That phrase refers to the time before an adult has enough wherewithal (an odd term for “filthy lucre”) to afford steak and potatoes. “Salad days” means getting by on less.

No more. Summer could rightly be referred to as “salad days,” but this culinary epoch could also be christened “The Salad Renaissance,” if one didn’t care about sounding absurdly inflated.

Salads have evolved from the old iceberg lettuce days. Toss in some tomatoes, celery, and carrots, top it with Thousand Island dressing or French or Ranch, and you were set. My mom used to make homemade Thousand Island with mayo, Heinz Chili Sauce and sometimes pickle relish (when she felt fancy). Fattening perhaps, but we loved it. I always hated French dressing, but when we were growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, it seemed there were only two options for everything: Tomato or vegetable soup (aka “Alphabet soup”), baloney or liver sausage sandwiches (if you wanted meat–PB&J, of course, was the default setting), chocolate or vanilla pudding, orange or pink lemonade Good Humor “one-sticks.” You were either a Cub fan or a Sox fan, National or American League, Democrat or Republican. Maybe that’s why this country is so divided. We grew up in an “either/or” country.

Now the choices and options have exploded and we’re having trouble coming to terms with a more complex world. But not when it comes to salads. It’s great to have options and local restaurants provide them. Granted, there is a choice between whole leaf and chopped salads, of course. Some like the small bits of the chopped salad so they can shovel it right in. Some prefer to pick and stab their ingredient combinations. There’s also the healthy vs. fattening salad dressing choice–oil & vinegar/vinaigrette vs. the old-fashioned creamy comfort goo.

But there is also plenty of variety–and quality–to be found on area menus these days.

One popular combination (the kind I prefer at the moment) involves mixed greens, fruit (dried or fresh or both), nuts (raw or candied/glazed), and some aromatic cheese (gorgonzola, bleu, goat, feta etc.). And usually there’s an option to add chicken or even cubed steak.

Some of my favorites: Cosi’s Signature Salad (gorgonzola, grapes, pears, pistacchios, dried cranberries with sherry vinaigrette); Corner Bakery’s Harvest Salad (apples and currants with balsamic vinaigrette); Cucina Paradiso’s Rustic Salad (pears, strawberries, walnuts, gorgonzola with balsamic reduction); and Fuego Loco’s Chopped Salad (romaine lettuce, diced tomato and onion, black beans, feta, bacon and tortilla chips, especially good with steak).

But you don’t have to spend a lot of money for a good salad. McDonald’s Asian Salad and Wendy’s Mandarin Salad are both good. Giordano’s House Salad with chicken makes a fine meal. Others I can recommend (or have been recommended to me): Caffe de Lucca’s Insalata de Lucca (contains figs); Poor Phil’s Psychedelic Salad or Chicken Caesar Salad; Winberie’s Chopped Salad (lots of bacon); Panera’s Strawberry Poppyseed, Fandango or Fuji Apple salads; Pizza Palazzo (had a decent Spinach Salad the last time I was there, but that was a while back); Trattoria Peppino’s Formaggio Salad (which means cheese though cheese isn’t the dominant feature); The Buzz Cafe’s Rustic Salad (same name as Cucina Paradiso’s, but not the same salad); and Avenue Ale House’s My Wife’s Salad (I think that’s the name).

Of course, you can build your own at Erik’s or Geppetto’s salad bars on Oak Park Avenue or at Whole Foods Market in River Forest.

You could easily eat salad all summer long–all year long really.

Am I missing any good ones?

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