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My Theory [moved from General Chowhounding Topics]

I think you can tell how good a restaurant is going to be by the salad course. May not work all the time but here are four things that indicate that the rest of your meal is not going to be good:

1-Iceberg lettuce

2-Too much vinegar in the dressing.

3-Dressing on the side.

4-Salad not cut into bite size pieces.

That is all.

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  1. What's wrong with dressing on the side? Not all of us want to have our salad swimming in a dressing of any sort. Personally, I'd be seriously pissed off I didn't have the option of ordering my dressing on the side, and I've sent salads back for them being sent out dressed.

    1. You want your greens cut into bite size pieces? Not me.

      2 Replies
      1. re: KTinNYC

        I personally don't mind larger greens if they are plated on a large enough serving plate to accomodate me plying my utensils. The large (uncut or un-torn) leaves of romaine or iceberg stuffed into an undersized bowl are incredibly awkward to eat. Forget any graceful cutting, given the cramped bowl and the weird angles necessary.

        While I'm on my snit about too large/awkward, may I mention the hard, crisp quarter tomato plunked atop this little bowl of salad? Or, instead, the hard cherry tomatoes that no one could be bother to halve? (Those things can become projectiles while trying to eat them in an overdressed salad and all sort of comic mayhem can ensue.)

        I guess if I am having larger sized salad components, I would like a decent sized plate on which to eat them. If I have the typical little side salad bowl delivered to me, please, kitchen, think more in terms of bite-sized, a la composed salads. Diners should not have to do battle with an unruly salad.

        <grin> that felt good.

        1. re: cayjohan

          Awesome post cayjohan! The only good thing about doing battle with unruly salads is that finally dinner can have a winner! Couldn't resist. I stole that from the webcomic full frontal nerdity,

      2. I guess I agree that many salads are mostly mediocre, good at best; rarely excellent.

        1. Iceberg lettuce in wonderful in certain contexts. The question is the overall salad context.

        2. Yeah, Americans are partial to too much (bad) vinegar in their salad dressing.

        3. Well, dressing a salad properly is a lost art in many places. Very lightly salting the salad (the reason salad gets its name) before tossing is invariably forgotten, it seems. I am very impressed if a place has just the right amount of dressing on ingredients that have been properly prepared to receive it. But that is, unfortunately, something many restaurants get wrong. There are a handful of places that make a show of preparing a caesar salad - with coddled egg - at the table; done well, it's a great lesson in salad making.

        4. Having the greens torn is even lovelier. Some salads are designed to be cut (wedge salads, for example). Others are meant to be eaten by finger (like the classic caesar salad)

        14 Replies
        1. re: Karl S

          I did not know that caesar salad was meant to be eaten with the finger! How interesting! That explains why the caesar salad at Zuni Cafe in SF came in whole romaine leafs.

          1. re: Miss Needle

            Caesar salad is NOT intended to be eaten with the fingers. There may be variations on a traditional Caesar's salad served in certain eateries that are intended to be eaten with the fingers, but the orignal, created impromptu by Caesar Cardini in his Tijuana, Mexico, reastaurant, was intended for the fork. The man has prepared it for me himself. He proferred a fork.

            1. re: Caroline1


              As much as jfood's head snapped back when he saw Karl S' comment as well, a little research once again proves him correct. If you look at number 3 in the recipe directions on the attached URL you will see those words "the salad was eaten with the fingers..."


              1. re: jfood

                Yes, the version where the small heart leaves are left whole was intended to be eaten with the fingers. It's a lovely thing done that way, far better than torn leaves. You have to dress the salad in a way that doesn't coat the entirety of the whole leaves, which I've done.

                1. re: jfood

                  Well, the website you cite just presents one of many many many variations on the origination of the salad. Caesar's story was that movie stars -- I forget which ones -- came in late as the kitchen was closing and he was out of food, begging for something to eat. He created the salad out of what was still on hand.

                  As does Julia Child, I also have a sharp memory of the raw egg. Don't recall anything about coddled. But in today's world of rampant salmonella, I've put my original Caesar salad recipe aside, unless I find out friends raise their own chickens, then I'm a beggar!

                  1. re: Caroline1

                    there are pasteurized eggs in shell at the grocery now.
                    caesar salad is my favorite, too.

                    and, Karl S, based upon what evidence do you assert that Americans (as a group) are "partial to too much (bad) vinegar" in dressings?

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Based on the dressed salads I had in southern Europe when I've visited. The vinegar note in our salads is comparatively harsh in terms of comparative pattern; it seems to me that's why the balsamic craze took on in very sugary ways as well - we tend to like our flavoring coarsely bold (I personally attribute it to the palate distortions created by eating so much processed food, as well as an increase in congeston-causing allergies; though apparently aging is likewise a factor). Obviously, it's a trend comment, not a comment about each instance.

                      1. re: alkapal

                        "there are pasteurized eggs in shell at the grocery now.
                        caesar salad is my favorite, too."

                        Bless you! I didn't know that. Egg Beaters just don't cut it for me. I guess I've been so busy looking for free range organic brown eggs I've missed everything else! They're on my shopping list.

                      2. re: Caroline1

                        I remember that same story, except it was some president, with nachos.... that's how nachos started in Tijuana Mexico...... Think it was 'The secret life of...' I saw that....

                        1. re: mariekeac

                          same as Cobb Salad, which originated at Brown Derby in Hollywood.

                          1. re: mariacarmen

                            Yeah, I heard the same story about the Cobb Salad.

                          2. re: mariekeac

                            Not Tijuana. I think Piedra Negras, or maybe Metamoras. Anyway, some Army wives were shopping, got hungry, went into a little place where the only guy there to cook didn't speak English, but did understand they were hungry. His name was Ignacio someting-or-other. His problem was not much food on hand. He grabbed some tostadas, covered them liberally with grated/crumbled cheese, baked them until the cheese melted then topped each piece with a slice of canned jalapeno. The wives loved it, went back raving about "Nacho's" dish. Nacho is a nickname for Ignacio.

                  2. re: Karl S

                    I love when Rolmaine leaves are presented whole and I also love the looks I get from others when I pick one up with my fingers to eat. (I LIKE being the center of attention!) I eat asparagus the same way. If it worked for Emily Post, it works for me :)

                  3. Iceberg lettuce can be wonderful, and often dressing on the side is preferable to a nasty dollop of goop on my salad. I am easily able to cut my own salad, so that doesn't bother me, either.

                    On the other hand, too much vinegar in the dressing would be a problem and would tell me that someone is not even tasting the dressing before it's put on the salad. If the dressing isn't checked, perhaps other things aren't checked, either.

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: jillp

                      Barbara Kafka once recounted that she has found in cooking schools that students often don't know how to taste the oils for vinaigrettes properly - they often choose over-powerful Tuscan olive oils with no regard for the ingredients. Kafka recommends using 50% non-powerful EVOO and 50% vegetable oil for the oil portion of a vinaigrette.

                      1. re: Karl S

                        Boy, do I ever agree with you and Ms. Kafka about olive oils. A really fresh olive oil is so strong that it will overwhelm just about anything in a salad.

                        Another point: why does it have to be olive oil? I make mayonnaise out of all sorts of oils, and also my salad dressings. Sometimes I don't want to taste olive oil; on occasion I want a subtle dressing, gosh darn it.

                        1. re: jillp

                          excellent point. some salads would be better served [pun intended] with oils that have more subdued/muted flavor.

                          although occasionally, stronger flavored oils fit the bill perfectly, [i.e. nut oils such as walnut, hazelnut, macadamia]. it's all a matter of the ingredients and flavors in the salad.

                          as far as the issue of dressing on the side, i prefer the option. in fact, i NEVER order a sald pre-dressed anymore simply because most places drown those poor vegetables, reducing them to a soggy, mushy mess.

                          and i agree with cayjohan. sometimes it's served in a dish that just makes cutting large, unwieldy pieces really difficult...in which case it's nice to be given the option of having your salad chopped for you.

                      2. re: jillp

                        I nice big wedge of crisped high quality iceberg is such a great treat when set with a fine blue cheese dressing and some bacon bits. Throw in some small diced tomatoes and you basically have a great twist on the venerable BLT.

                      3. 1 - I think there are a lot of steak house that serve a great wedge of iceberg that might disagree
                        3 - There are many people who like their salad lightly dressed and others with a little more dressing. mrs jfood and i have different opinions on the amount so the dressing on the side is fine. This is good customer service. What I was disappointed in was a resto that when mrs jfood ordered her salad lightly dressed the server responded, we do not dress salads. And this was in a $30 entree resto
                        4 - i do not want my salad "cut", it should be torn. and if it is going to be cut versus torn, please give me a plate large enough for me to perform the task.

                        personally i have found absolutely NO correlation between the salad sourse and the remainder of the evening. every dish is different and great does not lead to bad and bad is not an indicator of a bad entree.


                        8 Replies
                        1. re: jfood

                          I have heard that diplomacy is like making a salad. You have to know the right amount of oil to put in with your vinegar.

                          1. re: jfood

                            I agree. Fancy schmancy salads can irritate me and iceberg lettuce in a wedge with a gloppy blue cheese on top can thrill me.

                            Lots more to find fault with or fall in love with in a restaurant, salads ain't one of them.

                            1. re: jfood

                              I, too, would be very disappointed if I did not have the option to have my salad dressed by the kitchen. I like my salad to be evenly coated with dressing which is hard to achieve at the table without making a huge mess.

                              And jfood, I like the third person person posts. It's your thing....bring it back!

                              1. re: Honey Bee


                                Option to have your salad dressed by the kitchen? So when you order any salad from a restaurant you expect that the server asks if you want the dressing on the side or not? Not a personal stab, just trying to understand the comment. I believe that if the customer prefers the dressing on the side, that is what must be done. No decent restaurant should deny that option.

                                1. re: cocktailqueen77

                                  I was commenting on jfood's post regarding a restaurant that told his wife that the kitchen does not dress salads. That would irk me a little as I prefer not to make a mess at the table (which is what happens when I try to dress it myself). If people prefer it on the side, more power to them. However, I should not be forced to eat it that way.

                                  When I order a salad, I assume it will come dressed. If the server asks if I want the dressing on the side, I reply that I prefer to have it tossed with my salad.

                                2. re: Honey Bee

                                  I usually prefer to have the restaurant dress my salad. My theory is that if I am paying the extra charge (most restaurants I dine at are a la carte) to add a salad to my entree I believe that they should take the time to accurately add the right amount of dressing. I do not like when salads come with a slop of dressing over the top of the greens. But, then again, we all have our wishes....

                                3. re: jfood

                                  I Love salads...all kinds.... and all kinds of dressings. But, I like to dress my own salad.
                                  The thing that annoys me is when I see someone using a knife to cut their lettuce.
                                  We were taught to use only a salad fork.

                                  jfood - I notice that all your reponses today are in the first person singular. You're not coming down with something are you?

                                  1. re: jfood

                                    i'd like to agree with you on that final conclusion, but my experience has occasionally proven otherwise. the sorry excuse for a salad that i was served at mastro's in beverly hills was a harbinger of things to come...the steak was just as much of a disappointment. and the service was awful to boot.

                                  2. My main issue with salads is I want fresh ingredients...not sad ingredients whose best days are behind them. I like my salad torn, prefer lightly dressed and tossed but dressing on the side is no big deal. I do not like gloppy mayonaisy dressings.

                                    1. Hmmm, I disagree on your thesis. Sometimes I like iceberg lettuce, especially with thousand island or bleu cheese dressings. Too much vinegar isn't always a sign of a bad restaurant; sometimes a chef makes the salad, sometimes it's the waitron, so quality levels can vary. Dressing on the side is a great idea for those people who like it or want it that way, and it gives the diner control over how much to dress his salad with. I like oversized pieces of salad greens, 'cause then I have an excuse to eat them with my fingers, dunking the greens into the dressing on the side!

                                      Want to know the REAL sign of a bad restaurant? When the health inspector and the owner walk past your table, arguing about closing the restaurant for multiple code violations. Or my pet peeve: Hearing the toilet flush in the men's room, and the chef exits immediately, so quickly you know he didn't wash his hands. Ewwwrgh.

                                      PS; jfood, are you okay? You're using the first person singular! KenWritez is a bit worried for you.

                                      1. Your theory reminds me of an old theory I had: judging restaurants on lemon for water: if I asked and they did not bring it, if the tossed it in the water unsqueezed so I had to fish it out (yikes!), if they put it on a plate or the side of a glass for me, or if they put a nice size lemon on the side of the glass not something flimsy I can't get any lemon out of it. Needless to say it didn't work very well, but I still shows what people have high attention to detail or mild OCD... I am not a big fan of iceberg because of it's poor nutritional value so I am with you on that one though and too much vinegar!

                                        1. Haha! I agree (minus the dressing on the side). Once you see a skimpy non-fresh looking plate of iceberg lettuce hit the table, you know you're in for a mediocre evening.

                                          1. Ah, I've had bad salads at restaurants, but the main course has been wonderful, so this theory isn't always valid (in my opinion)

                                            A wedge of iceberg dressing with blue cheese dressing, tomato and real bacon bits can be a great salad...especially for those who despise mesculin salad greens!

                                            Too much oil in the dressing seems to be common at many restaurants also.

                                            I like my dressing on the side, that way I can control how much is on my salad.

                                            I always thought that lettuce should be torn into pieces, not cut.


                                            13 Replies
                                            1. re: ctflowers

                                              Dressing on the side... When a friend had a heart attack (and bypass surgery) his cardiologist put him on a fairly strict diet. He bemoaned the loss of bleu cheese dressing. His cardiologist told him he could still have it *IF* he ordered it on the side, then just dipped each bite into it as he ate. Turns out your get all of the flavor that way and about a quarter of the fat. No! Don't submerge each bite in the dressing. Just tip in an edge, then put that part in your mouth first. Works!

                                              1. re: Caroline1

                                                even better...dip the tines of your fork into the dressing first, then spear the salad. less of a chance that you'll dunk too far/get too much...or drop your food into the dressing.

                                                  1. re: Caroline1

                                                    it's one of those tips that makes so much sense but you'd just never think to do it. my clients always love it when i share this one because it means they don't have to give up their beloved dressing and can still control how much of it they eat. they're always shocked to see how much more is left over when they use this method as opposed to dipping the salad itself.

                                                    1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                      If only this technique worked for chocolate!

                                                      1. re: KenWritez

                                                        it does. think hot fudge sundae.

                                                        jfood hated when he poured the hot sauce on the ice cream and it melted. hence the two cup approach, ice cream in one hot fudge in another. especially useful in ice cream shoppes.

                                                        then he takes a spoonful of ice cream and then dips into the hot fudge. a perfect portioning control mechanism, plus the hot fudge stay warm into the mouth and the ice cream is not a melted cup of cream.

                                                        1. re: jfood

                                                          i do the same thing - serves a dual purpose. not only does it prevent the ice cream from melting, it prevents the fudge from congealing.

                                                          however, i don't consider it to be useful for calorie control, because somehow i can always manage to finish the fudge :)

                                                          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                            really troublesome when you run out of ice cream first and have to run back to the freezer for more ice cream.

                                                            1. re: jfood

                                                              As long as jfood runs, as opposed to walks, the extra ice cream is justified...

                                                          2. re: jfood

                                                            Exactly the technique I use for hot fudge sundaes.

                                                      2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                        mrs jfood does that all the time and it works great. Really spark tines.

                                                        1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                                                          With the exception of vinaigrette, I always order the dressing on the side and eat it just the way you describe. I like a particular dressing to salad ratio. I don't like a ton of dressing at the beginning of the salad only to have to scrape up the dressing residue with the lettuce near the end of the salad. Makes more sense for calorie consumption too!

                                                    2. or as I like to say, "Hearts of Iceberg". You can also tell when it's obvious that your salad has been sitting in a fridge (slightly wilted, dry, plate is very cold).

                                                      1. I have to agree w/ u there too cchaz, good points. except as others have mentioned, i also prefer side dressing.

                                                        1. I know this posting is about salads as a barometer for food quality in restaurants...but it put me in mind of how I serve salad at home for guests. I love to serve composed salads, sometimes with different components dressed with different dressings...just a way for me to have fun and be creative. I tend to be picky about the amount of dressing I have on my salad, so I take care to avoid gratuitous dressing of salad.

                                                          I remember bringing a salad to dinner at a new friend's house. When she served the salad I had brought and dressed, her husband, a perfectly nice guy but not known for a sophisticated palate, looked at the salad, (walnuts, pears, mixed greens, dried cranberries tossed in a homemade anjou pear viniagrette), and asked, "Honey, where's the salad dressing?" I said not one word while I watched my new friend blush with embarrassment, hand him a bottle of ranch dressing, and look at me with an expression of apology. 14 years later, we are still friends and still share the occasional meal, but it only took me a couple more similar situations for me to learn to keep my fancy salad to myself and bring more, uh, neutral food to share.

                                                          4 Replies
                                                            1. re: pfarrell

                                                              This reminds me of Thanksgiving 2 years ago when I made a fabulous salad! My Mother tore the salad apart yelling about how I didn't put enough iceberg lettuce in the salad. And everyone "loves Iceberg lettuce'. My husband and I still laugh about that!

                                                              1. re: pfarrell

                                                                pfarrell, and hounds, isn't it ok (at least for the wife) to say, that your salad was already dressed?
                                                                btw, i love composed salads. makes me think of a better day!

                                                                1. Well, I'm revisiting this post after a year. I got more responses than I thought. Let me tell you, I dashed off this post in a second and didn't really think people would take it 100% literally. OF COURSE, many times a salad course can be poor and the rest of the meal will be fine. And it was just a theory.

                                                                  I still hate iceberg lettuce (except at a steakhouse) and I still propose that all too often there is too much vinegar in salad dressings.

                                                                  Re cut vs. torn: I've often heard the axiom that salad should be torn (which is how I should have phrased it in the OP) not cut, but can anyone give me a reason WHY? I suppose it has something to do with the reaction of the greens with the metal on the knife but what is the point of tearing if the salad is being eaten within a few minutes. I have to admit I "cut" my salad when making it at home and it tastes fine. Anyone have any thoughts or care to admit that they do the same thing?


                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: CChaz

                                                                    The problem with cutting is the edges of the leaves turn brown faster, and it releases more water into the salad thereby diluting the dressing. yes, if you are making and eating the salad within a few minutes it matters less and in restaurants the time factor is more important than at home. I can't stand 'wet' or overdressed salads.

                                                                    I wonder how many others of us judge a restaurant by one type of dish. For example, I live in China and always order the vegetable soup at a new restaurant. This is always nearly the cheapest thing on the menu and tells you immediately how clean the kitchen is (ie, if there is grit in the bowl then they don't wash their vegetables properly) and the quality of the produce they buy and the basics (soup broth) that they use.

                                                                    1. re: CChaz

                                                                      As far as I k now, the tradition of tearing, not cutting lettuce, is an old one that came about before the development of stainless steel knives. Carbon steel woll chemically interact with many fruits and vegetables and give them a metallic taste, some more sstrongly than others.

                                                                      I don't know of any lettuce that will "weep" enough liquid to dillute a salad when cut. UNLESS it isn't washed, drained and dried properly. I regularly make a chiffonade of iceberg lettuce when I make tacos, and it is exactly as dry after shredding as it is before my knife touches it.

                                                                      My experience is that when I need (for some reason or another) to use a carbon steel knife for slicing, chopping or paring any plant matter, the plant -- fruit or vegetable -- needs to be as clean and dry as possible, as does the knife. Frequent rinsing and drying the knife will minimize chemical interactions.

                                                                      I have both carbon steel and stainless steel knives and wouldn't trade any of them!

                                                                    2. If a salad contains iceberg lettuce I don't order it. I've had lots of good salads (with good meals to follow) not cut into bite-size pieces. I definitely prefer bite-sized pieces, particularly if salad is served in a bowl, because my teeth don't meet well and I'm a klutz so trying to cut stuff in a bowl often sends things flying.

                                                                      1. One of my fav old school salads is the classic wedge, YUM, iceberg a whole quarter head.

                                                                        1. Our daughter's wedding rehearsal was a couple of weeks ago. The restaurant in San Francisco is a casual place (Park Chow). We didn't have to pre-order; they created an abbreviated menu from their regular. But we all got the same salad: a small-ish wedge of iceburg lettuce with a scrumptious, and not too heavy blue cheese dressing and a few cherry tomatoes and Greek olives on the side. Just right. There's iceberg and then there's iceberg.

                                                                          1. The only time I eat iceberg lettuce in a restaurant is in a wedge salad. Well, except for hamburgers, but you know what I mean...

                                                                            1. I think to some degree you can judge a restaurant on what comes out of the kitchen first...if that's a salad, so be it.

                                                                              But I hear you on that one. Last year I went to a somewhat higher priced Italian restaurant and ordered a spinach salad with prawns and portobello mushrooms to start, and a porcini mushroom pasta for my main.

                                                                              The salad came out overflowing it's much too small bowl. It looked as though they had dumped an entire package of spinach in there, larger leaves at that. The prawns, grilled, still in their shells, and in general, the whole salad incredibly dry and underdressed and over-vinegared at the same time. Whatever they did with the prawns, I could not get these suckers out of their shells for love, nor money. I do NOT like to fight with my food. I had to ask for extra dressing to be able to swallow the salad, and even that didn't help.

                                                                              I wasn't impressed. For this price range, i'd expected a nice twist of greens, well dressed and presented well.

                                                                              To some degree, it was a sign of things to come. I'd give the place a second chance, but I wasn't impressed.

                                                                              Some time later, I had lunch at an Italian place that wowed me with their spinach salad, even though it was lower in price. I was not smacked in the face with vinegar, nor was it overdressed in general. It set the stage for the lovely pizza that followed, and the dessert I was intrigued to try.

                                                                              I too do not like my dressing on the side. Kudos to restaurants that will honor a guest's request to have it on the side, for whatever reason. I want the kitchen, with their large bowls and equipment to do so, to dress my salad. Plus, if it's a richer dressing, sometimes you don't want to know really how MUCH they put on/in there....really.

                                                                              And yes, a half foot wide slice of romaine leaf, does not impress me at the table.

                                                                              1. Wedged iceberg with blue cheese is kinda "in". A true ceasar salad includes un-cut romaine leaves.

                                                                                1 Reply
                                                                                1. re: melly

                                                                                  Ditto on the "in" iceberg wedge with blue cheese. So is a single, large sliced tomato.

                                                                                  Personally, if the salad is cut into small pieces, it makes me think that the salad was prepared in a Cuisinart. Definitely not upscale in appearance or taste. No, I prefer hand torn and arranged salad on a beautiful, flat plate with the dressing already on it, unless I order it on the side. Larger pieces are much more appealing visually. Small pieces or chopped salads are irritating.

                                                                                2. I am with you on #4 only.

                                                                                  Once, on another board, the topic was how best to cut the salad. A French chef weighed in that if any guest had to cut the salad, he had not done his job (obviously, the job of the staff, but if he let it go out). I feel the same way. I hate to have to slice and dice my salad.