only one in my family who would eat steak in a restaurant was my father; my mother and the kids only ate meat from the kosher butcher or the kosher deli. But that was okay. For me, it wasn’t about the steak anyway.
It was about the salad bar.
My grandfather would start to gripe about how it wasn’t healthy to let me near a salad bar. Sure it was, I countered. I may be a grossly overweight teenager, but hey, it’s salad! Nice crispy, low calorie greens and tomatoes! Oh yeah, my sarcastic grandpa would come back at me. Loaded with bleu cheese dressing and cheese and croutons and God knows what other calorie laden treats. Didn’t I know that salad bars were nothing but a big scam to make us think we were eating healthy when, in fact, everyone went back for seconds and thirds and ended up consuming more calories than would be appropriate for a pachyderm? I had to look that word up in the dictionary. The definition came as no surprise. Still, an appeal to my father, whom I knew would talk to his father, usually did the trick.
On Black Angus night, of course, I would gorge myself in the exact fashion of which my grandfather had warned. But, oh my gosh, that salad bar was amazing! They used to advertise how many feet of fresh fruit and veggies they had. I mean, this salad bar actually had melons and (gasp) canned peaches!
Well, back home in Rockland County, there was one place that had a salad bar, usually only on Friday and Saturday nights: The Plaza Diner, across the street from the brand new Nanuet Mall on the corner of Route 59 and North Middletown Road. Sure, there were a few other diners around (although not yet the explosion of diners that hit the scene in the 1980s), all of which were great for pancakes and eggs on Saturday morning or a slice of cheesecake after a movie. But on the weekends, the Plaza Diner rolled out a salad bar cart onto a corner of the restaurant floor, and I thought it was nothing short of stupendous. I would approach this holy altar with joy in my heart and a lick of the lips. I might stick a leaf of lettuce or a cherry tomato on my plate for window dressing, but this was definitely not about the greens. I would load up with pickled herring in cream sauce, noodle kugel (the good kind, made with fruit cocktail) and cold rigatoni with tuna and mayonnaise. The best thing, of course, was that this zillion calorie debauchery was in addition to the entrée, potato, vegetables and bread that would be served. For several years, my favorite meal was broiled bluefish (at least until I discovered spanakopita). As far as I was concerned, however, it was fine to box up the main part of the meal to eat cold the next day (this was prior to the age of the microwave). Just let me at that salad bar, mister!
During my college days, the family dining scene changed significantly back in my hometown with the opening of a chain steakhouse known as Ponderosa. I believe the name, the knotty pine décor, the wagon wheels and campfire implements littering the walls and the Wanted posters were intended to represent images of the Old West. The place was cheap, and it quickly became a go-to dinner establishment on the many evenings when my hard-working mother was too exhausted to cook (my father did not cook under any circumstances). Dad would order a hamburger or, occasionally, a steak, while the rest of us chowed down on a limpid, greasy, breaded fish filet and a tiny baked potato. No matter, though; Ponderosa had a salad bar! Okay, it wasn’t a glorious salad bar like the one the Plaza Diner rolled out on Saturday nights, but it fit right in with the increasingly vegetarian sensibilities I was nurturing at college. Come on, this salad bar had sprouts! My fellow hippies back at the food co-op would be proud.
Decades later, I still love salad bars, although they are now even more vilified than they were back then. My wife, who prefers to sit down and be served, refers to buffets of any kind as “used food.” I must admit that I can understand why. Despite the presence of plastic “sneeze guards,” the unappetizing manner in which the food has obviously been rooted through, plus the inevitability of some rotten kid sticking his boogers in the thousand island dressing, doesn’t exactly inspire images of freshness and health. And when you combine this with the news stories about people getting deathly ill from such evil bacteria as E. coli . . .
None of this, of course, dilutes my enthusiasm for salad bars in the least. Locally, there is Lumberjack’s, which features a compact little salad bar tucked in the corner. While one could say it is “nothing special,” I appreciate the pepperoncini, the raisins and the sunflower nuts, particularly since the salad bar is about the only thing other than a naked baked potato that a vegan can eat in that establishment. When the family is in the mood for pizza, I am in good shape as well. Both Round Table and Mountain Mike’s have perfectly decent salad bars at lunchtime. Most of the time, everything from the broccoli to the radishes to the red leaf lettuce is fresh, and I can go back to munch on pineapple and grapes for dessert.
As for salad dressing, I have noticed that most salad bars now have at least one low-fat or vinaigrette choice, along with cruets of oil and vinegar for snooty purists such as yours truly. Some even have lemon slices available.
Here in central California, I must say that, when it comes to salad bars, the chain steakhouse Sizzler is in a league all its own. Not only are the greens crisp every time (and we are frequent visitors), but I am treated to such delights as pickled artichoke hearts, garbanzo beans, green peas and quinoa-jicama-mango salad. One end of the salad bar is devoted to fruit: Fresh pineapple, honeydew, watermelon, strawberries. Then there is the accompanying “hot bar,” most of which I ignore. However, I always mosey on down to the taco station for the vegetarian pinto beans and the fresh guacamole. And, unlike many other Sizzler locations, our local shop will gladly serve you a baked potato with your salad bar at no extra charge.
So it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I recently learned some shocking facts about Sizzler. With the decreasing demand for salad bars, it is something of a miracle that Sizzler is still around. The chain had to file for bankruptcy in 1996 and ended up closing about 80% of its stores. Only two Sizzlers remain on the entire east coast of the United States, one on Long Island and the other in Florida. The remaining Sizzlers are all in California, the Pacific Northwest and Puerto Rico. The Washington Post story linked above states that the idea behind Sizzler was one of “choice,” the ability to be all things to all people. Like Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you want at Sizzler.
Sizzler salad bar
Well, not quite. The beloved diners of my youth in New York and New Jersey, with their booklike comprehensive menus, really did serve just about anything you could want. Sizzler, which operates on a considerably more limited scale, was simply trying to be both a steakhouse and a “fresh healthy food” place. The problem is that, in the nineties, beef lovers began gravitating to places like Outback Steakhouse, Tahoe Joe’s, Red Robin and, at the higher end, Ruth’s Chris. As for fresh, healthy food (I use the term extremely loosely), places like Chipotle and Togo’s appeared to be the up-and-comers. Sure, Sizzler had an Italian bar with spaghetti and meatballs and macaroni and cheese, but everyone seemed to want to eat lasagna and ravioli at places like Olive Garden and The Old Spaghetti Factory. You want variety in your chain restaurant? There’s BJ’s Brewery, Ruby Tuesday, Mimi’s Café and (dare I say it?) even Denny’s. The salad bar had become the ugly duckling, the red-haired stepchild. No one wanted a salad bar anymore.
With this in mind, take a moment to watch the 1991 Sizzler video in the article linked above. It is a real groaner, to say the least. The whole, schlocky thing, from the dated outfits to the pasted-on smiles to the little girl taking batting practice to the couple kissing at the end is more than a little embarrassing. Were the nineties really like that? Or is this just some Madison Avenue fantasy that fooled no one, only further fueling Sizzler’s downward spiral? When the video started being passed around online, I’m glad that Sizzler was confident enough to make fun of itself by posting it on Twitter under the headline “Let’s Sizzler like it’s 1991!”
My first visit to a Sizzler was in Modesto, California in the 1990s. The place was just plain awful and we never returned. In 2005, we moved to Fresno and agreed to try Sizzler again on the advice of my parents. This time, it was actually good. For a while, we took to eating lunch there after sleeping late on Sundays. The place would be packed with the after-church crowd, and we’d engage in much merriment at the expense of the outrageous church outfits that many of our fellow diners were caught wearing. Purple suits, bowler hats, bright orange shirts with bolo ties, dresses that looked like a rainbow threw up on them. This location served a brunch buffet in the morning (scrambled eggs, sausage, pancakes, the usual fare) before they switched over to the regular salad bar and “hot bar.” For a while, I loved the place for the pans of vegetable lasagna they would routinely set out. Soon, though, I tired of Sizzler and would beg my wife that we go eat elsewhere.
Eventually, I took a job out in the Sonoran Desert on the California/Arizona border. Sizzler was one of the few restaurants other than fast food joints or Mexican places that the little town had to offer. I reluctantly agreed to have dinner there when we went for my job interview and was pleasantly surprised. For some reason, this place served both rice and potato (or vegetable) with every meal. The salad bar included a feta cheese laden Greek salad that would always be my first stop. And instead of a soft-serve bar, the server brought a dish of vanilla goop (back east, we used to call this “frozen custard”) to the table. You could then take it to the dessert bar and dress it up with chocolate chips, syrup, strawberry sauce and Oreo pieces. Once we moved to town, Sizzler became one of our regular dinner haunts. On a typical night, you might see a dozen people you knew sitting at the tables and booths. Sometimes, you could barely get in the place, thanks to the buses full of foreign tourists that regularly made dinner stops at Sizzler in both directions on the Los Angeles to Phoenix run. We’d listen to a Babel of languages and made fun of the retirees and vacationers taking photos of each other on the way to Disneyland and the Grand Canyon.
As often as we ate at Sizzler, I refused to go near the place when we visited my wife’s family in northern California. I had tried it once and was so disgusted with the disarray of the salad bar and the general uncleanness of the place that I vowed to never return. Several years later, however, my wife’s family assured me that things had changed and urged me to give it another shot. That location was now under new management, and I found the transformation nothing short of amazing. It had become one of the “good Sizzlers” (like its sister stores in Banning and Turlock), with fresh greens and broccoli, mushrooms, plenty of fresh fruit, a taco bar and hot pasta. And the place was clean. Once I got to know some of the managers, it became clear that their commitment to the customers made all the difference.
Now that we live here, we find our way to Sizzler at least a couple of times per month. In our year and a half in the area, nothing has changed. As a vegan, I am pleased that I can have confidence that I will find plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit on each and every visit. Even better, my wife can get her steak.
In the 21st century, salad bars remain relatively unpopular, and few restaurants in this area offer them. I’m just glad that there are still a few places around, like Sizzler, where salad bar lovers like myself can indulge in their guilty pleasures.
Our local Sizzler, Sutter County, California