What would childhood be without dreams of banana splits—the ultimate reward for surviving the school year, passing the final exam, winning (or losing) the softball championship?Whole weeks can be consumed deciding on the exact combination of flavors and sauces, mentally assembling a huge raft of multicolored scoops covered with hot fudge, butterscotch, crushed pineapple, toasted almonds, and ripples of whipped cream, topped with the exclamation point of a maraschino cherry.
Ice cream parlors used to be a vital part of the American social fabric—they were thriving local hangouts, oases of refuge, the first places to spend an allowance. But these days it's getting mighty hard to find a good old-fashioned ice cream place. I keep my eye open for the exceptions, since I could live on ice cream and occasionally do. Here, according to me and fellow national food critics, are 15 of the country's best shops.
Frozen in Time
Crown Candy Kitchen 1401 St. Louis Ave., St. Louis; 314/621-9650. An utterly charming relic, owned by the Karandzieff family since 1913. Drink five malteds in a half-hour and you get them all free—a reminder of the days when it was permissible to load up on calories in full public view.
Sugar Bowl Ice Cream Parlor & Restaurant 4005 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, Ariz.; 602/946-0051. A pink-and-white candy-striped oasis from 1958, when pom-pom girls ruled high school and a family trip for a cone could solve every problem.
Swensen's 1999 Hyde St., San Francisco; 415/775-6818. Founder Earle Swensen sold his name to franchise managers who've opened more than 300 shops worldwide, but he held on to the original in Russian Hill. It's still a pilgrimage site for lovers of the medium-rich, classic flavors Swensen popularized.
Doumar's 1919 Monticello Ave., Norfolk, Va.; 757/627-4163. Lebanese immigrant Abe Doumar introduced the ice cream cone at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and his descendants still operate this beachside ice cream shop. Cones are baked on the premises in the original waffle iron, then wound around wooden dowels for all to see.
Sodas (Two Straws, Please)
Fair Oaks Pharmacy 1526 Mission St., South Pasadena, Calif.; 626/799-1414. Serving the same busy downtown corner on and off since 1915. Current owners Meredith and Michael Miller discovered the rather run-down store a decade ago; they spruced it up with stained-glass cabinets, malt mixers, and glass penny-candy containers from the 1920's, then found high-quality locally made ice cream to go into their sodas, sundaes, and malteds. And it's still a working drugstore.
Elliston Place Soda Shop 2111 Elliston Place, Nashville; 615/327-1090. Plain folks and big-name country musicians have flocked here since 1939 for sodas, ice cream, legendary milk shakes, and the mini-jukeboxes at each table. Featured on the cover of a George Jones album and in the movie Stand By Your Man.
Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionery 214 N. Carrollton Ave., New Orleans; 504/486-0078. Tart lemon ice and other powerfully flavored fruit ices, along with traditional ice creams, at a shop long run by a Sicilian family.
Hoffman's 569 Church St. (at Rte. 71), Spring Lake Heights, N.J.; 908/974-2253. Homemade fresh-fruit, coconut, and chocolate-marshmallow flavors lure jaded New Yorkers to this outpost on the Jersey shore, even in winter.
Homer's Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor 1237 Green Bay Rd., Wilmette, Ill.; 847/251-0477. The Chicago favorite, serving creamy, rich, and very fresh blends like peach (only in season, of course), cherry, and cappuccino chip.
King's Cream 1831 S.W. Eighth St., Miami; 305/643-1842. A rustic stand in the vibrant Little Havana neighborhood, specializing in exotic fruit-flavored ice cream like coconut, soursop, mango, and mamey.
Frozen Custard's Last Stands
Anderson's Frozen Custard 2235 Sheridan Dr., Buffalo, N.Y.; 716/875-5952. Eight locations specializing in rich and eggy soft-serve frozen custard. You can turn a dish upside down without dripping.
Ted Drewes Frozen Custard 6726 Chippewa St., St. Louis; 314/481-2652. In St. Louis, "going Drewsing" means stopping in for a frozen custard—quite possibly the country's best—or a "concrete," an extra-thick milk shake.
All the Trimmings
Amy's Ice Cream 3500 Guadalupe St., Austin; 512/458-6895. Eight shops in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio that put the "scream" back in ice cream. Servers clown around, tossing scoops back and forth jai alai-style, organizing line dances, holding contests for best flavor ideas. Only 14 of the approximately 200 blends are made each day, to ensure freshness.
Herrell's 15 Dunster St., Cambridge, Mass.; 617/497-2179. Good, honest ice cream from a Cambridge institution (founder Steve Herrell also started the legendary Steve's). Famous for Smoosh-Ins—they'll mix your favorite cookie, candy, nuts, or fruit right into the scoop.
La Crème de la Crème
Toscanini's 899 Main St., Cambridge, Mass.; 617/491-5877. Cambridge is America's cradle of ice cream greatness, and this is my pick for the country's best ice cream. Affable Gus Rancatore conjures a marvelous range of flavors, from burnt-caramel to Grape-Nut to hazelnut gelato (gelato has more egg yolk and less cream than standard ice cream, giving it a delectable smoothness). Gus's vanilla has won a national competition, and the tea-flavored ice creams put Asian restaurants to shame. Khulfee, made with almonds, pistachios, and cardamom, could start a national craze, and once anyone has tasted Gus's cocoa pudding it's plain impossible to go back to plain chocolate. Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Boston Magazine's food critic, and author of The Joy of Coffee.
Five Cool Facts
- Sunday is the most popular day to eat ice cream.
- Vanilla is America's favorite flavor.
- The top ice cream-producing states last year were California, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.
- The country's first ice cream shop opened in 1786 in New York City.
- Starting in the 1920's, immigrants detained at Ellis Island were served ice cream as part of their first American meal.
Q: How did the sundae get its name?
A: One popular explanation: In the 1880's, religious leaders objected to the consumption of "sinful" carbonated sodas on the Sabbath. Merchants responded by leaving out the soda, serving "dry" ice cream with syrup on Sundays. The new treat was spelled "sundae" to avoid offense.
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