Everyone who’s frequented a casual-theme restaurant or fast-food establishment knows Caesar salad, chef’s salad, and Cobb salad. But how did these menu staples get there and why is it important? Because they make up a vital piece of the growing patchwork of American cuisine.

Despite America’s fascination with world cuisine, the country doesn’t truly have one its own culinary heritage, at least not in the classic sense (barring Southern cuisine, of course). Let’s explore the roots of American dishes so ubiquitous they often get taken for granted, starting with these classic salads.

Delicious with a gorgeous presentation and originally served tableside with flair, the classic Caesar salad represented everything a dinner salad should be — in 1924, the year Caesar Cardini likely introduced it. Now, most restaurants have let tableside Caesars fall to the wayside of history, along with flambé desserts and rolling carts of prime rib, but the Caesar still stands as one of the most prolific salads at restaurants ranging from fast-food and quick-service types to fine dining.

The history of the Caesar isn’t that difficult to trace, thanks to the pride of the Cardini family. According to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, Caesar assembled his first namesake salad at his eponymous hotel in Tijuana during a busy July 4th weekend. A few of Caesar’s former cooks have asserted their influence on the salad’s creation, and even Caesar’s brother, Alex, and his business partner, Paul Maggiora, stated that they, in fact, invented the dish.

In an anecdote from the great Julia Child in her 1975 book From Julia Child’s Kitchen, she wrote the following: “Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl… I can see him break two eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them.”

Perhaps the most recognizable composed salad, the Cobb has origins in one of Hollywood’s most storied eateries, The Brown Derby. At the height of its popularity, The Brown Derby had locations throughout Los Angeles — at Hollywood and Vine, on Rodeo Drive and Wilshire, and at Los Feliz Boulevard and Hillhurst. These locations were and still are prime L.A. real estate and deeply integrated into the Hollywood scene.

Studio stars and industry movers and shakers all contribute to the legends and lore of The Brown Derby. Hollywood location owner Bob Cobb is credited with creating the salad bearing his name in 1937.

During a midnight refrigerator raid at The Brown Derby with friend Sid Grauman (of Grauman’s Chinese Theater fame), Cobb put together a salad with avocados, chicken, tomatoes, cheese, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, chives, and French dressing. The next day, Grauman asked for a “Cobb salad,” and it was featured on the menu shortly thereafter. According to The Brown Derby Restaurant Group, its restaurants have sold more than 4 million Cobb salads since its introduction.

Chef’s Salad
Investigating the genesis of the chef’s salad yields several possible origins. One attributes the salad to a variation of salmagundi, a 17th-century English dish of seafood, meat, nuts, edible flowers and vegetables, while another popular theory proposes chef Louis Diat of the Ritz-Carlton in New York City created it prior to 1941, when he published the recipe in the book Cooking a la Ritz.

The likeliest scenario is the modern chef’s salad evolved from salmagundi or a variation of it, and over the next few centuries, cooks and chefs added their own influence until Louis Diat made it famous.

Salade Niçoise
Salade niçoise, or the Anglicized Niçoise salad, doesn’t have a Hollywood history or even an origin of note and certainly has no chefs laying claim to its creation. But it does represent what makes food, when stripped of its glamor and the hype of food porn, beautiful: purity of cuisine.

The Niçoise salad exemplifies the Mediterranean diet, a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The salad epitomizes the tenet of the best ingredients prepared simply. It’s easy to visualize villagers in and around Nice, France in summer making their early morning trips to the market stalls to gather a modest bounty of ingredients, then combining them into harmonious combinations, one of which evolved into the Niçoise salad you know today.

If you want to make your own salade Niçoise, you’ll find recipes in the 1938 tome Larousse Gastronomique, Auguste Escoffier’s bible, The Escoffier, and Paul Bocuse’s Regional French Cooking. For the best results, use locally sourced, in-season produce and high-quality anchovies.

If you want the best salade Niçoise from a restaurant, travel to Nice. If you visit 10 different restaurants you’ll likely get 10 different salades Niçoises, each varying slightly according to ingredient availability and tradition. And if you don’t find yourself in Nice anytime soon, just about any restaurant in proximity to the Mediterranean will do. Quality seaside establishments in Italy, Croatia, and Montenegro, for example, all ascribe to a high standard of quality.