The last time I heard the words “phosphate” or “egg cream” was at Seney’s Rexall Drug store in Buffalo, Wyoming (population 3,600) sometime in the '80s. As a kid, no visit to the grandparents’ was complete without multiple stops at Seney’s to stock up on Archie & Veronica comic books, followed by a cherry coke (with REAL cherry syrup) or egg cream at the live, functioning soda fountain that plopped down in the '30s and hasn’t changed since.
Traditions don’t always survive though, and my beloved childhood soda fountain went out of business in 2009. Luckily The Ice Cream Bar here in the city is bringing back the tradition of the lunch counter, soda jerks, and handmade, artisanal drink ingredients. It’s family friendly, but once their liquor license goes into effect I hope adults will gather here at night to wax nostalgic and enjoy fancy sodas that include “grown-up” ingredients (cough, cough).
The first thing you’ll notice upon walking into the shoppe is the bar. It’s a gorgeous relic from the '30s with the name “Dandelion” and was sourced from the same creamery that invented “Moose Tracks” ice cream. The vintage aesthetic is in effect everywhere, from the art deco letter styling to the black lacquered tabletops. San Franciscans will use any excuse to dress up, and I foresee a lot of fedoras, bow ties, and vintage dresses passing through the red door.
Owner Juliet Pries can be credited with conceptualizing the The Ice Cream Bar’s look, as a lifelong collector and aficionado of fashion and furniture from the '30s and '40s. Former part-owner of Kezar Pub and Mad Dog in the Fog, Juliet wanted to get back to her pastry school roots and focus more on ice cream. That, and her lucky acquisition of a vintage marble countertop from the '30s, solidified her vision of opening an old-timey ice cream parlor-cum-soda fountain.
This led to the idea of making high-quality drinks using recipes dating back to the 1800s, with a staggering variety of tinctures and techniques you’ve probably never heard of (but chances are your grandparents have).
Juliet turned to Rickhouse bartender Russell Davis and mixologist Darren Crawford to develop a historically accurate beverage program that would fit her vision. Russell, who won the title of “2012 Bartender of the Year” from Nightclub & Bar Awards, is now recreating drinks that have long gone out of style, including frappes, malts, phosphates, lactarts, egg creams, and panaceas (sodas with healing properties).
The artisanal cocktail movement, while wonderful for my disposition, has maxed out in popularity to the point that “mixologists” are now the butt of jokes on “Portlandia” and “Shit Bartenders Say” YouTube clips. So it makes sense that our continuing penchant for Prohibition-era cocktails would evolve to include old beverage traditions like the soda fountain. Besides, it’s places like The Ice Cream Bar that would dole out alcohol as “medicine” during prohibition times.
“A lot of people think the soda program is the next big thing in the cocktail world,” says Russell. Judging by the geekery of the craft, I’d say the man knows what he speaks of. Most of the drinks involve playing with a chemistry set of extracts (like bergamot and fennel seed) and acids, and hand mixing them with a shaker. Russell is using D.W. Saxe’s New Guide, or, Hints to Soda Dispensers from 1890 as his Bible. It served as THE handbook for soda jerks in Chicago in 1894, and is still probably the best source today for soda fountain recipes.
Darcy O’Neill’s more recent recipe book, Fix the Pumps, was another huge source of inspiration for Russell. He also uncovered some unusual sources – such as a guy in Martinez, CA, who had collected a ton of old acids and syrups from the 1880s.
I was lucky enough to attend The Ice Cream Bar’s soft opening, where I spent most of my time bellied up to the marble soda counter, watching the soda jerks, resplendent in bow ties, white shirts, and white hats. They worked their magic with a staggering array of housemade tinctures and essential oils, all the while juggling equipment ranging from cocktail shakers to ice carvers, and running a temperature-controlled soda water dispenser.
The craftsmanship that went into each drink was impressive, but mastering the soda dispenser is especially tricky. I witnessed a few jerks spew soda foam into their own faces, which inspired a few off-color jokes about the dangers of “jerking it” – Grandma definitely would not have approved.
I sampled a few drinks, including a chocolate-based phosphate (a flavored soda with acid phosphate). It had something called “Hellfire” tincture in it with the kind of bite you’d normally only get from actual liquor. I had high hopes for the “New Orleans Hangover” which includes chicory coffee syrup – a roasted root flavor usually only found in the coffee at Café du Monde. This drink did not disappoint … but it’s less of a hangover “panacea” than a sweet distraction from pain. The sweet cream ice cream “floating” on top combined with the “Golden Eagle” tincture will have you soaring from damnation to salvation.
Juliet’s plan for the menu is to keep the dishes as organic and natural as possible, while staying true to old-fashioned favorites, like banana cake with butterscotch topping, roasted pineapple ice cream, ice cream cakes, and sugar cookie ice cream sandwiches, with flavors rotating seasonally. All of the ice cream and its ingredients, as well as the candies, are made in-house. (You’ve never had marshmallows until you’ve tried their passionfruit ones, toasted and served up on a plate.)
Also in the works is a more savory menu for the lunch counter, including high-end hot dogs and fancy grilled cheese. And vegans, fear not – while I’m not sure if soy or coconut milk ice cream is part of the plan, you’ll at least have lunch and confectionary options.
The question is, how will a kid-friendly mecca of sweet stuff hold the interest of sometimes snobby adult foodies? Juliet isn’t worried – after 8 p.m. the bar stools are full with adults enjoying fancy sodas. If it takes off the same way that cocktail culture has, we may see soda fountains return as neighborhood institutions. Let’s bring back casual hangouts where getting schlammered isn’t the end goal, but relationships will easily flourish over two straws in a glass. Think “Happy Days,” but with a gloss of sophistication.
The Ice Cream Bar is located in Cole Valley at 815 Cole Street, and walking distance from Upper Haight. Get a homemade ice cream sandwich or scoop at the front ice cream counter, or pull up a stool at the crown jewel of the place: the vintage soda fountain, where you can watch the soda jerks work their alchemical magic.
Bold Italic readers head to the Ice Cream Bar on Wednesday, February 29 for a tasting! It's sold out, but we hope you'll keep an eye on our calendar for more fun upcoming events.