All hail the Caesar salad

State of the Plate: The iconic dish, which turns 100 this year, continues to be a platform for creative culinary reinvention on restaurant menus, RB menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse writes.
Prime & Provisions Caesar salad
Even at 100 years old, Caesar salad remains a popular dish on restaurant menus and one that is perfect for improvisation. | Photo courtesy: Prime & Provisions

State of the Plate

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times ran a story celebrating the centennial of the Caesar salad, an innovation that remains as vital and appealing today as it was 100 years ago, when Cesare Cardini, an Italian immigrant to Southern California, created it at his hotel restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

It was an immediate hit, with film stars of the era reportedly making the trek south of the border to give it a try. Julia Child described watching its tableside prep during a visit with her family in the 1920s as one of her earliest restaurant memories.

Its menu presence and popularity spread steadily across the country, culminating in 1953, when it was crowned “the greatest recipe to originate in the Americas in past 50 years” by the International Society of Epicures in Paris.

Quite an achievement for a plate of greens. Still, this recognition pales in comparison to its extraordinary subsequent success in mass-market operations.

Spicier Sonoma Caesar from Chopt | Photo courtesy: Chopt

Spicier Sonoma Caesar from Chopt Creatuve Salads | Photo courtesy: Chopt.

The Caesar captured gastronomic lightening in bottle, as it coincided with the culinary revolution under way in this country in the 1990s. A composed salad, it was more sophisticated and chef-y than the familiar tossed variety, and it was notably flavor forward thanks to its use of Worcestershire, Parmesan and garlic.

Its position as a menu mainstay, however, was sealed by its ready acceptance of protein toppers, which made it a center-of-the-plate option and marked a revolutionary departure from the three-hot-squares a day rule. Perceived as fresh and healthful, it was totally in tune with the emerging California-cuisine trend that put produce squarely in the spotlight.

Throughout the early 2000s, the Caesar flavor profile was one of the primary drivers of chain-menu R&D, and while other salads have come in and out of vogue, it remains a fixture.

Of course, like all long-running, familiar favorites, it has been subject to ongoing creative reinvention.

Global entries.  Cool and crisp, the greens make a compatible carrier for toppings from all points on the compass. Seasonal specials at Chopt Creative Salads, for example, include the Spicy Sonoma Caesar with chipotle chicken and pickled peppers and a Spicier Sonoma Caesar option with Fresno chili dressing. The Mexican Caesar on the permanent menu here sports jalapeños, cotija cheese and tortilla chips.

New-Jersey based fast-casual concept Alfalfa turns up the heat with the Spicy Calabrian Caesar with hot cherry peppers and homemade spicy Calabrian Caesar dressing, while the Diavolo Caesar Salad at Bad Roman in New York City balances its devilish heat with Little Gems lettuce and ciabatta crumbs.

Immigrant Food, a “gastroadvocacy restaurant” in Washington, D.C., offers a pan-national menu that includes the Miso Caesar Salad with shiitake “bacon,” wonton chips, nori and sesame; and on the left coast, the Japanese Caesar at Tsubaki, an izakaya in Los Angeles, demonstrates its “Japanese roots with a California state of mind.” In this rendition, market lettuces are combined with panko, creamy miso-Parmesan dressing, shredded bonito threads and nori.

Superfood status. Many chains play into the salad’s healthful aura by taking it up a notch. That’s true of the new Caesar Crunch Salad at Veggie Grill, which puts kale, mushroom crisps and hemp hearts in the mix, while The Modern Caesar at Mendocino Farms adds curly kale, housemade superfood krunchies, grape tomatoes and avocado.

Kale has become a go-to, better-for-you value add in numerous Caesars, as with the Steak Kale Caesar at Sweetgreen, to which the new caramelized garlic steak can be added.

Lemon-Kale Caesar, Piada

Piada Italian Street Food's Lemon Kale Caesar | Photo courtesy: Piada.

Then there are the Lemon Kale Caesars at Chick-fil-A and Piada Italian Street Food. The former, a limited-time offer, boasts lemon-Parmesan panko and lemon-Caesar vinaigrette; the latter, a new addition to the core menu, marries kale, romaine, red and napa cabbages along with pancetta and bruschetta tomatoes in a housemade dressing with a lemon wedge on the side.

To anchovy or not to anchovy? It’s unusual for an item with such broad-based acceptance to contain polarizing ingredients, but the Caesar boasts two such metaphorical bones of contention.

The first is the anchovy. In an interview with the LA Times, Cardini’s daughter said its appearance in the salad was something she “couldn’t figure out,” since her father envisioned a subtle salad, and the anchovy is anything but. She then went on to add enigmatically that “while a proper Caesar always has anchovy, an authentic one never does.”

Less inscrutable, though no less polarizing for many diners, is the use of a coddled egg. Standard to the classic preparation, it is broken into the salad bowl and tossed with the other ingredients.

Chain versions invariably exclude both of the above, although Portillo’s Caesar does come topped with a hard-boiled egg. And independent practices vary greatly.   

At Chicago’s Michelin-recognized Maple & Ash, the Knife & Fork Caesar starts with wood-fired romaine, then adds pecorino, soft-cooked egg and savory sprinkles. At Chops, a steakhouse for power players in Atlanta, there’s no egg, but there are Sicilian white anchovies. In Las Vegas, Harlo Steakhouse & Bar flirts with molecular gastronomy: Its Classic Caesar comes with a not-so-classic crispy seven-minute egg.

Veggie Grill caesar salad

Veggie Grill's Caesar salad | Photo courtesy: Stephanie Kelly Photography. 

The recent uptick in experiential dining has driven a corresponding uptick in tableside prep, as at David Burke Prime, where the Tableside Caesar is a popular ritual, and at Miller & Lux in San Francisco, where the Caesar for Two is prepared tableside with hand-harvested lettuce and gluten-free Meyer lemon bread crumbs.

Upmarket touches are common in upmarket operations, like the Lump Crab Caesar with Tuscan kale, romaine and garlic-Parmesan breadcrumbs available at Prime & Provisions, a chic, next-gen steakhouse in Chicago. Nearby Kinzie Chophouse offers a finishing flourish of anchovy bruschetta.

It will neither decline nor fall. Besides its many positive flavor and freshness attributes, the Caesar salad benefits from the perception that its prep may be best left to the experts. It regularly appears on the most-ordered lists from Grubhub and DoorDash, along with mozzarella sticks, chicken wings and fried chicken sandwiches, all proven favorites that we’re unlikely to make at home.

What’s more, its long-term demographic outlook is highly favorable. According to Technomic’s Ignite database, Millennials are 36% more likely to order a Caesar than the population at large. This suggests a bright-green future for the Caesar salad as the massive generational cohort ages and moves it towards its second hundred years.

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