Some restaurants do more than feed you. They tempt you to slip into another identity for a few moments. At the Bristol Lounge on Boylston Street, sipping a martini, you’re someone with a past. At Ocean Prime in the Seaport, you’re a tycoon on very important business — if only for the evening. At Winsor Dim Sum in Chinatown, it doesn’t matter who you are, elbow-deep in noodles, leveled by the experience of slurping shrimp dumplings alongside strangers.
The Cheese Shop in Concord is one of those transporting spots. Tucked on a proper side street in Concord Center, the setting is ripped from an Agatha Christie novel in the British countryside: a prim village lined with shops with names like Strop & Blade and the Grasshopper Shop. Ladies in wide-brimmed hats pushing strollers. Older folks going for a ride in the country, parking at meters that still accept change. Nothing could ever go awry here in this serene suburban idyll. It makes you dream of murder and infidelity. What goes on behind those mansion walls? Is the fishmonger dallying with the seamstress? Jessica Fletcher, where are you?
The Cheese Shop, with its jaunty green-and-yellow awning, fits right in. It’s divided into two rooms: cheese and wine on one side, deli on the other. Cheese is the specialty, of course: The shop hosts an annual Crucolo Cheese Parade every winter, heralding the arrival of a 400-pound wheel of crucolo from Italy — complete with a horse-drawn carriage, a ringmaster, costumed mice, dance troupes, and a ceremonial cutting that draws thousands of curious locals. In a cynical world, at least we still can take pleasure in cheese and costumed rodents.
The shop weaves this rare pastoral spell year-round, though, and has for more than 50 years. Amble past the cheese area and you’re in a deli with better people-watching than the RMV: grand dames clutching straw purses and ordering golden beet salads, bedazzled people from other towns (“Thanks for showing us the ropes,” one man says to a regular, gratefully, when she advises choosing a salad sampler), a wild-haired older woman in a “Stay Woke” T-shirt bantering with the sandwich-maker. Two retired couples catch up: “Who does the books in your house?” a man asks a woman. She points to her husband. “But I do know how to write a check,” she says bashfully.
Take a number and wait your turn. While in line, admire condiments that you’ll be hard-pressed to find at a traditional supermarket — HP Sauce, Vegemite. Finally, advance to the counter and make your choice from the dry-erase board, sandwiches described in marker. If you’re indecisive, go with a house special: maybe a Phil’s Phabulous (focaccia, provolone, portabella, olives), the Wild Turkey (turkey, provolone, cranberry relish, and lettuce on a baguette), or Rosemary’s Baby (Tuscan ham, piave, and lettuce on a balsamic-glazed baguette, no Mia Farrow in sight).
Lighter eaters usually opt for the $10.99 Three Salad Sampler: Curried chicken salad, whipped with mango chutney and dotted with dried cranberries, is rich enough to eat with just a spoon. There is something reassuringly stabilizing about watching a fellow in a three-piece suit rip open a plastic tub of salad and dig right in while “Uptown Funk” plays in the background. We’re all human here.
And this place rewards eccentricity. Nobody will look askance if you concoct your own odd combination. I go for roast turkey, brie, horseradish mayonnaise, red onion, roasted red pepper, Russian dressing, and hot chopped pepper on ciabatta. Usually, the cashiers simply smile and look amused. You want bacon and Swiss with champagne mustard and apples? Please order it. They’ve seen it all before, especially deli maven Sam, who absorbs each order with a bemused smile. Be forewarned: Sandwiches are tightly wrapped in wax paper and priced based on weight. You could easily spend upward of $15 on lunch. Nobody here seems to mind, though, and the pickles are free.
There are only three tables, all of them small and wobbly, wedged into a cluttered corner lined with maps of France, wooden crates, and stacks of books about wine. But that’s part of the allure. You see, the Cheese Shop doesn’t need to impress anyone. It’s comfortable and confident, the L.L. Bean of sandwich shops — reliable, resilient, a little bit preppy, and unbending to fashion. Just the way the locals like it.
29 Walden St., Concord, 978-369-5778, www.concordcheeseshop.com
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.