It doesn’t seem to matter whether a restaurant is a trusted L.A. standby or a rising destination; you can always count on a variation of the Caesar salad on the menu. Los Angeles’ fascination with the Caesar salad can be traced back as far as the 1930s, about 10 years after the salad’s storied invention, when restaurants like Beverly Hills’ Chasen’s offered the dish with a tableside presentation.
The Caesar, commonly composed of romaine lettuce, croutons, Parmesan cheese and a garlicky anchovy dressing, is said to have originated in Tijuana in the 1920s at Italian-born Caesar Cardini’s restaurant at Hotel Caesar, where it is still on the menu today. It was Cardini’s ties to Los Angeles, however, that secured the dish as 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 one busy night at the restaurant — some say the Fourth of July — supplies were low and Cardini used the remaining ingredients in the kitchen to create what’s now known as the Caesar salad. He tossed stalks of romaine lettuce in olive oil, egg yolk, Parmesan cheese and Worcestershire sauce and served it to delighted guests as finger food, with the white stalks acting as a natural handle.
Another version of the story credits his pilot brother Alex for coming up with the salad, naming the dish “Aviator’s Salad.” Others claim it wasn’t the Cardinis at all but Hotel Caesar employee Livio Santini, who learned the recipe from his mother back in Austria in 1918 and made the salad for himself before regulars got wind of it and began ordering it too.
When Prohibition ended, Cardini returned to Los Angeles, where his daughter Rosa Maria Cardini helped him bottle the popular dressing and sell it at local farmers markets. After her father’s death in 1956, Rosa Maria took over the family business and even patented her father’s Caesar salad dressing.
Rosa Maria was adamant that anchovies were not part of the original recipe, but the pungent fish has become synonymous with modern Caesar salads. It is unclear how this variation began, though it is widely believed anchovies were substituted for Worcestershire sauce. Today, many L.A. chefs have done their own editing to the classic recipe, reinventing the Caesar for a new generation of diners.
“For me, a Caesar salad is an excuse to shovel dressing and croutons into your mouth,” said chef Bryant Ng of Cassia in Santa Monica. “Everything else in the salad is just there to balance that.”
Ng’s Vietnamese Caesar salad’s not-so-secret-ingredient is fish sauce. But this list of reimagined Caesar salads from Southern California chefs features equally creative additions like fried capers, nori threads, cilantro and parsley-dusted rice crackers. While the true origins of the Caesar salad are unclear, there is one thing that is: L.A. diners hail Caesar.