There is a reason photographers tell squirming children to say “cheese” when trying to get them to smile and look at the camera. Sure, saying the word “cheese” does sort of force your mouth into a smile, but perhaps the thought of cheese alone just makes people happy.

There are plenty of places to get your fromage fix here in San Francisco, from market selections to specialty shops. These super-spots are sure to leave you smiling. And while I would consider myself a cheese lover, I’m by no means a cheese connoisseur—I’ll leave that to the experts, because honestly, it’s all good to me. I’ll tell you where to go; they’ll help you figure out what to get.

The Cheese Boutique—660 Chenery Street, San Francisco

For such a big city, this shop sure has a small-town feel (with a bit of Middle Eastern flare). Owner Rick Malouf has been greeting customers with a warm smile and a hello for the last 25 years. “It’s a neighborhood shop,” Malouf explained. “We know everybody here.” And after watching him in action for a few minutes, I believe him.

Though compact, the Cheese Boutique has a solid selection of cheeses and an array of crackers, jams and chips to accompany them, along with house-made hummus and garlic spread. It seems as though everyone in Diamond Heights stops in at lunch to grab a sandwich, so maybe you should too.

Photo courtesy of Jane V.

Photo courtesy of Bridget Veltri.

24th Street Cheese Company—3893 24th Street, San Francisco

The smell beckons you from the baby-stroller bustle that defines Noe Valley. While the smell of cheese isn’t quite like the smells that emanate from a bakery or a flower shop, it’s still alluring.

With 30 years in the business and 300-plus cheeses from around the world listed on a chalkboard that spans the room, there is no question that this shop has the cheese you’re searching for, along with a fine selection of charcuterie and wine. I won’t lie—the staff was less than welcoming, but maybe they could sense that I was in it for the samples and the scenery.

Photo courtesy of Sean M.

Photo courtesy of Ann S.

Say Cheese—856 Cole Street, San Francisco

You know how cheese can “sweat” if it’s left out too long? Well, I sweat when confronted with an overwhelming cheese selection and the pressure to pick the perfect one to pair with whatever I’m serving as I pretend to have this whole sophisticated adult thing down pat. If you can relate to this, than I have the shop for you.

Say Cheese has been pairing their patrons with the perfect cheeses since 1976. They specialize in northern European cheeses, and their sweet little shop is full of delicious options just waiting to be discovered. And their fromagère, Daniel Greenberg (don’t you dare call him a cheesemonger), is happy to slice off a piece of his aged-cheese knowledge. “We have one of the most eclectic selections in the city,” claims Greenberg.  

Photo courtesy of Matthew Z.

Photo courtesy of Bridget Veltri.

Cowgirl Creamery—1 Ferry Building, #17, San Francisco

Yee-haw. The award-winning Marin-based Cowgirl Creamery is a bit of an institution in the Bay Area, and they sell their cheeses at over 500 stores and nationally at Whole Foods Market. They offer 200 cheeses, from California, nationally and imported via their website and shops.

If this is your first time saddling up with Cowgirl Creamery, know that the Mt. Tam and Red Hawk are classics, along with their Wagon Wheel, which is a great melting cheese for grilled-cheese connoisseurs.

The staff of this Ferry Building favorite is happy to answer questions and serve up samples and suggestions. “Know what you like, but be open,” cheesemonger Trevor Milbery said. “And always taste it before you judge it.”

So basically, picking a cheese is similar to picking a romantic partner?

Image courtesy of Adam S.

Image courtesy of Bridget Veltri.

Cheese Plus—2001 Polk Street, San Francisco

Wedged on the corner of Polk and Pacific, Cheese Plus is the perfect place to get artisan cheese, charcuterie, wine, beer and other specialty grocery items. They say they specialize in “all things delicious,” and it’s true. Their friendly and helpful staff is there to assist you with all your cheese needs.

Post up in the café or dine al fresco and enjoy a fresh pastry with coffee or one of their awesome signature sandwiches, which highlight cheeses from their shop.

Those who are looking to expand their palates can sign up for their Cheese of the Month Club and experience three hand-selected cheeses cut straight from the wheel in their shop and shipped for members to enjoy at home.

Image courtesy of Adam S.

Image courtesy of Juan D.

Gourmet and More—141 Gough Street, San Francisco

Francophiles will revel in this shop, which claims to be “a little piece of France in the heart of San Francisco.” Gourmet and More was a wholesaler for seven years before opening their shop two years ago, making it relatively new by San Francisco cheese-shop standards.

Along with a superb cheese selection, this Hayes Valley favorite specializes in French cheese and accompaniments ranging from wine to charcuterie. Enjoy a sandwich on a fresh baguette in a quaint patio atmosphere that’s a blend of French country chic and Parisian style. This sweet spot is truly c’est bon.

Image courtesy of Kim N.

Image courtesy of Ann L.

Grocery Options

If you’ve got other groceries to get and are looking for more than a one-stop cheese shop, so to speak, Bi-Rite and Rainbow Grocery have solid cheese selections. Well, so does Whole Foods Market—but this is the Bay Area, after all, and we can keep it more local than that.