Cheddar & Rye has received a fair amount of press coverage since it opened a couple of months ago. The concept is unique, combining a daytime sandwich shop that specializes in grilled cheese with a nighttime bar that specializes in whiskeys — LOTS of whiskeys.
Thanks to the influence and expertise of two good friends, I’ve been exploring the wonderful world of bourbon lately. Couple that with the fact that Mrs. Gourmet and I were headed to a show at the nearby Palace Theatre on a recent Saturday night, and we had the perfect excuse to check the place out.
The operation started as a daytime sandwich shop (Cheddar) on an Elm Street storefront with Rye, the evening-hours bar, just around the corner on Hanover Street. But in the last couple of weeks, the sandwich shop has closed for renovations, and the bar, at 8 Hanover St., is now open for lunch starting at 11 a.m.
Inside the vestibule, a pair of swinging saloon doors mark the entrance to Rye. Beyond the doors is a single large room with a long bar to the left and an assortment of tables, couches and high-top peninsula tables to the right. The lighting is low (decidedly orange), and the atmosphere is warm and comfortable. Mrs. G and I agreed that the only thing missing was a fireplace.
The place was almost empty when we arrived, and we were invited to sit wherever we wanted. We chose one of the high-top counter tables along the front wall. Our server, Shell, quickly appeared with menus and a rundown of how the place operates.
The whiskey menu covers a page and a half, other cocktails another half page, and the food menu loosely fills a third page.
The food menu is minimalist: four bar-bite appetizers and 10 grilled cheese sandwiches, one soup and dessert du jour.
The drink selection is mind-boggling. With more than 200 ryes, bourbons and domestic and international whiskeys, only the most determined patron can expect to ever try them all. Luckily, Rye offers flights of three half-pours, giving people a chance to sample a few at a time and still be able to leave with faculties and motor functions intact.
Standard pours are 2 ounces; flight selections are 1 ounce each, at half the listed price. The flights come with a small glass of water and ice with an eye dropper, allowing the drinker to add a little bit of water to the whiskey to cut the initial burst of alcohol and open up the flavors.
A restaurant that only serves grilled cheese sandwiches prompts plenty of raised eyebrows and chuckles. But it makes sense if you think of how Cheddar & Rye is positioning itself — as a lunch place, and then as a spot for a quick, light bite before or after a game or a show.
Our server, Shell, explained that dinner time is the quietest time in the bar. Things pick up as the evening goes on, she said, though it never reaches the raucous atmosphere of most other downtown bars. It’s a mellow place, for sure.
And what about those grilled cheeses? They’re not the Wonder Bread with Kraft slices specials your mom made for you when you were a kid — far from it. These are gooey, gourmet creations, with fillings ranging from pulled pork to Buffalo chicken, hummus to fig jam, pizza fixings to sloppy Joe.
All 10 sandwiches are available on five different kinds of bread and come served in a basket.
We wanted to start with something other than grilled cheese: the “sweet and tangy” whiskey meatballs ($8). Unfortunately, they were sold out. We weren’t really interested in any of the other appetizers — cheese platter, sliders or a hummus/veggie plate — so we moved on to our sandwiches.
Mrs. G ordered the Hawkeye ($7.50), a grilled cheese version of a Reuben with a nice stack of pastrami, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese with Thousand Island dressing. She ordered it on rye.
I chose the Hulk ($7), with sliced turkey, fantastic crunchy yet tender bacon, Muenster cheese and sun-dried tomato mayo. I picked five-grain bread.
Both sandwiches were gooey, buttery, and decadently good. But they weren’t especially large, and they weren’t served with chips, pickles or any other adornment (they should be). We decided that one sandwich apiece might not keep us satisfied through the concert we were headed to, so we ordered one more to split.
The Two Face ($8.50) was a concoction of fig jam, apple, cheddar cheese, caramelized onion and balsamic reduction. We ordered it on whole wheat.
I’m a sucker for apples and cheddar cheese together (and for caramelized onions, too) and this one made me very happy. It was sweet, not savory like the other sandwiches, and we decided that it would serve as our dessert.
Our bill came to $45 before tax — $25 for our three sandwiches, and $20 for one flight of whiskeys. Not bad, but it reminded us of a small-plate style restaurant, where things can quickly add up if you keep ordering food and, especially, booze.
We liked the atmosphere, the service, the food, and the concept. Next time we’re heading to the Palace or the arena, we’ll make plans to visit Cheddar & Rye again, either for a quick bite before or a nightcap and a nosh after.