Paris has its cafés, Munich its beer halls, London its tearooms—but America has the ice cream parlor.

What would childhood be without dreams of banana splits—the ultimate reward forsurviving the school year, passing the final exam, winning (or losing) thesoftball championship?Whole weeks can be consumed deciding on the exactcombination of flavors and sauces, mentally assembling a huge raft ofmulticolored scoops covered with hot fudge, butterscotch, crushed pineapple,toasted almonds, and ripples of whipped cream, topped with the exclamation pointof a maraschino cherry.

Ice cream parlors used to be a vital part of the Americansocial fabric—they were thriving local hangouts, oases of refuge, the firstplaces to spend an allowance. But these days it's getting mighty hard to find agood old-fashioned ice cream place. I keep my eye open for the exceptions, sinceI could live on ice cream and occasionally do. Here, according to me and fellownational 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 fivemalteds in a half-hour and you get them all free—a reminder of the days when itwas permissible to load up on calories in full public view.
Sugar Bowl Ice CreamParlor & Restaurant 4005 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, Ariz.; 602/946-0051. Apink-and-white candy-striped oasis from 1958, when pom-pom girls ruled highschool and a family trip for a cone could solve every problem.
Swensen's 1999Hyde St., San Francisco; 415/775-6818. Founder Earle Swensen sold his name tofranchise managers who've opened more than 300 shops worldwide, but he held on tothe original in Russian Hill. It's still a pilgrimage site for lovers of themedium-rich, classic flavors Swensen popularized.
Doumar's 1919 Monticello Ave.,Norfolk, Va.; 757/627-4163. Lebanese immigrant Abe Doumar introduced the icecream cone at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, and his descendants still operatethis beachside ice cream shop. Cones are baked on the premises in the originalwaffle 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 since1915. Current owners Meredith and Michael Miller discovered the rather run-downstore 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 locallymade ice cream to go into their sodas, sundaes, and malteds. And it's still aworking drugstore.
Elliston Place Soda Shop 2111 Elliston Place, Nashville;615/327-1090. Plain folks and big-name country musicians have flocked here since1939 for sodas, ice cream, legendary milk shakes, and the mini-jukeboxes at eachtable. Featured on the cover of a George Jones album and in the movie Stand ByYour Man.

Angelo Brocato Ice Cream & Confectionery 214 N. Carrollton Ave., NewOrleans; 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 NewYorkers 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 Chicagofavorite, 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, andmamey.

Frozen Custard's Last Stands
Anderson's Frozen Custard 2235 Sheridan Dr.,Buffalo, N.Y.; 716/875-5952. Eight locations specializing in rich and eggysoft-serve frozen custard. You can turn a dish upside down without dripping.
TedDrewes Frozen Custard 6726 Chippewa St., St. Louis; 314/481-2652. In St. Louis,"going Drewsing" means stopping in for a frozen custard—quite possibly thecountry's best—or a "concrete," an extra-thick milk shake.

All the Trimmings
Amy's Ice Cream 3500 Guadalupe St., Austin; 512/458-6895. Eightshops in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio that put the "scream" back in icecream. Servers clown around, tossing scoops back and forth jai alai-style,organizing line dances, holding contests for best flavor ideas. Only 14 of theapproximately 200 blends are made each day, to ensure freshness.
Herrell's 15Dunster St., Cambridge, Mass.; 617/497-2179. Good, honest ice cream from aCambridge institution (founder Steve Herrell also started the legendary Steve's).Famous for Smoosh-Ins—they'll mix your favorite cookie, candy, nuts, or fruitright 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 ismy pick for the country's best ice cream. Affable Gus Rancatore conjures amarvelous 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 adelectable smoothness). Gus's vanilla has won a national competition, and thetea-flavored ice creams put Asian restaurants to shame. Khulfee, made withalmonds, pistachios, and cardamom, could start a national craze, and once anyonehas tasted Gus's cocoa pudding it's plain impossible to go back to plainchocolate. Corby Kummer is a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, BostonMagazine's food critic, and author of The Joy of Coffee.

Five Cool Facts

  1. Sunday is the most popular day to eat ice cream.
  2. Vanilla is America's favorite flavor.
  3. The top ice cream-producing states last year were California, Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan.
  4. The country's first ice cream shop opened in 1786 in New York City.
  5. 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 theSabbath. Merchants responded by leaving out the soda, serving "dry" ice creamwith syrup on Sundays. The new treat was spelled "sundae" to avoid offense.