Summer is a season jam-packed with beloved traditions: school vacation, beach days and swimming holes among them. And one of America’s greatest culinary contributions has a distinct, warm-weather air about it, too: the ice cream shop.
Whether your tastes run toward a scoop of vanilla in a vintage setting or wasabi-dusted soft serve from a food truck, Relish has searched the country and waded our way through hundreds of flavors to serve up our picks for America’s Very Best Ice Cream Shops.
—By Jennifer M. Wood
Location: Columbus, OH
Website: Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni Britton Bauer is something of a deity in the ice cream industry. Her James Beard Award-winning book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home, was even nicknamed the “homemade-ice cream-making Bible” by The Wall Street Journal. For more than a decade, those lucky enough to live within driving distance to one of her nine Ohio ice cream shops (plus one—soon to be two—in Tennessee) have learned that “Splendid” is indeed an apropos descriptor.
“The real secret is equal parts minimally-processed dairy, long and slow cooking processes and time-honored techniques...No shortcuts,” says Bauer of her frozen creations. Bauer’s dedication to quality extends to all of Jeni’s ingredients, too, which include grass-grazed Ohio cream, locally sourced produce and only the highest quality flavorings, such as fair-trade vanilla and bean-to-bar chocolate. Jeni’s most popular flavor is the made-from-scratch Salty Caramel, a decadent mix of caramelized sugar (which is caramelized by hand over an open flame), sea salt and cream from the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Enough said!
Location: Waterbury, VT
Website: Ben & Jerry's
Yes, you can purchase a carton of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream at just about any grocery or corner store. But wouldn’t it be more fun to make a road trip out of it? That’s exactly what thousands of diehard ice cream connoisseurs do every year when they make the pilgrimage to Waterbury, Vermont to get an up-close peek at the inner-workings of America’s favorite gourmet ice cream.
Once there, your first order of business is to sign up for a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory, a 30-minute excursion that begins with a short movie on the company’s history in the Cow Over the Moon theater, continues through to the glassed-in mezzanine, which overlooks the production floor, and concludes in the Flavoroom, where tour-goers will get a taste of the special flavor of the day. Then head on over to the Scoop Shop, where you can indulge in dozens of your favorite Ben & Jerry’s creations, from Cherry Garcia to Candy Bar Pie. The warm weather also brings loads of on-site activities, including the Summer Outdoor Movie Festival, plus access to the Flavor Graveyard (a tribute to gone but not forgotten flavors), and unparalleled views of the surrounding mountains.
Location: San Francisco, CA
Website: Smitten Ice Cream
Dessert goes high-tech at Smitten, an immensely popular ice cream shop in San Francisco’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. Founded in 2009, the store began its life as a mobile endeavor—and we’re not talking as a food truck. After spending five years in development on the Brrr, a liquid nitrogen-powered ice cream machine that makes a fresh scoop of the frozen stuff in 60 seconds, founder Robyn Sue Fisher took her invention to the streets…in a Radio Flyer wagon. It didn’t take long for a fan base to form.
Shortly thereafter, Fisher partnered up with pastry chef Robyn Lyn Lenzi to open a permanent location (the shop is actually housed in a repurposed shipping container), where sweet-seekers line up to watch the Smitten team turn a pile of locally-sourced ingredients into one of the area’s freshest scoops of ice cream, with a lineup of innovative flavors that change with the season (think fresh mint chip, made with real spearmint and homemade dark chocolate chips). “Freezing ice cream with liquid nitrogen on our patented Brrr machines creates the smallest ice crystals possible,” says Fisher, “ensuring the smoothest, creamiest scoops of ice cream. And, by hand-picking the freshest, purest, tastiest ingredients at their peak of ripeness, our flavors truly shine.”
Location: Cape Cod, MA
Website: Sundae School
There’s never a bad day for Sundae School, a family-run ice cream parlor that’s been serving up some of Cape Cod’s freshest frozen treats for nearly 40 years. Opened in 1976, the restaurant began as a way for a schoolteacher and his family to spend their summers on the beach and has since morphed into one of New England’s most treasured traditions. Though the mini-chain now has outposts in East Orleans and Harwich Port, the original Dennisport location—housed in an old barn just a half-mile from the beach—is still its buzziest.
With its old-timey décor that includes pictures of employees past, plenty of ice cream memorabilia and a 100-year-old marble soda fountain, it is here that the Sundae School’s ice cream is made in small batches, then mixed/filled/topped with a host of only the freshest flavorings and ingredients. But if you want to make like the locals, go for the ice cream sundae. “We feel the popularity is based on a combination of the high-quality ice cream made daily on the premises, not too sweet hot fudge, whipped cream which is made in small batches in front of the customers and topping everything with a fresh bing cherry,” says co-owner Andrea Endres.
Location: New York, NY
Website: Big Gay Ice Cream
“The secret to perfect ice cream is to accept the fact that there is no such thing as ‘perfect’ ice cream,” says Bryan Petroff. “Ice cream should always be approached with an emphasis on fun and whimsy.” Petroff should know. As co-founder of New York City’s Big Gay Ice Cream, he has helped to bring good humor back to everyone’s favorite summertime indulgence. And while the basis of his business, which he co-founded with Douglas Quint, is in delivering traditional ice cream of the soft serve variety, the items they’re topping that with are anything but ordinary.
Big Gay Ice Cream began life as a food truck. In the summer of 2009, Petroff and Quint took their creative confections to the streets to see how New Yorkers would react to ice cream combos that included everything from olive oil to wasabi peas. They quickly realized that they had stumbled onto something great, with rave reviews for their one-of-a-kind treats—especially their signature Salty Pimp, a vanilla cone that is coated and injected with dulce de leche, sprinkled in sea salt and dipped in chocolate. By 2011, the guys had their first storefront, where constant lines prove that ice cream is a thing to be savored all year long.
Location: Culver City, CA
The ice cream sandwich has been deconstructed—and reborn—at Coolhaus, the California-based ice cream shop that operates a fleet of food trucks in Los Angeles, New York, Austin and Miami. (Select Whole Foods carry their one-of-a-kind delicacies, too.) And the secret to their success, according to CEO Natasha Case, is “low air (we call it overrun in the industry), high butterfat, the best possible ingredients, creativity and the willingness to push the envelope!” She’s not kidding.
If a couple of chocolate wafers and vanilla ice cream are what you’re expecting, think again. Because Case and her co-founder, Freya Estreller, are all about creating flavor combinations that are anything but predictable. At Coolhaus, potato chip butterscotch, chocolate chunk pretzel and maple flapjack cookies get paired with fried chicken and waffle, brown butter candied bacon and whiskey Lucky Charms ice cream (respectively). Yep, you read that right. Any questions?
Location: Cambridge, MA
Maybe it’s their proximity to some of the world’s most esteemed institutions of higher education (we’re looking at you Harvard and MIT), but Toscanini’s—better known as Tosci’s—could very well be considered the thinking man/woman’s ice cream shop. And it’s got the press to prove it. In addition to being called “the world’s best ice cream” by The New York Times, the accidental creation of Tosci’s burnt caramel ice cream was the subject of a feature in The Atlantic Monthly. Bon Appetit, Gourmet, USA Today and Boston Magazine have also praised this Cambridge ice creamery. But co-founder Gus Rancatore—a veteran of the Beantown ice cream scene—is not letting the accolades go to his head.
“Maybe it’s predictable that I think experience is important,” says Rancatore of the key to getting it right. “It’s hard to make good ice cream if you do it infrequently; some flavors take years to improve. We worked on Strawberry and Peach for years, making as many batches as possible during New England's short growing season... Good ingredients, some brainpower and a lot of ice cream making, repeated. And it helps to like what you're doing and want to make the customers happy.”
Location: Berkeley, CA
Website: Ici Ice Cream
In 2009, Mary Canales made the transition from pastry chef to ice cream-maker. And patrons of Ici Ice Cream in Berkeley, California couldn’t be happier. Alongside co-owner Mattea Soreng, Canales serves up a daily-changing menu of ice creams, sorbets, candies and cookies, all of it made in small batches with only the freshest, locally sourced ingredients.
Most popular among the shop’s offerings are the handmade ice cream cones, which go out the door by the hundreds every day in an array of eclectic flavors, including candied Meyer lemon-gingersnap, S'mores, Darjeeling tea-cherry and vanilla creme brulee. Their secret to blending up some truly crave-worthy ice cream? “Never stop being critical of what you are making. Taste everything and adjust sweetness, saltiness or other flavors as needed.”
Location: Scottsdale, AZ
Website: Sweet Republic
Ice cream has gone global at Scottsdale’s Sweet Republic, the culinary brainchild of Helen Yung and Jan Wichayanuparp, two well-traveled foodies who came together to open one of the country’s most unique ice cream eateries. It’s a place where salted butter caramel ice cream and basil lime sorbet are among the most popular offerings, and the sundaes are anything but traditional. Case in point: Toffee Banofi, a waffle bowl filled with two scoops of vanilla ice cream, salted caramel sauce, almond toffee brittle, bananas and whipped cream.
“To make perfect ice cream, we start with the best local milk and cream, then add unique flavors and handcrafted ingredients, always looking for the perfect balance between flavor and texture,” says Yung.
With 90 locations nationwide, you’re never too far from a Kilwin’s, the Michigan-based sweets factory that’s been churning out high-quality—and homemade—chocolate, fudge and ice cream for more than 65 years. With a focus on fine ingredients and top-quality customer service, each Kilwin’s store strives to keep true to the company’s motto: Sweet in every sense since 1947. And they’re succeeding.
Like the candy shops from decades past, the Kilwin’s experience begins before you even step foot inside, as the aroma of fresh chocolate and other homemade confections wafts outward. But if you’ve only saved room for or allotted yourself one sweet indulgence, you’ll want to resist the urge to do anything but window shop the candy counters and head straight for the ice cream case, where you’ll find more than a dozen varieties of artisan ice cream—also homemade—in a variety of flavors, including the always-popular salted caramel, toasted coconut and old fashioned vanilla. “We use only the finest quality ingredients, coupled [with] unique flavor profiles, in our original recipe ice cream,” says director of marketing Jeff Hall.
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