Many manufacturers label a model "cyclocross" bike, but, they aren't a true race bike. They may be a 'tweener; something in between a do-it-all/commuter and a real 'cross bike. So, don't be swayed by the naysayers. Just know what to look for. Below are a few of my (nit)picks.
-The most basic thing is look for a steel frame, as an aluminum frame isn't going to have the vibration damping nor will it have much compliance.
-Look for eyelets. There are a variety of 'cross bikes out there that have a complete set of eyelets. Generally, they'll have more all-around geometry.
-Pay attention to the drivetrain. For what I do, I can get away with a compact crank (50/34T) and 36T cassette. Most 'cross race bikes have a 46/38T crank.
-Closely look at the geometry and know what you need to be looking for. The biggies are headtube length and angle, chainstay length, rake/trail, and effective toptube length.
-Know how much tire you want to run and if it will fit.
Like you, I didn't want a full-on tour bike. I don't carry heavy amounts of gear. I wanted to have one all-around road bike that was fairly lightweight and responsive. I bought off eBay, as I knew what I was looking at and had a budget. I bought a leftover '09 Specialized Tricross Comp. It has carbon seatstays, seatpost, and fork legs. It was the last year to have all the carbon frame sections and still have mid-fork eyelets. The geometry is a compromise between a tour bike and road bike. It'll accept my 40mm studded tires and fenders, at the same time. I added a 125 degree stem, to get the bars up. I wanted the double 'ring crank. I already had a SRAM Apex mid-cage derailleur set that allowed a 36T cassette that I swapped onto the bike. For me, it's just about the perfect compromise. In hindsight, I would've sacrificed some responsiveness/stiffness for a steel frame.
Having said all that, there are some steel, all-arounder bikes out there worth looking at:
Surly Cross-Check-Unfortunately, has 46/38T crank, but, are seen on eBay and are affordable.
Salsa Vaya-Starting this year, you can get double or triple crank build options. Light-tourist/all-arounder. Hard to find 2nd hand.
Gunnar CrossHairs-I'd only buy 2nd hand, as they're expensive new.
Jamis Coda-Steel, flat-bar, multiple build levels, eyelets, and disc option.
Jamis Bosanova-For me, very intriguing; probably what I would buy if buying new, today. Less long-haul than their Aurora and more all-arounder.
Motobecane Fantom CXX-$800, with Apex drivetrain, from bikesdirect.com. Made in Asia, like most every other bike. I've heard good reviews of the site.