The cheese course, long a tradition in Europe, is rapidly growing in popularity in this country. A recent survey of trend-setting restaurants in San Francisco and the Napa/Sonoma wine region revealed that two out of three fine restaurants currently feature some form of cheese course on the menu.

The survey was conducted by the California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) as part of a special program to educate small artisan and farmstead cheesemakers about marketplace opportunities.

"Frankly, the results surprised us," said Nancy Fletcher, CMAB Director of Communications. "It represents a big shift. When we conducted a similar restaurant survey five years ago, less than 10 percent offered a cheese course. I think we're seeing a major change in how Americans view cheese, and like most food trends, it's first appearing in high-end restaurants. What is especially gratifying is that fine American regional cheeses, such as California farmstead cheeses, are appearing in cheese courses."

Laura Werlin, author of the new book, "The New American Cheese," the first book to focus exclusively on American cheeses, echoes these sentiments. "The appearance of the cheese course in so many restaurants here and across the country is based on a growing feeling among chefs and restaurateurs that cheese is an integral part of the fine dining experience," Werlin said. "And it's no coincidence that this trend occurs as we are seeing a renaissance of fine cheesemaking in this country."

The CMAB survey involved examining the menus of 57 leading restaurants in the two regions and then following up with in-depth discussions with a number of restaurants prominently featuring cheese courses. Following are highlights from the survey.

Survey Highlights
  • Out of 57 restaurants surveyed, 37 (65%) offer some form of cheese course on the menu, most on a daily basis and all as a regular menu feature.

  • Among the 37 restaurants offering a cheese course, most (28) offer a traditional cheese course in which the guest is offered a selection of several cheeses and may choose one or several. Another form of cheese course is the cheese pairing -- a single-cheese plate which typically pairs the cheese with another food, such as fruit, nuts, honey, or preserves. Eleven of the 37 restaurants offer pairings, including several which offer both a cheese pairing and a traditional cheese course selection.

  • A typical cheese course is a tasting plate of 3 to 6 cheeses, and costs between $9 and $15. Often, cheeses also are offered individually at a typical price of $5 to $8.

  • Of the 37 restaurants, 26 offer the cheese course as a part of the dessert selection; 4 as a part of an appetizer selection; and 7 offer it as both.

  • European cheeses still dominate most cheese course offerings, although American artisan and farmstead cheeses have a growing presence, including many locally produced California cheeses. The typical restaurant offering today is a blend, with slightly more emphasis on imported cheeses.

  • Approximately 30% of the restaurants also feature specific artisan or farmstead cheeses on the menu as ingredients. Certain unique cheeses, such as Dry Jack and Teleme, have become signature ingredients in some restaurants.
"America is really waking up to cheese, especially the many fine American cheeses," said Clark Wolf, New York-based restaurant consultant and cheese expert, who views it as a national trend. "I'm seeing cheese courses appearing on menus in many markets across the country. The Europeans have been saying "cheese" to us for ages, and we finally got it."

About The Survey

The CMAB survey was conducted in April and May 2000 by identifying the region's most popular restaurants from published lists. Menus were obtained from all but Asian restaurants, and then analyzed. This included 57 restaurants in total -- 39 in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, and 18 in Napa and Sonoma counties. Eleven restaurants prominently featuring daily cheese courses were then contacted for a discussion about their decision to offer the cheese course, their selection of cheeses and how the restaurant manages its cheese program.