Ice cream is one of the few foods with the power to delight everyone from a baby who hasn't even gotten its first tooth to an elderly man who just lost his last one.
To honor the most cross-generational of all desserts and celebrate the greatest use of dairy outside the realm of pizza, we've compiled a list of the 21 best ice cream shops in America, ranging from old-fashioned parlours dating back to the '20s to new-fangled creameries armed with canisters of liquid nitrogen. Get hungry:
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Ample Hills Creamery (Brooklyn, NY)
What you're ordering: Salted Crack Caramel in a handmade brown sugar cone
Helmed by a guy who wrote monster movies for the Sci-Fi channel in addition to directing President Obama in recording the audio version of Dreams From My Father, Ample Hills began as a cart slinging artisan scoops at Prospect Park concerts before going brick and mortar with a rotating cast of flavors including a 4/20 special: the Munchies with pretzel ice cream, chunks of potato chips, Ritz crackers, and M&M's.
Bi-Rite Creamery (San Francisco, CA)
What you're ordering: The trifecta
If you’re ever on 18th street in the Mission, and you happen to randomly see people lining up at, say, 3pm on a Tuesday, and you think to yourself, “What could possibly be this important?”, the answer is inevitably Bi-Rite. A cult hit since it was opened in 2006 by two pastry chefs across from the iconic Bi-Rite Market, they do not mess around, becoming the first shop in SF to use Straus Family Creamery dairy, which is now synonymous with top ice cream in these parts. Do yourself a favor and opt for the trifecta, a scoop each of their iconic salted caramel, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl, and malted vanilla with peanut brittle and chocolate, then go take it into Dolores Park and hang out with your other thousand line mates and some dudes selling sh*tty drugs.
Big Gay Ice Cream (New York, NY)
What you're ordering: The Salty Pimp, a cone filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with dulce de leche and sea salt, then dipped in chocolate
These big gay ice cream men began trucking around the streets of New York in 2009 slinging some of the softest-serve ice cream in the country. Popular demand led to a pair of NYC storefronts and a forthcoming LA outpost with a menu of tongue-in-cheek creations like the Gobbler (apple-butter & bourbon butterscotch, pie pieces, whipped cream) and their signature Salty Pimp.
Cliff's Homemade Ice Cream (Ledgewood, NJ)
What you're ordering: A seasonal cone loaded with Peppermint Stick, Sweet Potato Pie, or Dutch Apple Crumble
Slinging homemade ice cream from an unassuming North Jersey drive-in since good ol’ Gerry Ford was president (1975!), Cliff’s is known for towering, seasonal soft-serve cones, classic scoopables, and massive Summertime lines. Good news: they accept credit cards. Better news: they also serve classic roadside food, including chili dogs. Best/worst news: you’re probably going to get one. Post up on a parking lot picnic table, watch kids take flavors like Butter Beer and Morris County Mud to the face, and reminisce about halcyon Jersey ice cream days of yore.
Cloud 10 Creamery (Houston, TX)
What you're ordering: A banana split
Started by a pastry chef whose fine dining career path was derailed by permitting delays, Cloud 10 deals in the business of pitch-perfect execution of fantastic flavors, often at the request of the city's most esteemed chefs. The goods are as dense as cream can get, helping to forgo textural distractions and tune right into a purity of ice creaminess seldom seen elsewhere. Flavors change seasonally, with Spring standouts like sesame oil & milk chocolate and buttermilk chai, but it's hard to resist their next-level banana split: a truly massive dessert featuring three kinds of ice cream (chocolate, vanilla, Nutella), berry jam, a chocolate shell, a flood of fudge, bananas, and pecans, which is then finished off with a blowtorch.
Creole Creamery (New Orleans, LA)
What you’re ordering: Creole Cream Cheese
The 1950s-style parlor is perched in a historic bakery in a small food-enclave of Uptown New Orleans. Worshiped by locals, the spot’s ice cream chef -- a deserved title -- concocts creative flavors daily, like Goat Cheese & Fig, Lemon Mascarpone, and avocado, but Creole Cream Cheese ice cream is the scoop to grab here. The actual farmer’s cheese is a sweet, yet tart 1800s NOLA classic that was also popularized into frozen treat form, and the creamery’s version is superb.
Dairy Joy (Weston, MA)
What you're ordering: The Javaberry, or Creamsicle in a cone
Opened in 1927, when your grandparents' grandparents were probably out necking in the back of unsafe open automobiles, Dairy Joy has been legendary for a certain population in the Boston area for generation upon generation. You dream about the day they first open for the Summer, when you can get the soft-serve mix of coffee and raspberry (Javaberry, obviously) and go sit on one of the logs out in the back to try and beat the ice cream from melting before finding your way into the back of a relatively safer automobile to try and neck. Some things are better when they don’t change.
Glacé Artisan Ice Cream (Kansas City, MO)
What you're ordering: Spiced Dark Chocolate
Before he started churning cream, the founder of Glacé bounced from working for Emeril Lagasse to a gig in the Eiffel Tower Restaurant to starting his own artisan chocolate company. His fine dining experience combines with a Willy Wonka streak at Glacé, where he creates devilishly pure desserts in flavors like Spiced Dark Chocolate, Goat Cheese & Wildflower Honey, and Thai Basil.
Humphry Slocombe (San Francisco, CA)
What you're ordering: Secret Breakfast
Although they spilled the beans to their secret formulas in a 2012 cookbook designed to be used by amateurs armed with simple $50 ice cream makers, Humphry Slocombe still draws crowds for their off-the-wall flavors and old-school soda fountain vibe. Wilder varieties like Boccalone Proscuitto and Russian Imperial Stout don't fail to impress, but the move is the Secret Breakfast, loaded with vanilla, toasted cornflakes, and Jim Beam bourbon.
iCream (Chicago, IL)
What you're ordering: Your own, personalized liquid nitrogen dessert
Chicago's got a rep for being really, really cold, and iCream lives up to that reputation with a new-fangled, -320 degree liquid nitrogen freezing process that allows them to truly make each scoop to order in less than a minute, resulting in perhaps the freshest frozen treats in the world. You pick the base cream (regular, low-fat yogurt, sorbet, or shake), then add flavoring and toppings, but if you're not feeling creative they offer a slew of favorites like That Guy From Florida (white chocolate, cream soda, Nutella).
Lick Ice Creams (Austin, TX)
What you're ordering: Roasted Beets & Fresh Mint
You haven't truly had mint ice cream until you've had it made with fresh leaves. The guys at Lick apply this mantra to their entire menu, opting for whole ingredients in their super-dense, eggless ice cream that's sweetened naturally with brown-rice syrup for a healthier but still tongue-tickling taste. Traditional flavors like vanilla bean with honey and Caramel Salt Lick are great choices, but what sets Lick apart is the curious use of veggies, like beets, sweet peas, and carrots (we promise they're still rather delicious).
MOOmers Homemade Ice Cream (Traverse City, MI)
What you're ordering: A Cinnamon Bourbon cowpie ice cream sandwich between two chocolate chip cookies
If you cream it they will come. Adjacent to a field of ice cream dreams grazed by the same cows that supply their milk, Moomers Farm is an ice cream destination in Northern Michigan that's worth the trek. Ice cream doesn't get any fresher than this, and everyday they offer 20 flavors from the extended roster of 120 brain-freezers ranging from Amaretto Cherry to White Chocolate Oreo.
Morelli's Gourmet Ice Cream & Desserts (Atlanta, GA)
What you're ordering: Maple Bacon Brittle
Perhaps the only ice cream store in America that's had Conan working the counter, Morelli's has been quoted as "Atlanta's best ice cream" by "everyone" and the reputation has led to an expansion of three shops scooping daily changing flavors like Rosemary Olive Oil, Chocolate Guinness, and Coconut Jalapeño. The owner has a background in the pharmaceutical industry, so he knows a thing or two about powerfully addictive substances, which might just have played a part in the creation of his flavor of the moment: Maple Bacon Brittle.
Pumphouse Creamery (Minneapolis, MN)
What you're ordering: A waffle cone of Dragon's Milk Stout if they've got it. And if you're a canine, the peanut butter doggie ice cream.
Pumphouse goes local in a big way: grains from Welcome, Minnesota in their waffle cones, dairy from 50mi North in Osceola, Wisconsin, and local butter from the Rochdale Farms Co-op. In addition to a serious selection of traditional and out-there flavors, Pumphouse prides themselves on healthier alternatives like low-glycemic coconut palm sugar. And while you're busy wolfing down flavors like Rum Raisin and Rhubarb, they've even got your dog covered with a special, two-ingredient peanut butter flavor.
Rainbow Cone (Chicago, IL)
What you're ordering: "A large Rainbow Cone, washed down with a small one" - Chi-Town Kids
"Everybody up in the neighborhood wants a Rainbow Cone because they're super good," rapped the Chi-Town Kids, whose single "Rainbow Cone" failed to top the charts, but pays deserved homage to a Chicago classic: Rainbow Cone, which, since 1926, has been solving the age-old dilemma of chocolate or vanilla by filling cones with a leaning tower of chocolate, strawberry, Palmer House (NY vanilla with cherries and walnuts), pistachio, and orange sherbet.
Salt & Straw (Portland, OR)
What you're ordering: Bourbon Coffee
Perhaps the only academic off-shoot on our list, S&S boasted an initial line of flavors created in OSU's Food Innovation Center using 100% locally sourced, Fred Armisen-approved ingredients. They use 17% butterfat in the base resulting in a thick texture that complements innovative combinations like Sugar Glaze/Berry Jam Donut flavor (actually created by an elementary school kid), Pear with Blue Cheese, and Bourbon Coffee.
Scoops (Los Angeles, CA)
What you're ordering: Brown Brown Bread in a dish with a single-origin cup of coffee
There's a cult around the five locations of LA's artisanal ice cream Mecca Scoops: they write the craziest suggestions they can on the bulletin board in the store, and then occasionally find that their ideas have made it to the bins, which means everything from bacon ice cream (!!!) to tobacco ice cream (???), though they always have their standby Brown Brown Bread flavor, which is kind of like what it would taste like to make Grape-Nuts ice cream but, y'know, good. In recent years, the tiny shop's become a mini-empire, expanding to more locations and delivering to great LA restos, like the cheeseburger palace Golden State.
Sweet Action Ice Cream (Denver, CO)
What you're ordering: Pocky and Red Bean if you're feeling interesting, Milk Chocolate if you're feeling boring
Our man in Denver tried every single one of the flavors at Sweet Action, and, although he didn't care much for vegan Maple Walnut or Vanilla Rose, he can vouch for nearly every other flavor as being worth at least several samples. But as sexy as Salted Malt Butterscotch and Cinnamon Roll sound, the champion of the taste was a simple milk chocolate described as "a scoop of goodness in a world full of freezer-burned crap".
Sweet Republic (Scottsdale, AZ)
What you're ordering: Pecan Turtle sundae or a Hop Knot IPA shake
This Scottsdale institution serves ice cream churned with a green thumb: almost everything in their shop is made from recycled materials, from the birch wood ice cream sticks to the sorghum stock table tops. Good intentions alone don't make a delicious ice cream, but Sweet Republic's got the recipes and craftsmanship to create a product as delicious as it is sustainable. Everything's made in-house from whole ingredients and Arizona dairy with no artificial flavors in sight to pollute crave-worthy flavors like I Love Bacon and Hop Knot IPA.
Toscanini Ice Cream (Cambridge, MA)
What you're ordering: Burnt Caramel
Since 1981, there has been a specific move when you are in Cambridge and you are a teenager: go look at the shoes you can’t afford at Concepts, get ice cream from Tosci, and then get kicked out trying to weasel your way into a Harvard Finals Club after trying to identify yourself as “Thad”. But before you get tossed from Owl, stuff yourself with either Malted Vanilla, Hydroz Cookie, or their famous Burnt Caramel, and live to fight another day, Thad.
Amy's Ice Cream (Austin, TX)
What you're ordering: Mexican Vanilla with fresh strawberries and chocolate syrup
Every employee at any of the 15 Central Texas locations of Amy's has gone through a rigorous ice cream server training application: they're given a white paper bag and told to return it transformed into a statement of creativity. The result is a counter staffed by blue-haired weirdos, high school drama kids, and true ice cream believers whose theatrical hijinks including tossing scoops of one of 400 flavors across busy city streets.