Feast: 6 perfect cheese plates

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CAV
Photo by Rory McNamara

There's an old wives' tale that eating cheese before bed will produce nightmares; but I've found that after nibbling a good Gruyère or a buttery Brie, my dreams are only about consuming more of that dairy delight. Whether you prefer yours drizzled with honey, spread on warm bread, or paired with a juicy red wine, the cheese plates at these six locations guarantee will feed your fromage fetish too.

GARY DANKO

The Danko experience can be intimidating. Before going, one has to be physically and mentally prepared (palate sharp, Food Lover's Guide consulted at length), as well as financially stable (it's a go-to spot for birthdays and anniversaries, usually ones ending in "5" and "0.") Those who prefer to get their feet wet first instead of cannonballing into the deep end might find the cheese plate a perfect starting point. It's worth a trip to the upscale eatery for the cheese plate alone, because, as with everything else here, it's both epic and elegant. There are 16 to 20 types of cheese to choose from, with seasonal variations but typically including picks from local farms in addition to harder-to-find selections. Options are wheeled around the restaurant on elegant silver carts, and the servers describe the flavor and origin of each one before cutting your cheese (yes, we did) while you watch.

800 North Point, SF. (415) 749-2060, www.garydanko.com

BAR BAMBINO

This cozy restaurant on 16th Street mostly carries Italian cheeses, augmented by a few artisanal American varieties. The chalkboard menu changes seasonally, with offerings you won't find everywhere else. Not sure what you want? Sit at the bar or a small table and consult a cheese expert — soon adjectives will be flying like so many white handkerchiefs. When you get your order, the cheeses are arranged simply, accompanied with toasted brown bread, nuts, and fruit. Prices range from $12–$25 for three different sizes, making this place home to some of the more reasonably priced cheese plates we've found.

2931 16th St., SF. (415) 701-8466, barbambino.com

CAV

It is nigh impossible to ignore the cheese plates at wine bars, and Cav's is probably the best of the bunch, thanks to its extensive selection. The current menu lists 20 cheeses, divided into cow, goat, sheep, and blue cheeses — most from Europe but some from small American artisans. The menu contains helpful tasting notes on the cheeses, and the staff are definitely cheese sophisticates, so ask them about their favorites. At $20–$85 per plate, this is one of the more spendy places, but it's worthwhile for the substantial portions and the wonderful wine list.

1666 Market, SF. (415) 437-1770, cavwinebar.com

ABSINTHE

The cheese list at Absinthe may be concise — with about 10 European and three American varieties — but the plates stand out here because the cheeses are carefully chosen and thoughtfully paired. A French ash-rind goat's milk cheese, for example, gets a garnish of glossy pickled cherries; marinated olives accompany a Spanish triple crème; and housemade candied kumquats balance a dry, tangy American blue. A single cheese with its pairing and toast points is $8, or you can make three selections for $22, or five for $38. You can also surrender to the decadence of your surroundings and try all, with accoutrements, for $99.

398 Hayes, SF. (415) 551-1590, absinthe.com

UVA ENOTECA

The formaggi at Uva Enoteca is formidable and comprises about a third of the nightly offerings. All the cheeses at Uva are Italian, and though the menu skips descriptions, well-informed servers are adept at describing the differences between a sheep's milk cheese from Tuscany and a cow's milk from Venice.