SAN FRANCISCO — A little boy in a bike helmet, dragging a scooter, presses his nose against the curved glass panel of a freezer and gazes at the buckets of ice cream, a study in bright hues of pink, green, yellow, and various shades of chocolate brown. Then he licks the glass.
In the pantheon of foods with universal appeal, ice cream ranks right up there with . . . well, arguably with little else. Given the retro allure of everything from horn-rimmed glasses to antique barware, it was only a matter of time before someone revived the once ubiquitous soda fountain. Enter Juliet Pries, who last year opened the Art Deco-accented The Ice Cream Bar Soda Fountain in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood. Since then, legions of ice cream fanatics — members of the Greatest Generation and the SpongeBob set alike — have walked in and gone “googly-eyed,” as Pries calls it, deliberating between banana pudding and butterscotch, or sweet corn and basil. All of it is housemade.
But the main attraction here is actually not the freezer case that riveted the little boy, nor the comfy booths seemingly designed for losing track of time. It’s the stately wood back bar at the far end of the room, a relic from the 1930s that Pries scored on eBay from a long-shuttered soda fountain in Minnesota. And it’s the young man in a crisp white shirt, black bowtie, and white rimless cap behind the marble counter, which is neatly lined with dozens of brown tinted dropper bottles of handmade bitters and tinctures. He does not get offended if you call him a jerk.
This soda jerk dispenses such indulgences as milkshakes and cherry phosphates. But in very contemporary fashion, his concoctions are laced with intriguing ingredients, like fresh, raw Sicilian pistachio syrup, tawny port, or celery seed extract. They are crafted with precision and might be topped with a marshmallow he brûlées with a blowtorch. In true soda-fountain fashion, he uses a vintage “gooseneck” draft arm that produces two different intensities of liquid flow: a coarse stream to fill a glass, or a forceful fine jet stream to create a foamy top.
If you ask for an egg cream, he’ll whip one up in a flash, but Pries opts not to feature that classic because people feel like that’s what they’re “supposed to” order, she says. Instead, the list offers avant-garde concoctions bordering on the surreal. Take, for instance, a Touch of Grey, a soda enhanced with acid phosphate, an old-school solution that adds tart complexity to flavors. The flavors here are mind-boggling, as the drink contains house-made candy cap mushroom syrup, which has a surprisingly intense maple flavor.
But the jewel in the crown is the Too Good to Be True, a rye whiskey-spiked milkshake with raw egg, cream, malt, and butterscotch syrup. As in the days before refrigeration, it’s shaken — hard — with a chunk of ice in a shaker tin until the egg gets creamy and the cream gets frothy. It’s like drinking butterscotch-dripped satin.
There are seasonal offerings such as mint julep ice cream, made with chocolate mint from a local grower. The caramelized honey ice cream float with fresh Granny Smith apple syrup, then crowned with an almond toffee garnish, was an autumn favorite. Strawberry rhubarb phosphate, a blend of fresh strawberry puree, rose geranium extract, rhubarb root tincture, lemon, and phosphate, is an instant summertime classic.
If you arrive with a hankering for something savory, the kitchen turns out beautiful versions of classic sandwiches. Chances are, the sight and smell of all those desserts will persuade you to order a different kind of sandwich, one that you design yourself with warm cookies and a scoop of ice cream.
THE ICE CREAM BAR SODA FOUNTAIN 815 Cole St., Cole Valley, San Francisco. 415-742-4932, www.theicecreambarsf.com