There are several ways to determine what makes an iconic cheese shop worth a visit. And as with many things in food and wine, there aren’t simple answers. But, some guidelines can help you find the best cheese shop for your needs.
Cheese educator David Asher believes how a shop engages with its community is paramount. “A great cheese shop makes connections between the cheese producers and consumers, and tries to form a relationship between them,” he says.
This connection is part of a larger cultural shift to understand where and how our foods are made. “Cheese stores can act as a liaison between good farmers producing good cheese and their consumers,” he adds.
Additionally, cheese scholar Carlos Yescas says the difference between a good and a great cheese shop often comes down to what’s for sale and how it’s being sold. A retailer worth its salt will seek out products from cheesemakers that share its values. This could mean supporting independent local producers, sourcing rare international labels and hiring and training staff to become cheese experts. In doing so, these shops become community hubs of cheese exploration.
You’ll know a good cheesemonger when you meet them because they’ll be excited to talk to you about their products and to cut samples for you to taste, says Christine Clark, a writer and cheese educator.
Willingness to give samples is key, she adds. One person’s cheese preference may be different than another’s. Plus, cheese is a living product and can taste different each time you try it. “Whereas wine has vintages by year, in cheese, each day can be like a new vintage,” Clark says.
If you’re ready to explore the evolving world of artisanal cheese, consider visiting one of these 10 iconic cheese shops. While they’re certainly not the only destinations for quality cheese in the U.S., this list is a great place to start.
Iconic U.S. Cheese Shops to Visit
Opened by husband-wife duo John and Kendall Antonelli in 2010, Antonelli’s has grown into a Hyde Park institution with circa 100 kinds of cheese cut to order. Plus, you can find charcuterie, pickles, breads and other sundries. The brightly lit cafe offers custom boards and gift baskets, and its educational program includes everything from Cheese 101 classes to guided tastings on a local goat farm.
Yescas notes that many Austin chefs source ingredients from Antonelli’s and credits the shop with bringing artisanal cheese culture to a new corner of the country. “They’re a catalyst in their state for better cheese,” he says.
Artisan Cheese Company
One of Clark’s favorite shops, Artisan, opened a small storefront in 2012 and relocated to its current 2,000-square-foot space in Sarasota’s Rosemary District in 2018. Its expansive selection includes such all-American standard-bearers as Jasper Hill and Point Reyes, as well as hard-to-source European producers like Switzerland’s Gourmino and England’s Neal’s Yard. The airy, industrial digs also feature beer, natural wine, salumi and more, and the café serves grilled cheese, crostini and other small plates.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
While the Pike’s Place location of this Seattle landmark is admittedly thronged with tourists, Beecher’s earns its spot for longevity and influence. The original glass-walled shop opened in 2003 with a then-uncommon commitment to sourcing milk from local cows not fed recombinant bovine growth hormones and hand-making cheese onsite. Today, the original location has since spawned four cafés throughout Washington, a shop in New York City and several airport outposts worth a visit.
Fairfield Cheese Company
One of Yescas’ top shops is this storefront with “amazing service” and an extensive selection of small-production U.S. and international cheeses. The store stocks cheeses like Jasper Hill Farms’ ultra-seasonal, spruce-wrapped Winnimere cheese, Amsterdammer Betty Koster’s Brabander Reserve and more.
“The owners are committed to diversity and inclusion in their mongering, and they’re also doing the hard work of connecting cheese enthusiasts to cheese with their tours,” says Yescas. Fairfield Cheese Company offers classes devoted to U.S., Italian and other regional cheeses, and hosts trips to explore far-flung cheese cultures, like its October 2022 sojourn to the U.K., called A British Cheese Odyssey.
“People don’t think Boston is a cheese town, but Boston is one of the original cheese towns. Vermont is our local farm,” says Yescas. He hails Formaggio as a standard-bearer in the U.S. artisanal cheese movement, noting how the 1978 Cambridge shop not only served as its own importer of then-hard-to-find European cheeses, but also spawned two other Formaggios in the Boston area and one in New York City. In nearly 50 years of operation, Formaggio has introduced generations of northeasterners to specialty cheeses like Valençay frais (the Loire’s ash-coated goat cheese) and Vermont’s esteemed Jasper Hills.
Nearly 50% of U.S. specialty cheeses are made in Wisconsin, and dairy is a point of pride for many in the state. This spot on Madison’s Capitol Hill celebrates the local bounty with an extensive collection of Wisconsin labels including Uplands Cheese and Bleu Mont Dairy, plus national and international selections like Norwegian Gjetost and Germany’s crowd-pleasing blue cheese, Cambozola.
Los Angeles, California
Natural wine and high-end pantry items, like Jacobsen sea salt, line the walls of this well-stocked shop in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood. One of Asher’s favorites, Milkfarm, specializes in cheeses from small and independent producers primarily in the L.A. area. It also offers made-to-order sandwiches—including a cult grilled cheese—plus baked goods and cheese boards to enjoy at the counter or sunny sidewalk seating.
New York, New York
When legendary cheesemaker, educator and author Anne Saxelby opened this shop in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market in 2006, it was hailed as New York City’s first dedicated to American-made farmstead and artisanal cheese. Asher and Clark are among the many cheese pros who still sing its praises, citing its friendly atmosphere and knowledgeable cheesemongers who happily cut samples and talk through options with curious customers.
Sweet Freedom Cheese
“There are a lot of very good cheese shops in the south and middle of the country,” says Clark. He cites this operation in downtown Bentonville as a prime example. Hailed as Arkansas’ first independent, cut-to-order cheese shop, Sweet Freedom highlights American artisan producers, as well as international varieties, and knowledgeable staffers, who happily offer samples of nearly everything. They also have a socially minded philanthropic arm, sometimes referred to as “do Gouda,” which includes fundraisers for local and national organizations like the Children’s Safety Center, a nonprofit in Springdale, Arkansas.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Started as a delicatessen in 1982, this Midwestern innovator now spans nine specialty food businesses. Highlights include Zingerman’s Creamery, which produces cheeses with milk primarily from local, small-production dairy farms, and the Cream Top Shop, a retailer for U.S. artisan cheesemakers including Zingerman’s label. Zingerman’s hosts on-site events like Cheese 101 intro courses, cooking with cheese seminars and beer and cheese pairing classes, all of which feature other Zingerman’s house-made bread and pickles.
Zingerman’s “changed how the Midwest understood cheese and other specialty foods,” says Yescas. “And, because Zingerman’s business includes mail service, its influence reaches so far.”
The company ships gift baskets and individual cheeses nationwide and has a wholesale arm that works with distributors to place cheeses everywhere from Whole Foods and The Graduate Hotel, to Michigan’s Plum Markets.
As valuable as cheese shops can be, they aren’t the only places to find great cheese.
“Consider shopping for cheese at a local farmers market, where some of the best small cheese producers sell their stuff,” says Asher. “Some makers, for example, my favorite natural cheesemaker in America, Bobolink Dairy, sell exclusively at NYC-area farmers markets.”
Additionally, specialty grocers like Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and Philadelphia’s Di Bruno Bros. have destination-worthy cheese selections among other gourmet goods.