The modern era for the cheese course at Washington restaurants dawned with the Kennedy administration. In 1961, when newly inaugurated president John F. Kennedy hired René Verdon as White House chef, the event sparked a boom in local French restaurants.
From the ambitious Rive Gauche to less formal places like Le Bistro, every French restaurant had a cheese course. At Rive Gauche, the selection of cheeses matched what you would find at a Michelin one-star in Paris. At Chez Odette, a raffish Georgetown spot where a grumpy proprietress dished out dry quiche, the cheese plate was made up of foil-wrapped portions of La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow).
Wine-and-cheese parties grew popular in the Kennedy years and flourished through the 1970s. This alternative to the cocktail party could be as casual as jugs of Almaden Mountain Chablis and Gallo Hearty Burgundy with crackers and supermarket cheeses or as elegant as regional French wines with cheeses selected to complement each vintage.
The late French Market in Georgetown delivered custom-cut meats and cheeses to Jacqueline Kennedy when she and her husband lived in that neighborhood, but it was the marketing of wine and cheese by two wine merchants that advanced the city’s taste for cheese.
The Georgetown Wine and Cheese Shop was the indulgence of William Fitzgerald, a banker and diplomat who launched the enterprise so he and his friends could buy wines and spirits at wholesale prices. There, a 20-year-old Guatemalan, Carlos Estrada, started in the cheese trade in 1965.
Up Wisconsin Avenue in DC’s Glover Park, the tiny counter of La Cheeserie in Calvert Liquors was manned by Tony Batista, a multilingual Portuguese who could simultaneously chat up an Italian, a Spaniard, and a Parisian without missing a beat among languages. La Cheeserie was the brainchild of Marvin Stirman, Calvert’s owner, and Alfio Moriconi, the store’s dynamic wine buyer.
Their stroke of genius in the marketing of wine and cheese was the creation of a club called Les Amis du Vin. For an annual fee, members received a fine British magazine called Wine plus the opportunity to buy wines at reduced prices and attend winetastings and dinners at some of the District’s best restaurants. At seated tastings, wines were partnered with cheeses and occasionally charcuterie. And it was rare that one of the organization’s monthly dinners didn’t include a cheese course.
An old adage among British wine merchants is “Buy on an apple, sell on cheese.” It means that the buyer should taste wines he is considering for purchase after cleansing his palate with a bite of tart apple, the better to detect flaws in the wine. But a seller should encourage customers to taste wine with cheese, which coats the palate and has the effect of increasing the fruit in a wine as well as masking flaws. After a generous bite of Brie, you’ll be surprised how good most ordinary wines taste.
The cheese plate was a requisite of fine dining in restaurants and homes when, in the late 1980s, along came the food police to frighten baby boomers experiencing the first twinges of middle age. According to the food police, ingesting animal fat led to clogged arteries and an early death.
Retail sales were little affected, says Carlos Estrada, who left the Georgetown Wine and Cheese Shop in 1985 to direct the new La Cheeserie at Calvert Woodley, where he remains Washington’s number-one cheese merchant. But fear of fat rendered the cheese course in restaurants a thing of the past. It was clear that the party was over when the impressive selection of cheeses displayed on a massive silver tray disappeared from Le Lion d’Or, the city’s most successful haute-cuisine restaurant during the 1970s and ’80s.
But not for long. In 1993 a string of restaurants by what would become a who’s who of Washington chefs opened: Jeffrey Buben’s Vidalia; Michel Richard’s Citronelle; the late Jean-Louis Palladin’s Watergate bistro, Palladin by Jean-Louis; Bob Kinkead’s fish house, Kinkead’s; Ann Cashion and José Andrés’s Jaleo.
In March of 1993, Gerard Pangaud, the youngest chef ever to earn a two-star rating in the Michelin Guide—for his namesake restaurant on the outskirts of Paris—opened Gerard’s Place on DC’s McPherson Square. Apparently, news that the cheese course was finished in Washington had failed to reach Pangaud: Prefacing the offerings on the dessert menu was the line “A Selection of Cheeses.”
Pangaud had lots of takers for his cheese course among the French businessmen and diplomats who indulged in Michelin two-star cuisine at bistro prices. Not to be outdone, Jean-Louis Palladin offered a cheese course at Palladin by Jean-Louis, which opened a few months after Gerard’s Place.
And when Michel Richard, who had earned a national reputation at his Los Angeles restaurant, Citrus, opened Citronelle, on the menu was a cheese plate. Richard wasn’t just following a trend: The cheeses were as much for his delectation as for the public’s—one reason they were always of impeccable quality.
Years later, when Roberto Donna installed a state-of-the-art, temperature-and-humidity-controlled cheese cellar at Galileo, Richard became notorious for dropping by during off-hours, walking into the cellar, and emerging with a couple of whole cheeses, devouring one on the spot and tucking the other into his pocket for later consumption.
Donna was a generous competitor to his friends: Jeffrey Buben purchased Vidalia’s initial cheese platters from Donna. Now Vidalia and Buben’s Franco-American Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill offer the most impressive assortments of cheese in Washington, supplied by the Artisanal Cheese Center in Manhattan.
It has been 15 years since Gerard Pangaud returned the cheese course to local French tables. Today diners expect any fine-dining venue in Washington, whether Modern American or Italian, to offer an intelligently selected and well-kept assortment of cheeses. You know the cheese course has entered the mainstream when a selection of excellent American farmstead cheeses is a fixture on the menu of the local upscale saloon chain Clyde’s.
And if you need more convincing: At the White House dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the fourth course of executive chef Cristeta Comerford’s formal dinner was a trio of English farmhouse cheeses garnished with a salad of arugula, Savannah mustard greens, and mint romaine, dressed with a Champagne vinaigrette.
Shopping for Cheese