It doesn’t matter whether a restaurant is a trusted Los Angeles destination or an up-and-coming destination; you can always count on a variation of Caesar salad on the menu. Los Angeles’ fascination with Caesar salad dates back to the 1930s, about 10 years after the salad’s invention, when restaurants like Beverly Hills’ Chasen’s offered the dish with a tableside presentation.
The Caesar, usually made with romaine lettuce, croutons, parmesan and an anchovy-garlic vinaigrette, is believed to have originated in Tijuana in the 1920s at the Caesar Cardini Italian restaurant in the Caesar Hotel, where it still is on the menu today. It’s Cardini’s ties to Los Angeles, however, that have made this dish an unequivocal local staple.
Cardini was a California-based restaurateur who opened his restaurant across the border to escape Prohibition, and it quickly became a popular destination for wealthy Angelenos and San Diegans looking to do the same. Legend has it that during a busy evening at the restaurant – some say the Fourth of July – supplies were low and Cardini used the leftover ingredients in the kitchen to create what is now known as Caesar salad. He tossed stalks of romaine lettuce in olive oil, egg yolk, Parmesan and Worcestershire sauce and served it to delighted guests as appetizers, with the white stalks acting as a natural handle.
Another version of the story credits his pilot brother Alex with inventing the salad, naming the dish “Airman’s Salad.” Others claim it wasn’t the Cardinis at all, but Caesar Hotel employee Livio Santini, who learned the recipe from his mother in Austria in 1918 and prepared the salad himself before before the regulars get wind of it and start ordering it too.
When Prohibition ended, Cardini returned to Los Angeles, where his daughter Rosa Maria Cardini helped him bottle the popular salad dressing and sell it at local farmers’ markets. After her father died in 1956, Rosa Maria took over the family business and even patented her father’s Caesar salad dressing.
Rosa Maria insisted that anchovies were not part of the original recipe, but the tangy fish has become synonymous with modern Caesar salads. It is unclear how exactly this variation began, although it is generally believed that anchovies replaced Worcestershire sauce. Today, many Los Angeles chefs have made their own twist on the classic recipe, reinventing the Caesar for a new generation of diners.
“For me, a Caesar salad is an excuse to put dressing and croutons in your mouth,” says chef Bryant Ng of Cassia in Santa Monica. “Everything else in the salad is just there to balance that out.”
The not-so-secret ingredient in Ng’s Vietnamese Caesar salad is fish sauce. But this list of Caesar salads reimagined by Southern California chefs features equally creative additions like fried capers, nori threads, cilantro, and parsley-dusted rice crackers. Although the true origins of Caesar salad are unclear, one thing is certain: Los Angeles diners give the Caesar salute.