In a city claiming an array of culinary achievements—burritos, $4 specialty toast, avocado-everything—there are few foods San Franciscans geek out over more readily than cheese. That’s because Northern California has a boon of high-end, artisanal cheese producers. From small-batch indie farms to award-winning French masters, these San Francisco cheesemongers are dicing up some truly special wheels.
S.F.’s top cheese shops
Sue Conley, a Chez Panisse alum, and Peggy Smith, former co-owner of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley, founded this California institution in the ‘90s. The pair started out in Point Reyes Station, where they established a small cheese-making room in a renovated hay barn using milk from nearby Straus Family Creamery. Today, Cowgirl Creamery’s award-winning cheeses are sold in over 500 stores and restaurants, including this well-appointed (and recently renovated) European-style cheese shop in the Ferry Building. Cheesemakers Eric Patterson and Miguel Martinez have since taken over the day-to-day of eight aged cheeses—a few of them seasonal—and two fresh cheeses. The best-seller is the Mt. Tam, a buttery triple cream. Don’t overlook look the fresh cheeses, including ricotta, mascarpone, and creme fraiche.
As the former director of cheese and wine at Whole Foods, Cheese Plus owner Ray Bair has a corporate pedigree, but a palette for the fine, funky and local. He stocks his store and Cheese School with selections from California France, Italy and beyond. There’s always a strong showing of the European classics, as well as decadent outliers like a triple cream brie infused with honey, hazelnut and truffle. The Cheese school offers regular cheese-tasting and -pairing classes a lovely, light-strung garden.
They’re fussy—even a bit snooty—about cheese at this family-run emporium; but with a selection this sprawling, they can afford to be. More than 300 cheeses are listed alphabetically on the wrap-around chalkboard spanning the shop’s walls. Samples are offered, but there’s little patience for waffling once you step up to the case. The assortment hails from around the world (with a particularly strong showing from Switzerland and France), including triple creams, aged goudas, sheets milk imports and locally-produced blues.
Ruben Donze, a native of the French Alps, opened his first cheese and sandwich shop in the Dogpatch in 2012. He followed up with a second FiDi location in 2015. The buyer’s European roots are apparent in the selection of over 40 cheeses, which largely hails from France, Italy and Spain. Donze’s cheese-obsessed staff is generous with samples, slicing and dicing wheels doling out tasting notes and pairing suggestions. Try the decadent Sottocenere, an Italian cow’s milk cheese laced with truffles and aged with a coating of nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, licorice, cloves and fennel.
This family-owned wine and cheese shop has been in business since 1976. The cases include artisan local cheeses, rare imports, and Old World classics. You’ll find local favorites like Mt. Tam, San Andreas, Nicasio Square, Humboldt Fog, Point Reyes Bay Blue and Highway 1, as well as fresh mozzarella and tallegio from Italy, Manchego and Valdeon blue from Spain, and chèvre and St. Agur blue from France. The spot generously piles its cheeses on sandwiches, including combinations like goat cheese, grilled basaltic onions, grilled artichoke hearts and arugula.
This elegant artisan cheese bar lovingly sources top-of-the-line American-made cheeses, local wine and beer and crafts its own charcuterie in-house. Its pressed sandwiches, served on hearty country levain, feature exemplary pairings like the California Gold: the hard cow’s milk cheese San Joaquin Gold, creamy chevre, La Quercia prosciutto and Dalmatia fig preserves.
Rainbow began in the city’s hippie heyday, founded in 1975 by an ashram and staffed by volunteers. Today, the indie grocery store and co-op stays true to its GMO-free roots, which carries over into its cheese section. Gordon Edgar, the cheese buyer since 1994, fills the store’s main case with all varieties and styles of local California cheese: handmade, rennetless, raw, goat, sheep, cow, water buffalo, and more. (There’s also a smaller selection of imported varieties to sample and buy.) Edgar, the author of Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge (2010) and Cheddar (2015), knows his stuff—he’s also on the board of directors for the California Artisan Cheese Guild.
Mike Bosco opened Lucca in 1929 in the former garage of a three-story apartment building. It’s now run by his grandchildren, Paul Bosco and Linda Bosco Fioretti, but the look and feel of the narrow, old-school Italian deli remains very much the same. Prosciutto and salami still hang from the ceiling and adorn the front window. (They even age cheeses on the same rack.) Follow the store-spanning deli case to the back, where you’ll find a display laden with Rocca Parmigiano-Reggiano and Locatelli Pecorino Romano. Peruse the marble board filled with over 50 kinds of cheeses from Denmark, Italy, Vermont, and Wisconsin. The spot takes pride in sourcing organic cheese from makers that avoid genetically-engineered hormones, like Straus Creamery, Sierra Nevada Cheese Company, Springhill Cheese, Organic Valley, and Cowgirl Creamery.
Jon Fancey has studied cheese-making in Vermont, Wisconsin, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. In this buying, he gravitates toward cheeses with a specific regional style and heritage. He was the buyer at Cheese Plus for three years before signing on at Bi-Rite in 2014, and he still serves as an instructor at the Cheese School of San Francisco. The ever-changing assortment spans comté, manchego, feta, and beyond. Look for special varieties like L’Amuse gouda from Amsterdam, the Essex Street feta from Lesbos, and Parmigiano-Reggiano by the Cravero family in Italy.
Beloved Cheese Boutique owners Rick and Nada Malouf know their cheese. They’ve been a Glen Park standby for over 25 years, importing French brie, Old Amsterdam gouda, and Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano. Their curated selection of around 100 cheeses spans from Italy to India. The couple is also known for their own Middle Eastern specialties, like hummus, tabouli and baba ghanoush, handmade each week in back.