East End Eats: Salad Days on the South Fork

Exploring salad bars and “grab-and-go” options
Even though the traditional salad bar continues to dominate the landscape, new grab-and-go options have popped up all over the South Fork. Laura Donnelly

Over the years I have done random taste tests to try to find the best pizza by the slice, best fried chicken, best hamburgers, and tastiest lobster rolls in our area. It is impossible to try every single one, so I just throw a certain number of establishments in a hat and pull out a bunch, gas up the car, and get eating.

I spent last weekend exploring salad bars and trying a few “grab-and-go” options. I did not include restaurants, nor did I include places that will be closed soon for the winter. There were also some places that we already know serve splendid fresh salads — Breadzilla and Mary’s Marvelous come to mind — but they did not get pulled out of my snappy Panama hat. Certain places like the Golden Pear, with numerous locations, deserve mention because its salads are very good and priced between $13 and $20. Organic Krush in Amagansett offers make-your-own salad bowls that are $12 to $15 and they are generally pretty good.

On a recent visit to New York City, I noticed that there are many versions of the salad bar or build-your-own salad. Places like Sweetgreen, Just Salad, and Chopt offer quick, healthy, convenient salads from $8.85 to $12.35 (Sweetgreen), $7.99 to $11.99 (Just Salad), and $8.79 to $11.49 (Chopt). They are as prevalent in the city as Starbucks.

So now, lettuce entertain you with the results. 

In Montauk I visited Naturally Good and M and R Deli. Naturally Good has a nice variety of organic salads that come with homemade sesame vinaigrette or other homemade dressing options. They cost from $7.95 to $10.50 and range from a simple garden salad to the more exotic “kimchee” salad, a mixture of greens, homemade kimchi, avocado, edamame, and cashews. I didn’t know the tiny M and R Deli had a salad bar until I asked some Montauk friends. Its salads start at $4.95 (the most reasonable of all that I tried) and the price goes up from there. Everything in the case was fresh and neaty-pie. The next stop was King Kullen in Bridgehampton where the salad bar price is $6.99 per pound. Frankly, I found this one somewhat disappointing considering the size of the store and its vast organic grocery and produce sections. Many bottles of Wishbone dressing stand sentry at one end and there is a plethora of olives taking up one whole side of the salad bar. 

In East Hampton, I checked out Red Horse Market’s salad bar, $7.99 per pound, with some homemade dressings and some commercially made. They had an impressive selection of greens, and some creative add-ins like Brussels sprouts, gigante beans, and roasted sweet potatoes. Next stop was L and W Market in Bridgehampton, opened this summer by the groovy dudes of Almond restaurant. Their pre-made salad choices are $11 to $14 and they are excellent, ranging from Nicoise to Greek to the amusing “China Grill 1987,” a Napa cabbage, chicken, cilantro, radish, and pickled carrots salad with a good sesame ginger dressing.

It was back to genuine, make your own salad from a salad bar with a visit to the Southampton branch of Citarella. Good God, this place is so huge it should have its own ZIP code, like the shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue! The salad bar is $7.99 per pound and offers a huge array of condiments, along with quinoa, proteins, grilled vegetables, asparagus, faro, couscous, haricots verts, and more. I tried three of Citarella’s dressings and found their balsamic to be the best — tangy, a little sweet, and nicely blended. I made a huge salad with romaine, mesclun, feta, edamame, green onions, beets, and a pinch of bacon, and the total was $8.50. Not bad!

The Village Gourmet Cheese Shoppe, one of the most charming shops around, is known for its staggering array of gourmet items from around the world, great sandwiches, and cheeses. But it also has a build-your-own salad starting at $3.75, which employees will toss or chop for you. The Cheese Shoppe, too, makes its own dressings.

Sometimes salad bars can be a great time and money saver, sometimes not. So be wary of the weight of that big blob of cottage cheese you just put on your salad. They can also be a great short cut when you are making frittatas, soups, fajitas, and more, at home. Why buy a whole package of celery when you only need two stalks for vegetable soup? 

It is believed that salad bars took off in popularity in the 1960s. In 1951, Russell Swanson, of Swanson Equipment in Stevens Point, Wisc., built the first bar for chilled salads and fixings for the nearby Sky Club supper club. Norman Brinker is credited with bringing them into the mainstream (Chili’s, Bennigan’s, Steak and Ale) as a way to keep diners busy while waiting for their entrees. These early “salad” bars were heavy on the canned three-bean salad, macaroni, and gelatins. Over time, the offerings became more healthful and more varied. A short time later, thankfully, hygienic sneeze guards created a barrier between the salads and the humans. A Gallup poll in 1986 revealed that the most popular salad bar items were iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bacon, and shredded cheese. Oh, dear. By the late ’80s one restaurant critic described salad bars as “herbage, lubricant, and crunchies.”

I cook my meals from scratch almost every day, and make a batch of vinaigrette to last a week. But I am delighted with the convenience of salad bars when I just need some carrots, celery, zucchini, onions, and green beans to make soupe au pistou, topped with doctored-up commercial pesto. You can pick up cauliflower and broccoli florets and chopped onions along with a can of coconut milk and Thai curry paste to make a vegetarian curry in a hurry. Grab any chopped vegetables to make a quick stir-fry.

So there you have it, from Montauk to Southampton, a random review/taste test of some of the salad bars and grab-and-go options available to us. They are all good, fresh, and convenient, some even organic and creative with homemade dressings. Let your budget and imagination guide you to your favorites.