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Chicago History: The R.J. Grunts Salad Bar

The Restaurant

Lettuce Entertain You is a quintessential Chicago restaurant group, with approximately 120 restaurants across the nation, the majority of which are located in and around the Chicago area. Founded by Chicagoans Rich Melman and Jerry A. Orzoff in 1971, R.J. Grunts is the original Lettuce Entertain You establishment and remains one of the most iconic eateries in Chicago to this day. 

Located on the corner of W Dickens and Lincoln Park West, right next to Lincoln Park, stepping into R.J. Grunts is like stepping back in time. The walls are lined with photos of the staff and album covers dating back to the restaurant’s opening, the restaurant’s playlist is full of the type of music that makes every parent start to boogie, and small sculptures of naked women survey diners. 

The place has hosted legendary guests over the years, including Andy Warhol and his Factory Crew, and yet remains low-key enough for large families with copious numbers of small children scribbling on the children’s menus. The menu offers classic American fare, the timeless goodness that has kept the place in business for five decades. 

The Salad Bar

R.J. Grunts’ claim to fame, aside from being all-around delicious, is that it invented the salad bar. Yes, the concept of the salad bar, beloved by many, began in Chicago at R.J. Grunts. 

Or at least that’s what R.J. Grunts claims — and whether or not this claim is a reality, the timeline matches up. The salad bar began in the early 1970s, just when the restaurant was setting up dishes of veggies and tongs and offering plates to diners with the invitation to create their own salads. 

R.J. Grunts adapted their salad bar to fit into the world of COVID by making it digital. During the pandemic, instead of joining a line of salad-makers at the famous bar in the middle of the restaurant, diners were able to create their dream greens on a phone app and have a chef prepare it for them. 

A salad bar holds a dozen or more containers of containers with a variety of salad toppings on it.
R.J. Grunt’s Salad Bar

The Neighborhood

Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood has gone through a transformation since the founding of R.J. Grunts. What used to be a cool but gritty area is now a favorite among families and young professionals, and R.J. Grunts has managed to maintain an authentic hipness of the seventies.

Situated next to the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Farm at the Zoo and Park, itself, R.J. Grunts is the perfect spot to grab a bite after a long day of exploring. The nearby Lincoln Park Conservatory, dating back to 1890, is open year-round, even when the Zoo is too frigid to visit. 

Lincoln Park is also home to fantastic shopping and beautiful, historic homes. Art Effects sells a beautiful array of miscellaneous items, Alice & Wonder carries unique women’s clothing, accessories, and shoes, and Dave’s Records on Clark offers a wonderful collection of records in a down-to-earth storefront. Another neighborhood staple that’s existed since 1916 is the iconic Park West venue where a star-studded list of performers includes Lou Reed, Prince, Blondie, and Aretha Franklin.