Steve Martin once joked about the banjo that when you play it, everything’s okay. The same could be said about eating ice cream. This sweet treat—in a cone, in a bowl, in a milk shake, malted or soda—just makes everything nicer. It’s even sweeter when enjoyed in an authentic ice cream parlor or soda fountain. “It’s all about the experience,” offers Michael Strange, co-owner of Bassetts, a Philadelphia institution. “It’s going as a family, checking out the flavor selections, picking a cone and tasting each other’s ice cream.” Ready to indulge? We’ve got the scoop (you saw that one coming) on some of America’s oldest ice cream establishments—all still dishing it out after more than a century. And we’ll keep taking it, because, as Randy Windley, co-owner of Doumar’s Ice Cream in Norfolk, VA, says, “Every day is a good day for ice cream.”
Bassett’s, Philadelphia, PA: Since 1861
Bassett’s offers 40 flavors. Thankfully, none of them are green tomato, which was one of the first ice cream flavors produced by founder Lewis Dubois Bassett on his Salem, NJ farm in 1861. This discontinued flavor has been revived over the years for special company events. “It is not a good mover,” Michael Strange, Bassetts’ great-great-grandson, says with a laugh. “We have members of the sixth generation involved in the business, so we’re hoping to keep this going,” he says. Bassett’s has been located in the Reading Terminal Market since the venerable farmers market opened in 1892. The original marble counter anchors the soda fountain. A popular mural painted in the 1970s, and considered a local icon, has also been retained. The ice cream is made off-site, but with original family recipes. With the exception of green tomato, Strange has found that when a flavor is discontinued, it ignites a huge groundswell. “People are very passionate about their favorite ice cream,” he says. Case in point: banana. Not a bestseller, Strange says, but once we discontinued it, people lobbied for it and we relented and brought it back.”
Doumar’s, Norfolk, VA: Since 1905
Abe Doumar invented the ice cream cone, an entrepreneurial inspiration when the former souvenir salesperson came upon an ice cream vendor who had run out of bowls at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. According to current Doumar’s co-owner Randy Windley, Abe, noticing another vendor who made waffles on a single iron wafflemaker, suggested he roll up his waffles in a cornucopia (or is that cone-ucopia) shape and merge with the ice cream vendor. Abe, according to family lore, sold the world’s first ice cream cones at the fair and seeing the possibilities, went to a foundry to custom-build his own waffle cone machines. That machine is still in use at Doumar’s, which makes roughly 600-800 cones daily. A crushed cone is the topping for a signature Doumar’s hot fudge sundae called the Ringo. It is also the little something extra in the Reggie, a chocolate shake, which is no longer on the menu but is a kept-secret for more seasoned Doumar’s visitors who remember the treat from 50 years ago. Doumar’s is still family-run. “There is a Doumar here every day,” Windley says.
Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain, Pasadena, CA: Since 1915
Pasadena native Brandon Shahniani reports that he was the most popular kid in his school after his family bought Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain in 2005. Here, vintage ice cream parlor and Route 66 nostalgia intersect (it’s a favorite stop for travelers on the Mother Road). Fair Oaks originated as a pharmacy, but a soda fountain was installed for customers to chase down bitter-tasting medications with the sweet stuff. Signature ice cream offerings are the classic banana split and the locally-inspired Huntington Heath Sundae, named after Pasadena’s major thruway (it’s got a hot caramel sauce base and two scoops of vanilla ice cream topped with hot fudge and Heath Bar pieces). All the interior wood is original, as are the marble counter, stools and tile. There are iconic treats such as Rickey’s (lime or cherry syrup in soda water) and phosphates but the family has adapted with the times with an expanded sandwich menu and even milkshakes made with fresh fruit. “But at heart,” Shahniani says, “we are an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.”
Fenton’s Creamery, Oakland, CA: Since 1894
How does Fenton’s Creamery keep packing them in? It’s simple, says Keith Ortega, a manager for 17 of Fenton’s 125 years. “If you put out a premium product, you will continue to have customers.” Fenton’s makes its own handcrafted ice cream, which is between 14-16% butterfat and made with local or California ingredients. Take its most popular creation, the Black & Tan sundae, created in the 1920s by founder E. S. Fenton’s grandson, Melvin. It was Melvin who convinced his grandfather to add ice cream to the company’s dairy offerings and to open a soda fountain. The toasted almond ice cream used in the sundae contains almonds that are dry roasted especially for Fenton’s by Henderson Nut Factory in Lafayette, CA. The caramel and chocolate sauces used in the sundae are also housemade. Production tours allow customers to watch the ice cream being made. Ortega is happy to share with visitors Fenton’s history. “It’s one of the best parts of my job,” he enthuses.
Goolrick’s Pharmacy, Fredericksburg, VA: Since 1867
Christopher Condor, about 30 and only the fourth owner in Goolrick’s Pharmacy’s more than 150-year history, did not have a Goolrick’s growing up. “My family moved around every two years,” he says. “I don’t recall places like this; an old-fashioned pharmacy and soda fountain with a charm that harkens back to a simpler time.” Condor is not just the owner, he is also the pharmacist. Goolrick’s is said to be America’s oldest continuously operating soda fountain, and perhaps that’s why he feels keenly the “huge responsibility” in keeping Goolrick’s going to make sure it will continue to make memories for visitors that span the generations. “We get babies tasting their first ice cream cone, teenagers discovering their independence and hanging out with friends and college students on dates and grandparents who tell us they came here as kids.” The recently renovated Goolrick’s has been at its present location for all but the first two years of its operation. Malts are of particular fascination to Millennials, Condor notes. “We get a lot of questions about what a malt is and we end up turning them on to it.”
Leopold’s Ice Cream, Savannah, GA: Since 1919
Stratton Leopold has 20 credits as a film producer, including Mission: Impossible III, The Sum of All Fears and the Terry Gilliam cult classic, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. But what he really wanted to do was dispense ice cream in the family tradition. And so the prodigal son returned to the Savannah institution his father and two uncles founded. The marble soda fountain counter, the rotary phone booth and the wooden back bar are all original. The rich ice cream is made on-site. Three of the menu’s 50 rotating flavors—Tutti-Fruiti, Rum Bisque and Lemon Custard— are unchanged since 1919. At Leopold’s one truly sees the circle of life, states Director of Marketing and Communications Carey Ferrara. “Soda fountains and ice cream parlors were a gathering place for the community,” she says. “We have watched kids grow up, become parents and bring their own kids. Married couples who had their first date at Leopold’s come in for ice cream after the wedding ceremony. The community considers us a family tradition.”
Petersen’s Ice Cream, Oak Park, IL: Since 1919
“Consistency is easy,” says Petersen’s owner Jason Skiouris, citing a couple of national restaurant and ice cream chains that serve up the same old-same old. The challenge, he said, is not sacrificing quality. Petersen’s, just outside of Chicago, has been dishing out the same rich and creamy ice cream with 16–18% butterfat since its inception a century ago. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he says. “We’ve stuck to the [original] recipes and we hand-pack all our pints and quarts.” The store’s signature creation is the turtle pie. Among its more popular flavors are Peach (made with Georgia peaches), Cappuccino and Mackinac Island Fudge. A Chicago-native, Skiouris went to Petersen’s “all the time” growing up. So it’s a real pleasure, he says, when seniors tell him their own parents went there or when couples get engaged in the charming surroundings with the restored tin ceiling, onyx counter tops and Carrara marble. Authentic ice cream parlors may be a dying breed, Skiouris says, but Petersen’s has been able “to stand the test of time by being true to our roots.”
St. Francis Fountain, San Francisco, CA: Since 1918
There’s a classic “Twilight Zone” episode in which a run-down ad exec finds himself back in his hometown during the summer when he was 11 years old. He is delighted that the local soda fountain sells chocolate sodas with three scoops. That’s how they do it at St. Francis Fountain, the original San Francisco treat (a smaller size is also available). “We’re not foodie types,” says Levon Kazarian, co-owner since 2002. “We’re totally traditional and authentic old-school ice cream.” Taking their cue from St. Francis’ previous restoration some 70 years ago, the dining room has the look of a 1940s movie set, but amenities such as the neon sign, Formica counter, wooden booths and advertising signs are original. “There used to be soda fountains on every corner,” Kazarian notes. “For one generation, it’s utter nostalgia. We still serve our sundaes and shakes in the fancy glassware,” he says. “But for a new generation, it’s about discovery. Ice cream sodas are kind of forgotten, but they are so good. I love it when a five-year-old takes that first pull on his straw and his face lights up.”
Wilson’s, Ephraim, WI: Since 1906
Sarah Martin still regularly pinches herself that in 1998 her parents, Roy and Diane Elquist, bought Wilson’s. They are only the eighth owners in the ice cream shop’s 113-year history. Her father was born and raised in Ephraim, her mother was a Wilson’s cook, and Sarah and her sister grew up visiting this venerable restaurant and ice cream parlor. “We are the keepers of the Wilson tradition,” says Martin, who serves as general manager. “We want people to have the same Wilson experience they had whether it was five years ago or 50 years ago.” That means a jukebox that plays 45s, not CDs, home-brewed root beer served in a frosted mug, ice cream cones with jelly beans at the bottom to prevent dripping, sundaes topped with Doer County cherries and hand-blended milk shakes, malted and ice cream sodas. “It’s wonderful to hear, ‘I haven’t had one of these since I was a teenager’,” Martin says. “Our customers are usually happy when they come in, but if they’re not, they certainly are when they leave.”
Zaharokas, Columbus, IN: Since 1900
In 1919, there were 126,000 soda fountains in this country, notes Debra Slone, Zaharokas’ historian and decorator. Now they have gone the way of the drive-in movie theater with very few of the original establishments still in existence. Founded by three Greek brothers in 1900, Zaharokas had fallen on hard times until local businessman Tony Moravec stepped in. He bought the building in 2007 and began extensive renovations. June 6, 2019 marked the 10-year anniversary of its grand re-opening. “He considered it a gem worth polishing,” Slone says. The 50-foot mahogany and stained glass back bar is original, as are two soda fountains purchased at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Perhaps Zaharokas’ showpiece is the self-playing organ that dates back to 1908 and still cranks out tunes upon request. With its on-site country store and museum of soda fountain artifacts, Zaharokas offers “a lot more than ice cream,” Slone states proudly. But about that ice cream: It’s still made on-site. The signature creation is the Big Z, a five-scoop sundae with three different toppings, served in little glass boats for those who can’t get enough syrup. (The line for that forms behind us!)
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