There was nothing else like it, and the place's popularity launched the incredibly successful Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises Inc. and dozens of copycat restaurant concepts, including the now-defunct Sam Wilson's restaurants, a creation of Kansas City restaurateurs Joe Gilbert and Paul Robinson.
At some point in the late 1980s, though, salad bars became unfashionable and, in some cases, potentially scary (one popular Kansas City restaurant suffered a flurry of negative publicity when customers complained that they'd suffered food poisoning from its lavish salad-bar items; the restaurant closed a few months later). When salad bars started showing up in such fast-food joints as Wendy's, the party was over -- and even that chain had dropped the aging concept by the end of the '90s.
Today it's rare that a restaurant offers diners a salad bar (though the Ruby Tuesday chain has a decent one) as an added attraction to what's on the menu. But just when you thought the phenomenon was going the way of the Pet Rock, it's back -- in the form of buffet restaurants totally and enthusiastically devoted to the cult of the "healthy" salad.
Sweet Tomatoes, The Salad Buffet Restaurant, is the newest outpost of a San Diego-based salad buffet chain (in California, the restaurants are called Souplantation). Places like Sweet Tomatoes or its rival, Souper! Salad!, aren't exactly innovators in the world of salad bars. A decade ago, several former Gilbert-Robinson executives invested in a similar concept, The Soup Exchange, in Overland Park. That place lasted only a few years, but then again, so did the ill-fated Italian joint that took over the building after that.
Right now, Sweet Tomatoes is a hot scene, bustling with customers who pile up plastic trays with plates and bowls loaded with food that is hit-or-miss. On the plus side, the long line of fresh ingredients for whipping together a personal salad is terrific: fresh, flavorful, and attractively presented. The nine house-made dressings are delicious, and so are the clever pasta salads, especially cold mostaccioli in a light pesto-and-cream sauce or linguini noodles tossed up in a citrusy vinaigrette.
At Sweet Tomatoes, diners can pick up a handy chart titled "Information to Satisfy a Healthy Curiosity." It lists the calorie, fat, cholesterol, fiber, and sugar counts of nearly everything on the buffet, which is a lot of information because the clean, well-lighted restaurant heaps up mountains of food. But a salad is only as healthy as the stuff you pile onto it. It's one thing to eat a plate of fresh greens and a splash of fat-free dressing. But once the lettuce gets loaded with grated cheese, toasted croutons, a couple of spoonfuls of Zesty Tortellini Salad (15 grams of fat in a half cup), and a big dollop of Sweet Tomatoes' house ranch dressing (15 grams of fat in two tablespoons), you might as well eat a double cheeseburger.
And if you're there to stuff yourself silly, Sweet Tomatoes is a super bargain; a dinner of salad, soup, and everything else at Sweet Tomatoes goes for $7.69 (not including beverages). There's plenty of heavier fare as well, including separate stations for hot breads, pasta, soups, baked potatoes, and a kid-magnet frozen-yogurt machine.
Unfortunately, when you venture away from the salad line the food gets iffy.
The cream of broccoli soup was watery and tasteless; the dull chili was loaded, on two occasions, with undercooked beans that tasted as if they had just been dumped out of a can; and the French onion soup had lots of onions in it but hadn't simmered for very long, so it was watery and bland. Dainty little baked potatoes, wrapped in foil, can be dappled with sour cream, cheese, and bacon (although I had to go back to my table, split open the potato with a knife, and return to the potato department to pile on the accessories). The breads range from moist and tasty (blueberry muffins, Indian grain bread) to practically inedible (rock-hard focaccia, a sugary and undercooked lemon muffin, something that looked like a chocolate brownie muffin but was so bad my friend Bob spit it out). The Pizza Focaccia was good -- but it's a traditional pizza compared to any true Italian, olive-oil-brushed focaccia I've ever seen.
A white-jacketed "chef" mans the pasta station, whipping around a trio of pans piled high with hot pasta choices that vary from day to day, including the mildly peppery Arizona Marinara and, inexplicably, something called Creamy Bruschetta Pasta. The Italian word "bruschetta" derives from "bruscare," meaning "to roast over coals." At any other restaurant, "bruschetta" describes slices of toasted bread rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil and sometimes includes fresh basil and tomatoes. At Sweet Tomatoes it's just a fancy name for an Alfredo pasta with chopped tomatoes. Not bad, but not bruschetta.
"This is a great place to take the kids," my friend Carol said as she nibbled on a tiny loaf of buttermilk cornbread, "and Grandma. It's filled with wholesome family values." But too many of those children were completely unsupervised, especially the ones congregating around the frozen-yogurt machine. I did run into a few unexpected faces during my visits, including the childless -- and grandmother-free -- radio psychic David Schneider ("You get a lot of bang for the buck here," he said, hauling a towering plate back to his table). He had no predictions for me but said, "You need to go on a diet." True enough. I also saw a former local TV personality who confessed that she would like the place more "if they would let you light up a cigarette" -- but Sweet Tomatoes is strictly nonsmoking.
After the crowd of monstrous kids around the frozen-yogurt machine had cleared, I was able to make myself a tidy little sundae, topped with chocolate syrup and crushed cookies. On another visit, not wanting to fight my way through that horde, I walked over to a different dessert area and settled for a bowl of orange Jell-O, which was surprisingly comforting and brought back memories of a cafeteria I would visit with my family during my childhood. On that cafeteria line, no decent salad display was without little bowls of jiggling Jell-O cubes and a molded gelatin salad of some kind, an old-lady concoction usually embedded with grated carrots or tiny bits of chopped canned pears.
But that was in the days before salad bars were countercultural. Though the hipness quotient of Sweet Tomatoes is nonexistent, there were a couple of Fellini-esque moments during my visits, including the view of a 70-ish lady with strawberry-colored hair, wearing capri pants and an ill-fitting tube top, who struggled with not one but two trays piled high with two plates of salad, two plastic crocks of hot soup, a bakery case of muffins and mini bread loaves, and a couple of plastic dishes overflowing with pasta. She wriggled into her booth, tossed a paper napkin into her lap, and pounced on her food like a starving jackal.
Add that twisted little tableau to the restaurant's tomato-pattern carpeting, the noisy clatter of dishes, and the out-of-control kids and you have a microcosm of American culture. Counterculture it ain't.
Sweet Tomatoes Salad Buffet1309 Meadow Lake Pkwy., KCMO, 816-333-9192
8505 College Blvd., Overland Park, 913-317-9092
Hours: Sun.-Thur., 11 a.m. -9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.