Perched at the corner of Elm and Hanover – a busy intersection in downtown Manchester, N.H. – sits the unassuming Cheddar half of Cheddar & Rye. Cheddar & Rye is two spots in one: a grilled cheese sandwich joint on one side and a whiskey bar on the other (although signs still promise that Rye will open “midsummer,” which we’re safely past now). There are a few rugged tables and chairs outside along Hanover and big windows that give passers-by a glance at the interior.
The cafe is themed to comic books. The bulk of it honors the big two – Marvel and DC – through fan art, clippings from the comics, and the names of its sandwiches.
There’s clearly a lot of love for comics from the owners, which created this unholy mashup of concepts. The “Lex Luthor”, for example, is a pulled pork sandwich with crispy onions and cheddar cheese. Is pulled pork evil? Do crispy onions pose a threat to the health and well-being of Metropolis? It isn’t clear. But what is clear is that calling the Lex a grilled cheese is a bit of a misnomer.
The same goes for the Hawkeye, a sandwich made from Swiss cheese, pastrami, sauerkraut, and Thousand Island dressing. Eagle-eyed readers will recognize a reuben when they see it and, like the Lex, it isn’t clear why this sandwich is called the Hawkeye.
But here’s the thing: the Hawkeye might be the best reuben in New Hampshire.
Loaded with pastrami and a sharp Swiss cheese, this sandwich was filling without being ridiculously overstuffed. That’s a real rye bread, too, crunchy and sweet. I’m sure they don’t cook their own meats in the back, but the pastrami was a good cut and the whole sandwich came together in a way wholly unexpected for a “grilled cheese restaurant.”
By trying to sell the grilled cheese angle, it feels like Cheddar & Rye is selling themselves short. Other options on the menu – all pitched as grilled cheeses – include ingredients like maple srirach buffalo chicken, a house-made fig jam, imported Danish bleu cheese, and sliced apples. The combinations aren’t innovative on their own – most of them are common enough on upscale sandwich shop menus – but they get the flavors right and the eatery is unique for Manchester’s downtown.
There’s a refreshing lack of pretension at Cheddar & Rye. The interior is laid-back: there’s a television and a few game consoles in a far corner, chairs and tables that encourage mostly solo or two-person dining, and a big black wall where the menu is scrawled in chalk. The comic theme offers a lot for keen fans to spot but its easily ignored if you aren’t into the scene. But maybe Cheddar & Rye went too far in rejecting the high culture status that usually surrounds upscale sandwich shops, because as I sat and ate, I saw a lot of office workers from the surrounding buildings walk past the big glass windows. It would be easy to write Cheddar & Rye off as a lowbrow grilled cheese joint, but that’s just not fair. They’re making delicious sandwiches with quality ingredients and they’re doing it at not unreasonable prices. They’re just doing it within their own Fortress of Solitude.