Los Angeles is a salad-loving town — we practically invented the genre. You can find salads everywhere, in convenience stores and white tablecloth restaurants. But finding one that's worth eschewing the rest of the menu for? That was a tricky proposition.
And because a salad has a pretty broad definition, we added some criteria for picking the ten best. These are full-portion, green-leaf salads that can stand alone as meals, and that can be vegetarian options — although many of the restaurants we visited offered protein as an addition. (That's also why the stellar Tricolore at Mozza is not on here; the integral dressing is not vegetarian.) Since so many of our options don't have meat, a lot do include nuts and cheese. All of our choices are available year round, meaning seasonal salads at places like Gjelina and Bäco Mercat don't appear. We didn't include build-a-salad restaurants, and there are no Chinese chicken or Caesar salads included, because those probably need their own list.
What were we looking for? Mostly, something that just plain tastes good with no one component overwhelming the others. It couldn't be one-note and the dressing had to have some piquancy. There needed to be a certain level of originality, even if the salad has been around for years. The price couldn't be outrageous (hello, The Ivy) and it had to be fresh and made to order. Because in a town where you can find a farmers market open every day, you want seriously fresh greens on your plate.
10. La Scala
For decades now, La Scala has been dicing up iceberg lettuce and feeding it to the svelte masses in Beverly Hills and Brentwood. Which begs the question, is this a great salad or is it merely a nostalgic entree at a beloved institution? Well, it's both actually. For one thing, it's a fact that their crave-worthy chop is part of L.A. history. It's a perfectly round dome of iceberg, cheese, garbanzo beans, salami and their lemony Leon dressing. Once you have that foundation, you can add a list of ingredients (at a cost) to make your salad a custom meal. For our version and our purposes, we left off the salami and didn't miss it at all. It's a remarkably light salad served in a place that has gracious service and old world charm. 434 N. Canon Drive., Beverly Hills; (310) 275-0579.
It's impossibly to mention the heavy duty THE© salad (yes, they copyrighted it) without pointing out that it's long been rumored to help soon-to-be mothers jump start labor. Since we don't go in for that kind of folklore and don't want to deter other diners, we'll just say it is a hefty meal that's worth trying. Smack in the middle of family friendly Tujunga Village, Caioti — which is primarily a pizzeria — has been capitalizing on this beloved dish for years. Comprised of romaine, bitter watercress, rich walnuts and some gorgonzola, the combination is topped with a thick and tangy balsamic-basil vinaigrette. 4346 Tujunga Ave., Studio City; (818) 761-3588.
8. The Sycamore Kitchen
The Farmhouse Chop at Karen and Quinn Hatfield's singular La Brea restaurant is a verdant mix of lettuce, cucumber, avocado, sliced potatoes, diced celery and bracing grapefruit served with a light herb-yogurt dressing. At a restaurant with so many decadent pastries calling, we commend anyone who gives this California dream a try. It's vibrant, wholesome and lives up to the agrarian reference in the name. 143 S. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 939-0151.
7. Eat This
If you find yourself on the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd. with all the micro theaters and suddenly craving lunch, make sure to stop in to Eat This Cafe in the beautiful Hudson Building. Order up The Carmi, a salad that was named after a friend of owner, the seasoned caterer Marcy Blaustein. It's a medium-sized bowl built on standard mixed greens with a gratifying jumble of hearts of palm, chickpeas, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, artichoke hearts and a strong Champagne vinaigrette. It's also served with a large, warm roll that's baked in-house, helping make it a full meal. 6547 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 999-2003.
6. Cafe Gratitude
The Pure salad at Cafe Gratitude is a brimming bowl full of lunch-time happiness. The lightly crushed kale is tossed with umami-dense sea vegetables, sweet cucumbers, cilantro, basil, scallions and whole teriyaki almonds. Added to the mix are sesame seeds and a tangle of sunflower sprouts, all with garlic-tahini dressing. It's vegan, it's raw and it's for sure pure. If you care about what you put in your body, this is the salad for you. Even if you don't, it's a flawless lunch. 639 N. Larchmont Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 580-6383.
Finding a Mediterranean or Greek salad isn't particularly difficult. Finding one that's made exceptionally well — like this one — is. For this spot-on rendition, crisp romaine is sliced and rich Kalamata olives hide underneath, while the smoky peppers add earthiness and the scattered feta brings a certain briny joy. The cucumbers add lightness and the tomatoes a hint of bitterness. The overall effect is classic, and pretty terrific. 233 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills; (310) 270-4444.
The fig and bleu cheese salad at Valley favorite Sweetsalt is so big it can be shared or — if left undressed — can become two meals, making it double the fun. Thanks to the abundant figs there's an overreaching but appealing sweetness that the punchy cheese is there to counterpoint. Composed of dried figs, candied walnuts, romaine, fennel, kale, purple cabbage and blue cheese, it's a bit of a salad wonderland and every bite is a delight. 10218 Riverside Dr., Los Angeles; (818) 509-7790.
This smallish, but vibrant combination of organic purple-stemmed baby kale, sliced green cabbage, whole mint leaves and a touch of cilantro is topped with toasted almonds. The dressing is a sprightly jalapeno-lime vinaigrette that adds a tiny hint of heat and a bright citrus pop. This is a salad that appeals to the “no fruit in my salad, please” crowd. It's just a lovely, somewhat rustic, clean salad that's meant to highlight the farm-fresh ingredients, and it succeeds perfectly. 7533 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 850-7070.
2. Little Flower Candy Company Cafe
At Christine Moore's tiny shop Pasadena, the Goddess salad is beckoning. The genteel bowl contains a delicate combination of vegetables that, with the addition of a crumbled egg and slice of bread, can be seen as a charmingly deconstructed egg salad sandwich. Snappy beans and Persian cucumbers top harlequin green bibb lettuce, while crumbled feta adds some saltiness to the show. This is a meal, and cafe, worth making a date with a friend and crossing town for. 1424 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena; (626) 304-4800.
1. M Cafe de Chaya
The perennially popular M Chop is a macrobiotic wonder based, we're told, on the Taoist principles of balancing yin and yang. It's organic, a full meal, satisfying, delicious and it's our choice for the best salad in town. Why? Because it has broad appeal and it also practically embodies L.A. The colorful bowl is made up of romaine lettuce and greens, avocado, cucumber, chickpeas, herb-baked tofu, scallions, umeboshi pickled radishes, carrots, beets, tamari-roasted almonds, crumbled tempeh “bacon” and tofu-peppercorn ranch dressing. There's a subtle richness from the chickpeas and avocado that is accentuated by the chopped scallions and cut with the tangy pickled radish. It's gluten-free and dairy-free and vegan, which doesn't necessarily make it health food — it's just pretty great food in general. 7119 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles; (323) 525-0588 and three other locations.