Real cheese in the Bay Area started with the Cheese Board in North Berkeley, some 50 years ago. I didn’t make it over there this time, but I know they are still going strong (read this lovely portrait of them by the great Janet Fletcher). Here however are three equally thrilling cheese destinations in the city of San Francisco for you when you make it over to the west coast.
First, a real surprise, Rainbow Grocery. A worker-owned cooperative on Folsom street founded in 1975, in a very un-idyllic location, but with an amazing selection of (not only) cheese, and a wonderful ambiance. My thanks go to Patty Unterman, founder and owner of Hayes St Grill (founded at the same time and in the same spirit as Chez Panisse – the goat cheese salad has been on the menu since 38 years), for pointing Rainbow out to me. Wish both Rainbow and the Grill were around the corner in Berlin… (a note: would I have done my research more thoroughly, cheese at Rainbow would not have come as a surprise: Gordon Edgar has been responsible for it since 1994. Chapeau!).
Then, Cheese Plus on Polk and Pacific. I vaguely remember checking them out on my first cheese-centric California trip in 2002 and being not too impressed.
Ray Bair, who took over in 2005 after a long career at Wholefoods, changed the cramped interior, but kept the by now retro-patina. Cheese Plus now offers a great wine selection, wonderful cheeses (including Soyoung Scanlan’s Andante Dairy, which for me is a kind of seal of superiority) and lovely flowers, amongst a lot of delicious other stuff (very much in the vein of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge MA). Ray says they aim to be both food destination and corner store – again, wish I lived around that corner!
And finally, the Cowgirls Creamery store at the Ferry Building. This is in a slightly different league and of a different world, as its origins are with the eponymous cheesemakers in Petaluma who first created some gorgeous soft cheeses in Marin County and then went on to revolutionize artisan cheese distribution.
Until about a year ago everything here was cut to order, and the shop a glorious riot in cheese tasting and discussion, especially on Saturday mornings with the Farmers Market outside. Sadly, due to FDA regulations, most of the cheeses are now precut. But the mongers present are still super-knowledgeable and more than ready to talk cheese. Trust them, totally, in their advice.
And yes, in all three of these stores, your cheese bill will have a certain gravitas – handmade cheese with real character cannot be cheap, just keep in mind what the best dry-aged meat would cost you. Humboldt Fog, Mt Tam, Duet, Rogue River Reserve and all the others are a gorgeous concert of beautiful west coast voices – enjoy.