There really is no reason to delay the award ceremony of this post, because frankly the headline and photo sort of tipped the news (and quite typical of me, before I’m done this will likely be a really, really long post. Clearly I don’t play by the blogging rules of short and sweet… oh well). Cole Valley’s The Ice Cream Bar is our favorite ice cream shop in San Francisco.
This is saying something as its a relative new-comer to the decades-old infatuation with incredible ice cream in our beloved City by the Bay. It’s also worthy of the accolades as its small business at its finest: the shop is run by owner Juliet Priest, who after an eclectic career typical of us Gen Xers (read: lots of jobs, lots of passions, lots of change) decided to run a small business that simply kicks ass.
But before we tell you more, let’s back up a bit and set the stage:
As if The Bride and I needed an excuse to eat indulgent snacks (we do have a site full of them after all), we created our own official Effin Artist survey of San Francisco ice cream over the past few weeks in search of killer ice cream that also has that certain “I’m an Effin Artist, man!” quality. I suspect Juliet and her staff, especially her pastry chef Lori Rich, have many such moments every day. Rich’s signature waffle cones are the best of what a waffle cone should be in the same way Baskin and Robbins’ mass produced sugar cone is the worst of what a cone should be. Rich is an Effin Artist man. High praise.
Our quest soon spilled over into Portland and Oakland because who wants to waste a trip to those places and not indulge. Am I right? Yes we are committed to clean eating, but duty called. Suffer we must.
We surveyed the following ice cream parlors, largely based on reputation: Bi-Rite Creamery, Mitchell’s, Humphry Slocumbe, The Ice Cream Bar, Cream, Smitten (which we actually tried in the Rockbridge location — more on that later) and Salt N Straw in Portland (which basically gave us an excuse to eat ice cream).
Bi-Rite was the first and until we stumbled into The Ice Cream Bar, the best. It’s an institution and deservedly so. Lines still pack the retro grocery stores, their creative flavors are actually flavorful, not just a clever name as so many ice cream shops seem to do (i.e., Ben and Jerry’s cornered the market on fancy names, so if you are going to make an ice cream a certain flavor make sure you can taste the flavor… or make sure its really funny like Humpry Slocumbe’s “The Elvis (the fat years) which is a great name even it doesn’t have much to do with the flavor that I can see, but more on that later…). When Bi Rite says it has a Basil flavored ice cream, it tastes like basil, for better or worse (rarely worse). This is a tourist nightmare, but it’s also ice cream excellence.
Next we hit Mitchell’s as a part of a three ice-cream tour day meant to cheer up a family member (it worked perfectly I might add). Its Mission location hides its brand name success. You can snag this 60-year-old institution’s product in a grocery store, which just about kicked it off the list. But it’s a hardcore SF Native and worthy of consideration. We considered, we enjoyed, but all of us passed on putting Mitchell’s into the upper echelon of Effin Artistry.
Humphry Slocumbe has a cult following of die-hard enthusiasts. Because it also has a convenient location in the Ferry Building, I wanted it to be my favorite.
The Bride loved it, saying it may have topped Bi-Rite. Maybe it was the hype but it was to me good, but not great. I’m also not sure all the flavors really deliver distinctively. One that does as mentioned: The Elvis (the fat years) which is banana ice cream with bacon and peanut brittle and it tastes exactly like those three flavors, which is bad ass and high on the Effin Artistry scale.
Smitten grabbed our attention, literally, because of the line out the door on a mid-week evening and the smell of baking waffle cones taunting us like the fat Elvis devil. I was on the fence about waiting until a homeless guy asked me to buy him an ice cream. From the looks of it he already had some dinner and I thought, “hell yeah… dude needs ice cream to top off that dinner.” When I asked him what kind he knew exactly the flavor he wanted. “Brown Sugar and Salted Caramel,” he said. He seemed to know what he was talking about so I followed his lead and bought one for him and one for The Bride and I. Very good call. As the Bride said, “this tastes exactly like you’d want it to taste, exactly like it’s supposed to taste.” Head-to-head I think it may have been better than Bi-Rite’s Salted Caramel, which is really, really saying something.
The pairings are a cool twist, but the music is LOUD, and there really isn’t any place reasonable to hang out to enjoy it. It’s all just a bit TOO hip, too millennial for this Gen Xer, which could very well be praise for all I know.
Cream came to the Mission and opened with fanfare. It’s signature item is ice-cream sandwiches with home made cookies, which you may well know is about an 11 on my 1-10 dessert scale (my creation from our Oscar Night party pictured below).
For that alone it held a certain honorable mention, right up until our visit to The Ice Cream Bar, which low and behold, has ice cream sandwiches of its own. I didn’t try one of theirs yet (foolish, foolish mistake… but an excuse to trek back out to Cole Valley soon) but if Rich’s cookies come anywhere close to her waffle cone, I’ll simply fall off the stool dead. Happy dead, but dead. In the meantime, Cream’s was very good.
I’m no expert, but Salt & Straw in Portland is a slam duck for Portlanders. It’s wicked good and worthy of competing in the San Francisco Major leagues. But hometown advantage (and hometown loyalty, hometown bias, etc.) simply was too much too overcome for serious consideration. I did eat like three servings of various flavors if that tells you how much my stomach disagreed with my head on this one. Awesome ice cream, simply put.
Which brings us back to where we started: The Ice Cream Bar. It wasn’t on our list but as we talked about our list people kept telling us we had to go there. It doesn’t really take much to convince me to try ice cream, but for some reason I hadn’t made the trek until a Muni train driver got into a snit and simply didn’t open the doors at our stop one night when we were headed to a supper club. The next stop was nearly a mile away, smack dab next to The Ice Cream Bar. I am still pissed at the driver, but its pissed with a tinge of gratitude thanks to the discovery of the Ice Cream Bar.
The Ice Cream Bar melds together expert ice cream, flavors that taste as its should, a killer vibe with places to sit down, brilliant customer service (something very, very often lacking in the other shops) and a pastry chef who clearly knows her stuff so much I’d just like to hang out with for a day and see if it rubs off. The Ice Cream Bar also infuses the old-time zen of a soda fountain with soda jerks. As my best friend Paul said, “I love any place where I can call a guy a jerk and still come back.”
A couple of rules about our survey of ice cream are important to remember: 1) We try to never buy it in a grocery store. It’s too readily available and rarely better than you can make yourself. 2) Artistry has to factor in. There is a Baskin Robbins (meshed together with a sandwich shop for God’s sakes) right next to us and we never go there. Local, personal, unique with artistic flavors, unique creations and exceptional ice cream rule the day. 3) There were no bad ice creams, nor even bleh ice creams. They were all pretty awesome. Frankly, a post about bad ice creams might have been more useful and original… but what’s the fun of that. Needless to say if you swing by one of these, GO IN. You’ll love yourself for it. As Priest told us during our visit to the Ice Cream Bar, she doesn’t sense competition among the ice cream shops in the city. Each has its devoted following, each has its little neighborhood and when it comes to eating ice cream, there are more than enough reasons to explore. 4) We are nowhere near done yet. Some theoretically great places like Three Twins, Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous, Joe’s and Fenton’s all remain on our to-do list. So consider this more like the College Football Playoff poll rather than the crystal trophy awards ceremony. The battle continues (happily for us, I might add…). For now, Ice Cream Bar is our Number 1.