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Salad Daze 

Vermont restos serve up a very mixed bag of greens

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen

What do you get when you mix avocado sushi, calamari salad, banana chips and a pile of cold meatballs? Nothing you'd want to eat — together. Yet all these items can be found behind the "sneeze guards" at area salad bars. Gone are the days when lettuce-loving diners found only chunks of watery iceberg and a few sliced veggies alongside goopy dressings and a cursory collection of crunchy toppings. Vermont restaurants have made a lot of produce progress.

Case in point: Souza's Brazilian Steakhouse catered mainly to carnivores for five years on lower Main Street in Burlington. But at its brand-new venue up the hill, on the corner of St. Paul, there's a sizable "international" soup and salad bar. "Every rodizio steakhouse in Brazil has one," explains chef Kelly Dietrich. It seems the American salad-bar idea is so hot in Brazil that his restaurant didn't feel "authentically Brazilian" without one. Items at Souza's run the gamut from translucent slices of smoked salmon to hearty scoops of hot black beans and rice.

Though more Vermont restaurants are making the greens scene, the concept is not exactly new. And the origins of the salad bar are not exactly known, either.

Chuck's Steak House of Waikiki, Hawaii, claims to have invented it in 1959. Other reports indicate that Sam and Viola Cliff of Springfield, Illinois, operated one at their restaurant, called The Cliffs, in the late 1940s. The couple holds an apparent trump card — a 1950 postcard advertising their restaurant's "salad bar buffet."

What culinary historians are certain of is that the modern salad-bar concept became wildly popular in the health-faddish 1970s. Even aerobics guru Richard Simmons got in on the craze, opening a combination salad bar and fitness studio mid-decade. But the café side of the establishment, which had the unfortunate name of "Ruffage," didn't last long.

The foraging furor got a boost from entrepreneur Rich Melman, who co-founded a Chicago singles bar and restaurant called RJ Grunts in 1971 and quickly began converting leafy greens into greenbacks. The place still exists, one of many restaurants in Melman's Lettuce Entertain You hospitality group.

Grunts, known for its hippie chic and macrobiotic leanings, proffered a 40-item, all-you-can-eat deal. It's the great-grandpa of places such as Burlington's Stone Soup and Montpelier's Rhapsody, which cater to a health-conscious, partially vegetarian crowd. Other local salad-slingers, such as the Windjammer in South Burlington and Middlebury's Fire and Ice, hew to the more popular steak/seafood/salad model.

The communal, DIY aspect of the salad bar may explain its popularity, but it comes with a host of health concerns. In some respects, eating at a salad bar is like sharing a meal with dozens of strangers. Vermont restaurant inspector Al Burns doesn't advise shunning them. But he's happy to elucidate a few tenets of salad-bar safety: 1) You must use a clean plate every time you go back to a salad bar; 2) Food should be covered, or a "sneeze guard" should be in place; and 3) If food is not kept at the correct temperature — below 41 degrees for cold foods and above 135 for hot — it must be discarded after four hours.

The biggest health hazard at salad bars? People sticking their fingers in the food, which happens "especially at the grocery stores," Burns suggests.

That's not why we left supermarkets and co-ops out of the following salad-bar survey, though. No, chowing down at eight restaurants in five towns over five days was enough. We managed to sample nearly every ingredient — hot, cold or (inappropriately) room temp. Along the way, we swore off three-bean salad forever. And mayo is out for at least a month. Nine varieties of wimpy pasta salad will do that.

Not that the dining experience was all bad, by any means. Does lettuce entertain you? Read on.

THE BEST OF THE BUNCH

* = Unusual — these items appeared at two or fewer salad bars

Bold = Super-fresh or extra-tasty

MISTER UP'S

25 Bakery Lane, Middlebury • 388-6724

Open 7 days • Lunch & dinner

# of items: 30-odd

Hot or not? Not

Bread board? Yes

Lettuce leanings: Mixed greens

Veggie variety: Baby corn*, carrots, cherry tomatoes, portabello mushroom slices (raw)*, red onion, roasted garlic

Luxe stuff: Bocconcini*, mixed olives, sweet pickles with pickled cauliflower*

Daring dishes: Applesauce, cottage cheese

Sassy salads: Marinated artichoke and tomato salad*, coleslaw, seafood salad, three-bean salad

"Different" dressings: Hummus, homemade maple vinaigrette*

Tantalizing toppings: Cheddar, Chinese noodles, croutons, Parmesan, peanuts, sunflower seeds

Other options: Sandwiches and wraps, soup, steak, chicken dishes

Cost at dinner: $8.25 on its own, $3.99 with an entrée.

Note: It was a pleasant surprise to find high-end items like mozzarella balls and zingy marinated-artichoke salad in a pub-style restaurant.

RHAPSODY CAFÉ

28 Main Street, Montpelier • 229-6112

Open 7 days • Lunch & dinner

# of items: 40-odd

Hot or not? Hot

Bread board? No

Lettuce leanings: Mixed greens

Veggie variety: Bell pepper, broccoli (raw), carrots, cucumber, corn, green beans*, mushrooms, red onion

Luxe stuff: Greek olives, pickles

Daring dishes: Brown rice*, cannellini bean and veggie stew*, Caribbean tempeh*, crispy rice fritters*, egg rolls*, ginger garlic tofu stew*, gingered sweet potatoes*, inari*, pesto corn on the cob*, quinoa*, samosas*, steamed mixed greens and roots*, sushi*, vegetarian chili*, vichyssoise with fiddleheads*

Sassy salads: Artichokes with tofu mayo*, Asian slaw*, cucumber and wakame*, Dutch potato salad, farfalle with pesto*, Russian beet salad*, udon with wild leeks*

"Different" dressings: Guacamole*, lemon tahini*, lime scallion*, tofu dill*

Tantalizing toppings: Croutons, organic corn chips*, raisins, sesame sticks, wheat tortilla chips*

Other options: Local sodas, sake, smoothies, vegan desserts

Cost per pound: $6.99; sushi is sold by the piece.

Notes: This hot-and-cold bar with a sushi station is the only place we found vegan options almost exclusively: Tofu mayo replaces the traditional variety. Some of the sushi includes seafood. The café's location next to the Savoy Theater is a bonus.

SOUZA'S BRAZILIAN STEAKHOUSE

131 Main Street, Burlington • 864-2433

Closed Monday • Lunch & dinner

# of items: 40-oddHot or not? Hot

Bread board? Yes

Lettuce leanings: Mixed greens

Veggie variety: Carrots, garbanzo beans, roasted baby beets*, red onion, tomatoes

Luxe stuff: Deli meats (including mortadella*), Greek olives, hearts of palm*, roasted peppers with garlic, smoked salmon*, sliced cheeses*

Daring dishes: Black beans*, braised beef*, chicken Parmesan*, green beans*, herbed rice*

Sassy salads: Brazilian-style potato salad with hearts of palm*, chicken ;salad*, cucumber with onions and red peppers*, marinated mushrooms with onions, mock-crab salad*, seaweed salad*, shrimp-cocktail salad*, squid salad*, tuna salad*

"Different" dressings: Homemade Thousand Island*, homemade vinaigrette*, more than a dozen varieties of olive oil*

Tantalizing toppings: Feta, croutons

Desserts: Brownies*, caramel flan*, coconut flan*, roasted bananas*

Other options: Rodizio-style meats

Cost at dinner: $26.95 for salad bar, dessert bar and juice. $36.95 for an all-inclusive meal with numerous kinds of meat.

Notes: Has by far the greatest number of unusual or exotic dishes. At lunch, get a salad bar/rodizio-combo for $12.95. The price includes grilled meats, a dessert bar and tropical fruit juices such as mango, guava and cashew. Don't miss the cheese bread.

STONE SOUP

211 College Street, Burlington • 862-7616

Closed Sunday • Breakfast, lunch & dinner

# of items: 20-odd

Hot or not? Hot

Bread board? Yes

Lettuce leanings: Mixed greens

Veggie variety: Bean sprouts*, broccoli (steamed)*, carrots, corn, edamame*, kale (steamed)*, roasted beets, sweet potatoes*, red onions, tomatoes

Luxe stuff: Greek olives, marinated tofu*, Moroccan dry-cured olives*

Daring dishes: Cheesy polenta*, creamy spinach Alfredo*, tofu stew*, veggies in African leaf sauce*

Sassy salads: Marinated mushroom and veggie with roasted garlic*, dilled zucchini*x

"Different" dressings: Balsamic*, Green Goddess*, peanut ginger*, lemon tahini*

Tantalizing toppings: Croutons, feta, spiced sunflower seeds

Other options: Pizza slices, sandwiches, soups, vegan baked goods

Cost per pound: $6.75

Notes: Hot-bar items change daily. Everything is extremely fresh and flavorful, and there are many vegetarian and vegan options. Sometimes a bit of salt is needed.

THE REST

* = Unusual — these items appeared at two or fewer salad bars

Bold = Super-fresh or extra-tasty

ROONEY'S CAFÉ AND DELI (ANYTHING'S PASTABLE)

173 College Street, Burlington • 864-7547

Closed Sunday • Lunch

# of items: 20-odd Hot or not? Not

Bread board? No

Lettuce leanings: Spinach, green-leaf lettuce mixed with frisée

Veggie variety: Bell pepper, black beans*, broccoli (raw), canned tomato chunks*, carrots, corn, cucumber, garbanzo beans, kidney beans*, tomatoes

Luxe stuff: Artichoke hearts, hot cherry peppers*, pepperoncini, sun-dried tomato strips*, whole eggs*Daring dishes: Plain, cold meatballs*

Sassy salads: Marinated broccoli salad*, pasta salad, three-bean salad"

Different" dressings: Sweet Vidalia onion*, maple balsamic*

Tantalizing toppings: Croutons, shredded bacon*

Other options: Pasta dishes, sandwiches, soups

Cost per pound: $6.50

Notes: No public restroom. Salad bar wasn't very well stocked by 1:30 p.m. on one visit.

FIRE & ICE RESTAURANT

26 Seymour Street, Middlebury • 388-7166

Open 7 days • Lunch & dinner

# of items: 50-plus

Hot or not? Not

Bread board? Yes

Lettuce leanings: Iceberg, mixed greens

Veggie variety: Bell pepper, broccoli (raw), carrots, cucumber, red onions, tomatoes

Luxe stuff: Artichoke hearts, blue cheese crumbles*, cornichons*, California olives, peel 'n' eat shrimp*, pepperoncini, pickle chips, roasted garlic, Spanish olives

Daring dishes: Carrot cake, baked beans, canned fruit, cottage cheese, vegetarian sushi*

Sassy salads: Black bean salad*, coleslaw, farfalle vinaigrette*, fruit salad, garbanzo salad*, marinated mushrooms, pickled beets, orecchiette with chunks of cheese*, shells with mayo, three-bean salad"

Different" dressings: Hummus, sweet and sour*, "fat-free" (that's all it said)

Tantalizing toppings: Bacon, Chinese noodles, croutons, dried cranberries*, granola*, sunflower seeds

Other options: Chicken, steaks and seafood

Cost at dinner: $9.99 on its own. Included with many entrées.

Notes: Don't miss the carrot cake or the cheese-stuffed bread as you "waltz through the salad ballroom" with a boat in the middle.

SIRLOIN SALOON

2545 Shelburne Road, Shelburne • 985-2200

Open 7 days • Dinner

# of items: 30-odd

Hot or not? Not

Bread board? No

Lettuce leanings: Iceberg mix, spinach

Veggie variety: Baby corn*, bean sprouts*, bell pepper, cauliflower (steamed)*, cucumber, mushrooms, radishes*

Luxe stuff: California olives, pepperoncini, pickled hot pepper rings*

Daring dishes: Baked beans, herbed cottage cheese*

Sassy salads: Beet salad*, broccoli stem salad*"

Different" dressings: Raspberry vinaigrette*

Tantalizing toppings: Bacon, cheddar, Chinese noodles, croutons, Parmesan, roasted soybeans*

Other options: Seafood, soup, steaks

Cost: $8.99 on its own. Included with many entrées.

Note: This local chain offered a couple of unusual veggies, plus excellent service and a casual environment.

THE WINDJAMMER

1076 Williston Road, South Burlington • 862-6585

Open 7 days • Lunch & dinner

# of items: Around 40

Hot or not? Not

Bread board? Yes

Lettuce leanings: Mixed greens

Veggie variety: Bell pepper, broccoli (raw), carrots, cucumber, garbanzo beans, grape tomatoes, red onions, scallions*

Luxe stuff: Banana peppers*, roasted red peppers, sliced eggs*

Daring dishes: Baked beans, cottage cheese

Sassy salads: Fruit salad, marinated mushrooms, pickled beets, spiral pasta with red pepper dressing*, three-bean salad, whole wheat penne with mayo*"

Different" dressings: Dill ranch*, sesame ginger*, berry vinaigrette*

Tantalizing toppings: Banana chips*, bacon, cheddar, Chinese noodles, croutons, golden raisins*, Parmesan, peanuts*, sesame sticks*, wasabi peas*

Other options: Chicken, steaks, seafood, soups

Cost at dinner: $8.99 on its own. Included with many entrées.

Note: This salad boat has identical items on each side, paired with slightly different dressings.

Info:

Salad bars featured in the 7 Nights guide that we were unable to visit:

MY-T-FINE159 Route 7, Swanton, 868-4616. Closed Monday. Breakfast, lunch & dinner.

SOUP 'N' GREENS325 N. Main Street, Barre, 479-9862. Open 7 days. Breakfast, lunch & dinner.

SOUTH STATION AT TROLLEY SQUARE170 S. Main Street, Rutland, 775-1736. Open 7 days. Brunch, lunch & dinner.

YACHT CLUB RESTAURANT AT THE COMMODORES INN823 S. Main Street, Stowe, 253-7131. Open 7 days. Breakfast & dinner.

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Suzanne Podhaizer

Suzanne Podhaizer

Bio:
Contributor Suzanne Podhaizer is an award-winning food writer (and the former Seven Days food editor) as well as a chef, farmer, and food-systems consultant. She has given talks at the Stone Barns Center for Agriculture's "Poultry School" and its flagship "Young Farmers' Conference." She can slaughter a goose,... more

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