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Toast of the Town

The District Cemita from Grilled Cheese D.C. (GCDC)

A restaurant specializing in grilled cheese sandwiches sounds like a childhood dream, but unlike visions of traveling by jetpack or having a pet unicorn, this one has come true. Across the country, fromage-focused restaurateurs are creating gourmet grilled cheese eateries – but they’re not just for kids.

The menu at GCDC (Grilled Cheese D.C.), which opened last spring just a few blocks from the White House, showcases specialty sandwiches far more elevated than what Mom made on sick days. Half a dozen lunchtime options include the District Cemita (queso fresco, young manchego, chorizo), the Kim-Cheese-Steak (cheddar, kimchi, Korean-style roast beef), and the Buffalo Blue (cheddar, blue cheese, chicken, and hot sauce). Fancier fare at a higher price point dominates dinner selections: there’s gouda and lobster, a Taleggio-laden Mushroom Melt, and short rib gussied up with Gruyère and blue cheese.

Though D.C. is home to several specialty cheese shops and a highly informed dining clientele, many customers still have questions when deciding what to order.

“Surprisingly, we do a fair amount of education,” says founder Bruce Klores. “Everyone is familiar with cheddar, but a lot of people don’t know Gruyère or manchego.”

Specialty cheese is also the name of the game at Heywood Grilled Cheese in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. English Double Gloucester infused with chives takes center stage in the Game Changer, while French Comté complements the maple bacon and prosciutto in the Peking Pig.

Layers upon layers of flavors come together in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

Layers upon layers of flavors come together in gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches.

“A lot of people have never been to a restaurant like ours,” says general manager Chris Tenerowicz, “so they’ve only ever had American cheese on white bread.” Currently, the eatery has demurred from offering the ubiquitous orange slices, but it may be added to their late-night menu in the future.

For every restaurant focused on the new and different, there’s another focused on the familiar. The latter is the case at Roxy’s Grilled Cheese, which began as a food truck in 2011, and has since expanded to include a brick-and-mortar location in the Boston neighborhood of Allston last spring. The restaurant’s menu includes half a dozen sandwiches that use recognizable cheeses, such as Vermont cheddar, Swiss, and fontina. You can try their Mighty Rib Melt with this recipe.

“We keep it really simple,” says founder James DiSabatino. “Our food reminds people of their childhood and is meant to be really accessible.”

The straightforward formula has been a success for the restaurant, which goes through more than a thousand pounds of cheese during a busy week. And, with any luck, more cheesy variety is in Roxy’s future: “I’m interested in bringing people out of the cheese comfort zone at our restaurant,” says DiSabatino, whose dream offering would be a Tomme de Savoie–topped patty melt. “Hopefully, even what we have now will push people to try more exotic cheeses after they eat with us.”

Local cheese takes center stage at Milwaukee’s Melthouse Bistro, which opened in late 2011 in collaboration with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The fast casual eatery serves only cheeses made in the Badger State – from fontina and Havarti to asiago and feta. There are typically 16 to 20 varieties of cheese on hand, featured in 20 to 30 specialty sandwiches, such as the Brasserie (brie, braised short rib, pickled red onions) and the Sergeant Pepper (cheddar, pepper Jack, roasted cauliflower, red peppers).

“These are unique sandwiches people aren’t going to take the time to make at home,” says co-owner Troy Davis. “We want people to think beyond the basics when they think of a grilled cheese.”

GCDC’s Bruce Klores agrees: “You can go a lot of different directions with a grilled cheese… It’s really just a starting point. The possibilities are almost endless.”

Nevin Martell

Nevin Martell is a D.C.-based food and travel writer. His memoir, Freak Show Without a Tent, was released in June by Possibilities Publishing.