Salad bars have become an American tradition

Supper club relish trays started it all
Salad bars have become an American tradition

Arguably, its birth is right here in Wisconsin. The Sky Club, a supper club in Plover, claims to have invented the salad bar in 1950. Regardless, it was a dining trend that really took off in the 1960s and ’70s. Prior to its advent, many restaurants delivered a relish tray with the menu–a simple assortment of celery and carrot sticks, radishes, perhaps an olive or two. Tornado Steakhouse still pays homage to this ritual today. Needless to say, competition among supper clubs has always been fierce, with more always deemed better.

It wasn’t long before other items like small bowls of cottage cheese, pickled beets–maybe even cheese and crackers–joined the relish tray. Pickled beets and cottage cheese remained a lagniappe at Smoky’s Club for many years. (They’re still on the menu but now cost extra.) The Lazy Susan–a revolving tray placed in the center of a table–has been around forever and used for many purposes. But, back in the ’50s, it became a fad at many Chinese restaurants, facilitating the sharing of communal dishes. It soon became a vehicle for the new, improved relish tray. I have nostalgic recollections of the original Hoffman House on Wilson Street (where the Essen Haus is today), and its lazy Susan fitted with wedge-shaped ceramic dishes heaped with tasty tidbits: cheese spread, kidney bean salad, creamed herring and even a scoop of chicken liver pâte (which I mistook on first encounter for chocolate ice cream). There were crudities as well, but they somehow seemed an afterthought. As the Hoffman House swelled into a chain of cookie-cutter restaurants, it replaced its Lazy Susan, as did many competitors of that era, with an “iced salad well”–a salad bar.

An astounding proliferation of salad bars soon followed. By the 1970s, salad bars were so popular they became de rigueur at mom-and-pop taverns and fast-food outlets alike. Restaurateurs liked them since they cut costs, eliminating the serving of two courses–and sometimes three, as hot soup commonly joined the ever-growing list of offerings. Diners liked them because of the many choices they could pile onto plates and into bowls. A Gallup poll taken in 1986 rated the top five salad bar components as tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, bacon bits and shredded cheese. Least liked were raw green beans.

Today, with its cornucopia of dishes that range from now commonplace field greens to exotic feijoada, Samba Brazilian Grill raises the bar with the most elaborate pre-entree buffet in town. The offerings at many supermarkets now rival those of fine dining establishments. Metcalfe’s Market and Willy Street Co-op are both exemplary for their variety and nutrition. However, for an old-style supper club salad bar experience, Watertower Chop House in Sun Prairie can’t be beat. Its more than 40 fresh and homemade selections include that peculiar but compulsory ‘Sconnie favorite, chocolate pudding! Salad bars, once a food fad, have evolved into a much-loved and uniquely American dining experience.