New York's Artisanal Grilled Cheese Trend Began, as Best We Can Tell, on April 13, 2008
Melt Shop opened earlier today on Lexington Avenue, thus fulfilling its mission of (according to the press release) bringing "Grilled Cheese Sandwiches to the Midtown Masses." The restaurant promises to offer sandwiches "reminiscent of your childhood," though roast beef, blue cheese, caramelized onions, and horseradish mayo on sourdough isn't really reminiscent of our childhood.
Melt is but the latest business to exploit the potent combination of nostalgia and piously sourced ingredients. It is also, of course, the latest iteration of the artisanal grilled cheese trend, which made us wonder when, exactly, this fixation with the sandwich started. So we did a little digging, and can now point to April 13, 2008, as its birthdate.
On that day, New York magazine ran an item about Sunday Grilled Cheese Night at Smith's, the now-defunct Danny Abrams-Cindy Smith restaurant on MacDougal Street. Its "five upscale variations on the gooey theme" included mozzarella "spiedini" with wild-mushroom cream, and grilled Humboldt Fog with sliced pear. The weekly event was a success, but not enough of one to keep the restaurant in business.
Still, restaurateurs, perhaps as a concession to diners made newly penurious by the financial meltdown, began to trot out their own haute updates on the unassuming classic. That same year, New York voted the grilled cheese sandwich that Ryan Skeen served at Resto as the best in New York. It featured both pork belly and "boutique bacon." The magazine also lavished praise on the variation available at Wilfie & Nell; this one offered a choice of cheddar, taleggio, or gruyère.
In January of the following year, Artisanal, similarly humbled by the recession, climbed down from its lofty heights and introduced a grilled cheese bar offering such menu items as a $13.50 sandwich pimped out with 18-month Comté and white truffle-honey. New (and now closed) restaurants such as Gus & Gabriel, Table 8, and Charles also included the sandwiches on their menus, and cheesemonger Ann Saxelby began to sell excellent sandwiches, embellished with ingredients like pickles and kimchi, at the New Amsterdam Market. And then in January of 2010, the mobile grilled cheese concept was born with the Milk Truck. Although Keith Klein's plans to take to the streets were thwarted by various delays, he gained a substantial following for his sandwiches at the Brooklyn Flea. His truck should finally debut sometime this summer.
Klein's concept inevitably spawned competitors: Earlier this spring, both the Gorilla Grilled Cheese truck and Morris Grilled Cheese announced their intention to bestow even more melted dairy upon New York. And in late March, the Queens Kickshaw beat Melt Shop to the punch by offering a grilled-cheese-centric menu to the denizens of Astoria.
One could assert that, as with most food crazes, this one shall pass. That said, like cupcakes and meatballs, grilled cheese sandwiches can boast an almost universal, dopamine-fueled following, so perhaps this is a trend custom-built for longevity. Either way, the USDA must love us.
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