How the Caesar Salad Changed How We Eat

A look at this iconic salad’s origin story and its evolution into a cornerstone of accessible American cooking.

Graphic of caesar salad
Serious Eats / Getty Images / the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum

Long before there was “girl dinner,” for me, there was Caesar salad. In high school, when getting a pass to go off campus for lunch felt like the ultimate privilege, my girlfriends and I would decamp to our local Brighams’—a late, great restaurant and a fixture of many Massachusetts suburbs—and order our regular: black-and-white milkshakes and Diet Cokes, a shared plate of fries and onion rings, and giant bowls of Caesar salad, topped with garlicky croutons and a generous shower of shaved Parmesan. It was the ultimate gateway meal between childhood and adulthood: a salty, creamy, but still fresh dish, ideal for the ladies-who-lunch set we hoped to become. Though there was plenty we didn’t know at the time, we knew that the salad was always good.

A composed caesar salad in a ceramic bowl on a white stone background.
Diana Chistruga

It's easy to take the popularity of the Caesar salad for granted. With its savory and creamy dressing, its semi-indestructible leaves of romaine lettuce, and its crunchy croutons, a universe where the Caesar salad doesn’t have a huge fan base seems unimaginable. Yet when looking back at the salad’s origin story and its evolution into a cornerstone of accessible American cooking, it quickly becomes clear that the Caesar has been an ideal vehicle for shifting taste preferences and culinary convictions. The more beloved it has become, the more the Caesar salad has represented a safe starting point to tinker with the ever-changing American appetite.

The Caesar’s Origins and Its Rise to Popularity

Though it can’t be traced back to the Roman Empire, the Caesar salad has unmistakably international origins: the creation of an Italian immigrant business catering to American tourists in a Mexican border town. Most historians have traced the salad to the brothers Cesare (Cesar) and Alessandro (Alex) Cardini, immigrants from Baveno, Italy, who opened restaurants in Sacramento, San Diego, and Tijuana in the early 1920s. Their investments paid off during Prohibition, as restrictions on alcohol consumption led Californians to make the 30-minute drive over the border to Tijuana in search of gambling, entertainment, and gourmet eats. 

Postcard of Caesar's hotel
Tijuana Photograph Postcard Collection. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

As the film industry grew throughout the 1930s, so did the tourist industry in Tijuana, and Caesar’s Place, the brothers’ restaurant on Avenida Revolución, became a destination for studio insiders. Cesar, who was the chef, developed his signature salad—long pieces of crisp romaine lettuce, drizzled with a French-style dressing of Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, and a raw or barely cooked egg, whisked together in a bowl and finished with a shower of grated Parmesan and garlic croutons—that was prepared tableside, a flourish that delighted customers and canonized the dish. Those same studio insiders traveled back to Los Angeles and raved about the dish, helping it gain popularity in the city and across California. 

The growing availability of good olive oil, imported Parmesan, and canned anchovies in the 1920s helped boost the spread of Caesar salad imitations, among home cooks, including Italian immigrants who depended on the imported ingredients for a taste of home. The addition of anchovies was not Cesar’s idea—he felt that the ingredient’s flavor was too strong, and preferred to use Worcestershire sauce for its hint of fishy richness—but it first appeared in versions of the recipe published in the 1930s, likely added as a substitution by chefs creating variations of the dish across Southern California. The salad as most of us know it today incorporates salt- or oil-packed anchovies that are often rinsed to remove excess salt, then finely chopped into a paste and incorporated into the dressing or scattered over the finished salad with the cheese and croutons. But many chefs choose to abandon anchovies altogether, as Julia Child did in her version of the recipe in the 1970s. 

The historian Paul Freedman calls the Caesar indicative of the Tijuana dining style of the day, in particular because it was always prepared fresh and tableside. With plenty of “inexpensive fancy restaurants” and nightclubs all over the city, the salad was right at home as a first course to the decadent lobster and steak dinners of the day. But in our conversation, Freedom notes that its tableside preparation also derived from a similar tradition in aristocratic households in the Middle Ages, a preparation that both entertained the feast’s wealthy benefactors and ensured that food was enjoyed at its peak freshness. 

Caesar Salad prepared tableside at Dakota restaurant at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
(Photo by Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“A lot of the experience of dining at places like this was the artistry of the experience,” notes Freedman, and it ran parallel to the other performative signatures of fine dining, such as flambé cooking. Though Caesar salad was the simplest dish to receive this performative presentation, it nevertheless dazzled visiting tourists, especially members of the budding film industry in Hollywood. The more celebrities loved and asked for the dish, the more the dish appeared on menus across Los Angeles and California at large. As the pioneering journalist Clementine Paddleford observed in a 1957 Los Angeles Times article about home cooks, as show-offism proliferated across American culture, “the making of a Caesar salad demanding blow-by-blow applause” could single-handedly boost sales for the oversized salad bowl.

A breakthrough salad was never a given for American customers. As historian Laura Shapiro observes in her book Perfection Salad, early 20th century food reformers rarely promoted the virtues of delicate greens or raw vegetables, especially when “the object of scientific salad making was to subdue the raw greens until they bore as little resemblance as possible to their natural state.” Only once a salad received a rich dressing, as in the case of the old-school Waldorf salad, or a spectacular visual presentation (hello, Jell-O salads) was it considered worthy of preparation. Vegetables both raw and cooked were often blanketed with a béchamel-like mixture known as “white sauce,” a gloppy mess that home economists claimed civilized the unruly American palate. 

Postcard of the Gold Room at Hotel Caesars
Postcard of the Gold Room at Hotel CaesarsCourtesy of Boston Public Library

Yet the Caesar spoke not of bland Englishness, but of exotic European flavors. Food writers throughout the 1930s and ‘40s credited Caesar salad with the popularization of lettuce greens. In 1947, Earl Wilson celebrated the Caesar in the Zanesville Times Recorder for infusing “garlic with glamour” and for delivering a “big loud razberry” to the salads of the past. In the 1940s, hardier lettuces like iceberg and romaine also became favorites of the commercial food industry, as the greens could more easily survive cross-country transit. As most of the country’s lettuce grew in California, the recipe for the Caesar salad traveled beside it, and by the 1950s, it was a beloved menu item across America.

The Salad’s Evolution to a Main and Beyond

Through the 1960s, the Caesar’s reputation grew along with the regard for Southern California cuisine, which merged elements of the counterculture food movement with those of the gourmet food revolution. The increased political and ecological consciousness of the counterculture found edible form in its promotion of natural foods, pushing ingredients and recipes that decentered meat as the defining component of a satisfying meal. In the 1970s and ‘80s, many salads, including the Caesar, were featured across both fine-dining and everyday restaurants, as well as in the leading cookbooks of the day. Whether a Caesar salad was healthy was not the concern; at the time, the main-course salad stood in stark contrast to the meat-centric dining habits of earlier generations and represented both an ecological consciousness and aesthetic simplification of the American plate. 

Cover of California Cultivator 1927
Courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry, California.

“The idea of a salad as a course basically came from California,” David Kamp, author of The United States of Arugula, said in an interview. “In mid-century America, there was almost a binary approach to what you could have in a salad: It was either iceberg or, if you were feeling a little fancier, romaine. It took people like Alice Waters at Chez Panisse to get people into European-style greens like arugula or radicchio.” Though the door to the kale Caesar salad would not truly open until the early 2000s (with Joshua McFadden’s iteration at the now-defunct Brooklyn pizzeria Franny’s), the Caesar represented an ideal gateway to both new greens and new tastes: a familiar, deeply satisfying flavor profile that could be imposed onto countless dishes, and a safe way to seek out new flavors while remaining squarely in one’s gastronomic comfort zone.

Who "Owns" the Caesar Salad?

Throughout its history, it has never been quite clear to whom the Caesar belongs: to the fine dining establishment or the fast-food joint. Today, Sweetgreen, McDonald’s, Applebee’s, and Chick-fil-A all feature versions of a Caesar on their menus, often made with packaged dressings in shakable containers. (Newman’s Own Caesar Dressing seems to be the go-to packaged brand for most fast-food establishments, keeping a light tether to the dish’s California-adjacent origin story.) Yet as Kamp tells me, plenty of elegant restaurants aren’t afraid of resurrecting the OG-romaine preparation, even tableside, saying, “they’re embracing the nostalgia of the old.” 

There’s also the question of whether the salad belongs to the stereotypically voracious male consumer or to the more delicate female diner. Though salad itself has been historically gendered as a feminine dish in both ingredients and serving size, the Caesar’s presence alongside the wedge salad at steakhouses and seafood joints frames it as a more decadent dish, with its garlic and anchovy assumed too pronounced for ladies' luncheons. However, contemporary trends propose that the “girl dinner” of the moment can be found in the pairing of a Caesar salad and French fries, suggesting that it’s cemented its position as a salad you want to eat. In 2024, millennials are 36% more likely to order a Caesar than those in other demographics, with more than 450 million viewers searching TikTok for videos featuring “Caesar salad and fries.” 

Though It Evolves, the Caesar Endures

Among chefs and home cooks today, the elegant simplicity of the original Caesar salad is an invitation to experimentation. Whether chefs are attempting a Caesar-inspired martini or a fruit salad, the iconic marriage of cheese, acidity, and umami richness can be transported to almost any dish.

Overhead view of Kale Caesar Salad
images of the Kale Caesar Salad from pages 309 and 310 of Six SeasonsExcerpted from Six Seasons by Joshua McFadden (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2017. Photographs by Laura Dart and A.J. Meeker.

Jeanine Donofrio, creator of the popular food blog Love & Lemons, features three different routes to a Caesar on her site: one with roasted chickpeas and Greek yogurt; another with kale and sliced avocado; and a vegan Caesar dressing with a base of puréed raw cashews. 

“I knew I’d have a Caesar on my site because it’s so iconic, and you know a Caesar is going to be satisfying,” Donofrio told me in a recent interview. And especially for those trying to eat more plant-based meals, Donofrio sees the Caesar as an ideal way to “get that rich umami flavor.” 

Yet some iterations of the Caesar work far better than others and do far greater justice to its minimalist elegance. Even with the Caesar’s “great simplicity, rarely do any restaurants have them as they should,” observes Chef Jeremiah Tower, one of the pioneering voices of California cuisine. As I learned via our recent email exchange, Tower recommends preparing it just before serving and presenting in a fashion that makes it easy to dish out and enjoy. He also suggests buying baby romaine lettuce or gem lettuce instead of large romaine steaks, and preparing garlic toasts or grilled bread rubbed with fresh garlic instead of using premade croutons. 

“The salad’s greatness comes from the fresh melding of its simple and best quality ingredients,” remarks Tower. And simplicity, especially in a dish that has endured a century of changing tastes, is impossible to deny.