Though it's difficult to pinpoint when it started, we're living through the decline and fall of the Caesar salad.

This is sad considering once upon a time, the Caesar was a refined special-occasion dish carefully prepared tableside in fine dining establishments. Nowadays, crappy pre-fab Caesars are as common as bad hamburgers-and available at places that sell them, too.

This propelled me onto a quest for correctly constructed Caesars. I unfortunately discovered this: Finding a Caesar salad that's made right occurs less frequently than a picnic-perfect day in November.

Usually, they're ponderously leaden affairs entombed in a gloppy white dressing littered with cheap cheese and croutons that taste like the cardboard containers they came from. Then there's the unnecessary proliferation of toppings. This is a case of over-thinking and over-burdening what's meant to be a stripped-down classic.

Now I've got nothing against creativity-I've had great Caesars that were grilled, smoked and even topped with fried eggs and fried oysters. But sometimes only the authentic emperor of salads beckons, and that's what I sought here.
So behold some noble Caesars. These distinguish themselves from plebian pretenders because they're dressed in zingy and pungent vinaigrettes-no mayonnaise monsters!-and they're graced with fresh romaine lettuce, fine cheese, homemade croutons and that's it.

Gallo's Kitchen
Location: 2820 Nottingham Rd., Upper Arlington
All the pieces of a real Caesar come together spectacularly at Gallo's. First of all, the spot-on, olive-oil-forward dressing enhances and doesn't overpower the hearts of romaine lettuce. Secondly, the garlic is delivered via terrific housemade croutons. And lastly, the tricky balance of lemon, cheese and anchovy is masterfully attained.

La Chatelaine
Locations: Dublin, Upper Arlington and Worthington
I consider this a nifty gateway Caesar. It has a touch of cream for people unaccustomed to the real thing, but its bright lemony tones, earthy garlic presence and darkly toasted herby croutons (La Chatelaine's a wonderful bakery) make it special.

Ted's Montana Grill
Locations: Arena District and Dublin
A bison-burger joint might be the last place you'd expect to find a first-rate Caesar. Yet there, on a properly chilled salad plate, is the genuine, olive oil-based article. Assembled with tender hearts of romaine, this lemony and garlic-punctuated beauty also features a serious bite of anchovy. Bonus: tableside pepper mills.

Photos by Jodi Miller