We would never consider moving to Europe — way too many crumbly old buildings and dangerous cobblestone streets. But parts of the European lifestyle appeal, and eating cheese is one of them. Walking into your neighborhood cheesemonger and snacking on something artisanal along with some fresh bread and perhaps a little cured meat is like carving out a slice of vacation each day. You don't need to pack it all up and jump ship for France or Italy, though; we're surrounded by cheese here in Denver. Dairies like Broken Shovel Farm (which was our cover story last week) and Haystack Mountain Goat Creamery turn out wonderful products, and even the American Cheese Society is headquartered here.
We also have plenty of cheese shops from which to choose — and each one is just a little different. Some specialize in the classic cheeses of Europe, while others focus on newer North American offerings. Some include markets for all manner of gourmet pantry items and some serve beer and wine, too. You might think of a cheese shop as just a place to stock up on your dairy-based needs or to drop in for something special for a dinner party, but often you can also score a simple, tasty bite for lunch or dinner to bring back memories of that European vacation. Here are the seven best cheese shops — and what to order at each one — for a quick escape from the fast pace of the city.
Cheese + Provisions
2432 West 44th Avenue
Owners Steve and Kim Duty have owned their own farm and dairy, so they know the cheese business from the ground up. They opened Cheese + Provisions in the Sunnyside neighborhood last fall to share their knowledge — and a little cheese — with north Denver residents. Specialties behind the glass include regional European cheeses from top artisans and small-batch products from the U.S. that are tough to find anywhere else. There's one table and some window-front seating if you want to hang out and enjoy a meat-and-cheese board along with a glass or two of wine (or just order a bottle and take home what you don't drink). But for a real taste of the streets of Paris, check on the daily selection of grab-and-go sandwiches made on Grateful Bread baguettes. You might find fresh buffalo mozzarella with basil or soft chèvre with fig jam and prosciutto. Go early, because Steve only makes a little over a dozen a day, and when they're gone, they're gone.
1825 Pearl Street, Boulder
Cured is the number-one destination in Boulder for high-end specialty items that often come with an equally high-end price tag. It's the right place for the connoisseur who wants to splurge on a $25 bottle of aged vinegar or the dreamy-eyed couple looking to put together the perfect picnic basket for a romantic getaway. But drop in for lunch for a reasonable deal on the Cheesemonger's Choice, a board of daily cheeses, meats and accoutrements. And on weekdays only, there's a grilled cheese sandwich on bread from the Med Bakery that changes each day, with a blend of hand-crafted cheeses and often a few other goodies thrown in, like a recent combo of cheddar, Fontina, ham and peach-jalapeño jam.
Eat + Drink
1541 Platte Street
This cozy cafe on Platte street sells cheese by the pound along with other specialty products, but it's also a great stop for a glass of wine, with more than fifty labels available. The sit-down menu (served from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.) starts with a variety of cheese boards before heading into panini territory. Which to choose? The Fromage Lover's, of course, which is listed as "the best grilled cheese ever." Built on Grateful Bread focaccia, the sandwich always boasts four to five cheeses, with a blend that changes according to who's building your sandwich but which always includes buffalo mozzarella and often raclette, taleggio or Gruyère. It's a sophisticated take on a gooey childhood favorite.
3000 Zuni Street
Mell's opened in LoHi last fall, bringing a cheese counter and wine bar to the corner of West 30th Avenue and Zuni Street. The doors don't open until 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, so don't go for lunch, but instead head over for a cheese-filled happy hour, with wines from $5 to $9 and beers from $4 to $6. Settle in for a baked cheese dish featuring raclette, goat cheese or Brie, or sample from the happy-hour menu, where you'll find a delicious house cheese spread made with mascarpone, cheddar, onion, garlic and roasted bell pepper served with crostini. Breads come from the Denver Bread Company just a few blocks away, so the sandwiches are also a fresh option. On weekends, Mell's serves brunch beginning at 10:30 a.m. — one of the neighborhood's best-kept secrets.
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New World Cheese
2504 East Colfax Avenue
Like the name suggests, this sunny shop located in the Lowenstein Theater complex on East Colfax only sells cheese from North America, but the selection is hardly limited. You'll find fresh and aged cheeses by artisans from Vermont, Wisconsin, Colorado and California, among others. And the shop is also a cafe that serves cheesy creations from a small menu along with beer and wine. There's a grilled cheese sandwich and a macaroni-and-cheese bowl, but owner Teresa St. Peter has combined the two into a sandwich she calls the Oh No You Didn't Grilled Cheese. Far from stunt food, this surprisingly delicate sandwich comes on toasted bread from the Denver Bread Company and features a layer of three-cheese mac glued down by two more molten cheeses. St. Peter says she always uses tangy, sweet and melty cheeses to get just the right blend, but flavors vary from day to day. Yes, she did — and yes, you should, too.
St. Kilian's Cheese Shop
3211 Lowell Boulevard
You'll find delectable local and imported cheeses at this longtime Highland market, along with a vast array of condiments, meats and pantry items packed into the tiny space. While there's no set menu for grab-and-go items, owner Jon Marsh always has baguettes and boules on hand from the Denver Bread Company, so you can request a mix-and-match box of meats, cheeses and bread sliced, trimmed and packaged to go for lunch in a nearby park or craft brewery. Marsh and his team will guide you through the selections so you'll get a lunch tailored to your tastes.
The Truffle Cheese Shop
2906 East Sixth Avenue
The Truffle is a veteran in the Denver cheese scene, serving high-quality products, mostly of European origin, to its Congress Park and Cherry Creek neighbors since the turn of the 21st century. While cheese lovers citywide know to stop in for all their party needs, you can also get a quick lunch in the form of open-faced sandwiches made each morning on Grateful Bread halves. Choose from two options daily, one of which will always be vegetarian. We have a particular fondness for the combination of thin-sliced ham, mustard and a thick layer of cultured butter, allowing us to break out the rare Danish word "tandsmoer," the imprint your teeth leave on a fat wedge of buttered bread. Call ahead to check out the shop's daily selection.