Feeling the heat? Here's where to get your old-school licks in.
Anybody who thinks eating dessert before dinner is a bad and wrong idea has probably never been to the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, where Bassetts Ice Cream has had pride of place near one of the market's main entrances since, well, since the market has been around, which is a long time, because this is Philadelphia, where everything is either old or feels old.
Crown jewel of the Mid-Atlantic region's array of very fine, extremely vintage markets, or at least the most visited, Reading Terminal is named for its location in the old Reading Railroad Terminal, which dates back to the late 1800's. The trains stopped running from here back in the 1980's, but the market not only survives; it is perhaps one of Philadelphia's most popular destinations to eat and meet and mingle, certainly in no small part to the presence of Bassetts, the market's sole remaining original tenant, a place often popular enough that if you happen to walk in thinking you might like a scoop of their exalted, high-in-butterfat cookies and cream, or the buoyant, but also very rich Guatemalan Ripple, and the line happens to be short or nonexistent, you cancel your other plans and you get up there and you go for it, particularly on a hot, steamy day, which Philadelphia has so many of, at least at this time of year.
Outlasting so much else, now in existence for a century and a half, and remaining in the same family for five generations and counting, Bassetts offers Philadelphia the best of all possible worlds; like the market, it breezily bridges the divide between past and the present, speaking a language that never goes out of style. It's is one in a satisfyingly large group of vintage ice cream makers and sellers across the country that have endured, weathering trend after trend to come out on top as some of our favorite places to wind up on a summer afternoon or evening. Before summer slips away, reacquaint yourself with America's best classic ice cream parlors—here are 10 of our current favorites.
New Orleans: Angelo Brocato
More than a century ago, gelato maker Angelo Brocato upped stakes in Sicily and found his way to New Orleans; his shop in the French Quarter was for generations an oasis, a gathering place for those lucky enough to know the pleasures of the Italian method. Brocato's long ago moved to the Mid-City section of town, where it remains—despite a lengthy closure in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—an essential ending to many a night on the town. Look for the vintage neon sign beckoning you in from the darkness of Carrollton Avenue; come in for a healthy portion of spumoni, a bracing espresso, maybe a bite of cannoli, and a fat slice of New Orleans life.
There are two types of Californians: those who imagine there is some sort of debate to be had surrounding where one might find the best ice cream in the Golden State, and those who grew up in and around Sacramento, the capital, for whom there is typically no debate. As they will tell you, like you should have known all along, the answer to your question is Gunther's, which goes back more than 75 years now. Like moths to flame on a warm summer's night, this modest hangout with the unmistakable neon sign draws locals young and old to a relatively quiet corner in the Curtis Park neighborhood for scoops of house-made black walnut, say, or the lemon custard, or one of their exceedingly popular fruit freezes, a fitting treat in a town surrounded by many an orchard and grove.
Cincinnati: Aglamesis Brothers
Anyone who loves ice cream a great deal is probably at least somewhat familiar with the whole situation in Cincinnati, where they have Graeter's ice cream parlors scattered all over the place, starting with that superbly vintage shop in the city's superbly vintage Clifton neighborhood, steps away, conveniently, from the original Skyline Chili parlor. The joys of a scoop (or a pint, not shared) of Graeter's extremely purple Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip are known to many by now, thanks to a rather impressive distribution network, but here's a thing about Cincinnati that you maybe did not know, which is that there's a whole other classic ice cream thing going on, one that was never exported, a tradition that one of America's most tradition-bound cities prefers to keep all to themselves. Going back exactly a century, Aglamesis Brothers sits in Oakley Square, across Madison Road from the Art Moderne 20th Century Theatre, still in operation. Like so many in town, the whole neighborhood is a throwback, but then you go inside, and there are tables and marble countertops imported from Italy, and menus and servers in bowties, and banana splits in giant metal boats, made with ice cream from small batches, and it's all basically the ideal of what one of these places should be, except there isn't just one, there are two of them. (The other's in the suburbs.)
Wilton, Iowa: Wilton Candy Kitchen
When two young Greek immigrants seeking a new start outside of Chicago landed in this tiny town near the Quad Cities back in 1910, what we know today as one of the finest old soda fountains in Iowa had already been around for roughly half a century. In fact, the reason Gus Nopoulos and Nick Parros bought the store was the presence of a working, ready-to-go soda fountain set-up. Today, the classic sign—Candy, Soda, Lunch—beckons both locals, politicians on the stump and long-distance travelers, who happily make the short detour from I-80, for this wonderful little museum piece, operated by the Nopoulos family all the way up until just a couple of years ago, when new ownership stepped in. The exterior has been scrubbed up nicely, but inside, it mostly feels like a trip back in time, which, if you have ever been to Wilton, Iowa, you will know isn't a very long trip at all. Homemade ice cream, a vast selection of sodas and sundaes, are on offer—so is all the local gossip you can handle, which is always free of charge.
St. Louis: Crown Candy Kitchen
There are so many things that are gone now, here in St. Louis, starting with the people—the city, once such a big deal, now holds less than half its peak population, a stunning decline that began in the 1960's and still continues today. But there is so much else that is still here, against all odds and reason, and this century-plus old soda fountain in Old North St. Louis is most certainly one of those things, a Norman Rockwell-level bit of Americana, a portal from the realities of modern day life in too many corners of America, into some kind of ageless fantasy land, where they are still mixing up batches of ice cream in the antique copper kettle, where there are fresh banana malts, where couples on big dates come to share banana splits, or luxurious French Sundaes. Best of all, the place is owned and operated by the third generation of the Karandzieff family—with, as they'll tell you, a little bit of help from the fourth.
South Pasadena, Calif.: Fair Oaks Pharmacy
Home to one of the finest collections of period architecture (Craftsman) in the West and centered around a well-kept, historic downtown with recently-added rail service whisking commuters to and from Downtown Los Angeles, South Pasadena is one of those places in Southern California that manages to out-back East most places back East, a postcard of a place (with cost of living to match), offering a glimpse of what life was like here, before regional planners bowed completely to the car. Pretty much directly in the path of a long-proposed freeway connector—a project only recently cancelled once again, in what feels like the hundredth go-round—you will find one of the state's oldest surviving drug stores, a fossil of a thing with no apparent plans to move with the times, which is completely fine with everyone around here. No shrine to bygone days, this—Fair Oaks remains the complete package, an actual pharmacy, with an actual soda fountain, where you can sit at the counter and order an actual pastrami sandwich and a chocolate egg cream, or a salad and a lime rickey, if you're watching your figure, all on a busy street corner, right along what was once Route 66.
Leon's is not here to impress you, so don't even start. Anyone looking for cute, for indoor seating, for fresh faced soda jerks with positive attitudes, would be wise to give this ruthlessly committed classic, with its simple menu, abundance of neon, and service that can at times best your local motor vehicle bureau for lack of charm, a wide berth. Anyone looking for some of the most delicious damn frozen custard on the market, however—yes, better than Ted Drewes in St. Louis, do feel free to try both many times over, and then get back to us—should get in line, just as Wisconsin has been doing since the 1940's, for some of the richest, smoothest, most textbook examples of the delicious genre around. Leon's, with its unvarnished appeal and lack of niceties, doesn't need to be anything more than one of the most no-nonsense operations in all of dessert-dom, and if that's unclear on arrival, one spoonful, one lick of their vanilla or chocolate or butter pecan, and you'll be hooked. Hang out in the grubby parking lot, like a bad seed, and enjoy, then come back and do it all over again.
Fredericksburg, Va.: Goolrick's Pharmacy
There is some discussion as to just how old this place is, this historic drug store on Caroline Street in a historic town in a historic state, but the current owner, a pharmacist who's barely hit his 30th birthday, but apparently knows a good thing when he sees it, estimates that Goolrick's has been at it since 1867, and we’re going with that. This makes the local institution, continuously operating in this location since the 1890's, one of America's oldest soda fountains, if not the oldest, and you certainly feel that when you walk into the space, past the counter and back to where prescriptions are still being filled, day after day. (A note on the menu offers a gentle reminder, on behalf of the locals who no doubt appreciate not being treated like a tourist attraction, to refrain from taking photos of the pharmacy section of the store.) The menu here is simple, which fits Virginia's whole scene like a glove—there's ham salad, served with crackers, there are deviled eggs, there are simple and cheap breakfast specials, and of course there is ice cream, just vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, along with sodas, malts, shakes, egg creams and floats.
Cape Cod: Sundae School
There is no discussion of ice cream heritage in this country without New England, and there is no discussion of New England's rich (and delicious) culture without the parlors of Cape Cod, that special place where the luckiest people make some of their happiest summer memories, and continue to do so, through times good and bad. Occupying a renovated barn in Dennisport since the late 1970's, and over time expanded to incorporate three Cape locations, the small batch, made-fresh-daily ice creams come in super-New England-y flavors like frozen pudding (rum and candied fruit) and Grapenut (vanilla, with Grape-Nuts cereal) and crème de menthe (the liqueur, plus chocolate chips).
Auburn, Ala.: Toomer's Drugs
Should this local icon ever decide to call it a day, and it has been around since the late 1800's, with just one change in ownership, so don't count on it ever going anywhere, generations of Auburn grads and townies would still refer to the corner of Magnolia and College as Toomer's Corner, because that's just what everybody has been calling it, pretty much for as long as anyone alive now can remember. Founded by a prominent player on Auburn's first football team, Alabama state senator Sheldon Toomer, the business was sold (and sensitively renovated) not too long ago, but the legend lives on—the locally famous, fresh-squeezed lemonades, the ice cream sodas, the sundaes, and the excellent fountain counter set-up. Just don't come here looking to get your prescriptions filled—they're too busy selling Auburn merch to sit around counting pills.