It's quite possible that we are living in the golden age of ice cream innovation, one where old-school creameries are churning out vanilla bean masterpieces honed over generations while creameries are tossing the term "chef" into the mix to challenge the very notion of what ice cream is. It's a win-win for everyone, especially when temps outside begin to spike.
This year's best ice cream shops represent everything that is well and good in the current ice-cream landscape. It includes new-wave artisan shops challenging the very notion of what should be placed on a cone (or stick, or between cookies), old-school parlors learning new tricks, new-school parlor trying to remind you of old-school ones, plant-based creameries, and much more. Booze and asparagus are both represented along with Rocky Road and salted caramel. Grab a napkin. It's gonna get gloriously messy.
Princeton, New Jersey The historic, idyllic little town of Princeton is more than just hoagie-stuffed college kids rolling their eyes at incessant A Beautiful Mind references. It's also a place that takes its ice cream very, very seriously. And the valedictorian of the scene is undoubtedly The Bent Spoon, which has garnered a loyal cult following based on a whopping 550 flavors, which rotate in and out of the little shop 24 at a time. This is a place where seasonality is king, and while you can always get a top-notch traditional flavor or a modified classic (think habanero chocolate), the place is also doing the kind of flavor experimentation normally reserved for the chemistry lab. Think Sun Gold tomato sorbet made with the Garden State's treasured fruit, or blueberry mascarpone, or chocolate with ramps, or pumpkin with shiitake mushrooms. None of those things sound like they belong together. That they're typically fantastic -- especially when paired with one of the Spoon's legendary cookies -- is a testament to the genius being churned behind the counter.
San Francisco, California We’ve said it before, and we'll say it again (and likely again later): If you see someone lining up on 18th Street in the Mission at, say, 2pm on a Wednesday, it’s not a protest against tech. It’s the line for the original Bi-Rite, opened across from the market in 2006. Their Straus Family Creamery dairy ice creams are perfection, whether you get them in the original Mission store by Dolores or over in NoPa inside the newer Bi-Rite Market. Either way, it’s worth waiting for. On a weekday morning. Flavor change seasonally. Pray for cream cheese carrot cake, but consider a sundae gussied up with black sesame. After all, you didn't stand there for that long just to get vanilla, right? (It's cool if you did though.)
St. Louis, Missouri Even as one of the most broadly popular indulgences available to the public, ice cream enjoys a special place in our hearts that appreciates innovation as much as it does sticking to the classics. Clementine's is in the rare position of nailing both nostalgia and novelty, born out of founder Tamara Keefe's childhood tradition of churning homemade ice cream to fulfill a sweet tooth her family couldn't afford to buy from their local parlor. Her 25 years of experience in the cooking world show in her attention to detail in flavors like decadent Tommy's Toffee Butter Brickle, but she's also managed to create a line of "naughty" ice creams that pack a boozy punch, including the super popular Maple Bourbon or the Manhattan (complete with maraschino cherries). But incorporating liquor into ice cream seems like nothing when you consider how inventive flavors like asparagus and quinoa -- yes, seriously -- bring frozen desserts into a whole new delicious territory.
Chattanooga, Tennessee Clumpies was opened by the son of a third-generation candy maker, who turned the family’s sweet tooth to the freezer section. Now two decades into that glorious pivot, Clumpies still works in small batches across three locations and a truck, keeping things simple -- mostly -- with rich and creamy flavors, like chocolate chocolate chunk and butter pecan. And then not-so-simple with tongue-tingling, Pop Rock-infused Tutti Frutti ice cream. This does have candy-making genes, after all. Mikey would approve.
Lexington, Kentucky It sounds like the name of an ‘80s buddy cop duo -- Crank’s the level-headed one, Boom’s the wildcard with nothing to lose! -- but this “ice cream lounge” brings a different kind of unorthodox practices to the force. While flavors like blueberry lime cheesecake and dark chocolate truffle are great alone, they’re even better covered in local strawberries and house-made marshmallows. And lest you think the “Lounge” part is just cutespeak, C&B makes good on its Bourbon Country roots with a roster of boozy floats and scoop-topped cocktails. A prosecco float? Dammit, Crank & Boom, you’re loose cannons... but you get the job done.
New Orleans, Louisiana NOLA’s undisputed go-to for dairy-related indulgences sets a somewhat old-timey tone with the vintage neon bakery sign adorning the exterior and the parlor pink adorning the inside, but they’re certainly not shy about innovation (think flavors like goat cheese & Mission fig and lavender honey). For something seriously, albeit subtly, different, try the signature Creole cream cheese, which employs a slightly sweet farmhouse cheese to achieve a level of creaminess that might almost seem a little too indulgent, until you remember what city you’re in again.
Houston, Texas Yes, you can get into the whole locally sourced from Texas farms thing. And yes, their packaging is all compostable down to their damn spoons made of cornstarch. But your stomach and taste buds won’t know that. All they’ll know is that you’re eating a flavor called Waterloo strawberry buttermilk made with strawberry jam, buttermilk ice cream, and Waterloo Texas gin, and you never want to stop. Unless you get the milk chocolate stout. Or one of their incredible seasonal flavors (and yes, the rumor was true: they did have an Easter-themed malted milk ice cream with Cadbury Egg pieces inside).
Newtown, Connecticut Though the creamery operation only started running in 2003, the Ferris family can trace its lineage in Newtown back to 1703, and has occupied this farmstead since 1894. But where were we... oh yeah, ice cream! Today three generations of the family are involved in one capacity or another in the vitally important work of delivering flavors like the s’mores-style campfire and PB-banana Elvis’ Dream to an increasingly ice cream hungry local following. And for any Connecticut residents clamoring about the omission of Oxford’s Rich Farm, there’s nothing wrong with the ice cream, but their recent franchise opening in SoCal means you’re now sharing them with the West Coast, which just isn’t the same.
Portland, Oregon Like so many things in Portland -- including hugely popular multi-city powerhouse Salt & Straw -- Fifty Licks started life as a food truck, but quickly gained enough popularity to open its cozy brick & mortar shop in the city's bustling Clinton neighborhood, where they built on the goodwill of their truck by offering up complex sorbet cocktails. Now they've got a second location in the never-hotter Kerns neighborhood, drawing deserving lines for flavors ranging from a simple-yet-incredible Tahitian vanilla and more complex fare like a Thai Rice scoop loaded with jasmine rice pudding, a mango flavor infused with spicy ancho chiles, a pink scoop that's 60% comprised of local strawberries, and an adults-only butterscotch infused with actual Scotch. With any luck, it'll follow Salt & Straw's lead and be eliminated from this list in the near future -- not because of a drop in quality, but because it's been disqualified for getting much, much bigger and delving into chain territory.
Seattle, Washington Ice cream may never actually be a health food, but you can easily pretend it is at Frankie & Jo’s. The entirely plant-based scoop shop also uses buzzy wellness-world ingredients in its scoops like chaga mushroom powder, turmeric, activated charcoal, and ashwaganda. But the result is less Goop and more great. No, seriously. The texture is so creamy -- thanks to bases made with cashew and coconut milks -- that you don’t miss the dairy. The flavors are clever too: The Chocolate Tahini Supercookie is studded with dark chocolate and cookie dough made from almond flour while Frankie’s Brown Sugar Vanilla features vanilla bean and vanilla extract, as well a nutritional yeast to round out the flavor. And if you can’t make it into the shop, Frankie & Jo’s will ship you their plant-powered pints if you join their monthly club.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Some people walk into an erotic cake shop and all they can see is baked goods shaped like butts and boobs. But when the Burley family walked into the Eroticakes housed in a building they had purchased, they glimpsed a portal into a bygone era of Americana, one where bowtied servers worked the soda jerk, sundaes came in fancy glasses, and butts were also cakes. They ran with all but the latter, renovating the bakeshop into the time machine that is now Franklin Fountain. But this place is more than a simple pastiche for poodle-skirt aficionados: this bespoke little parlour does serious things with ice cream, churning their own concoctions that include a stunner of a honeycomb ice cream, a cookies and cream that ditches Oreos for Hydrox (the original sandwich cookie), and a nod to local favorite teaberry gum. They're all but screaming to be tossed in a sundae or split and covered in homemade hot fudge or piled on the iconic Mt. Vesuvius sundae, which rises high from a base of brownies. Don't skimp on an egg cream, either. It contains neither egg nor cream, but will certainly turn you on to the concept of fizzy chocolate milk.
Boulder, Colorado “Why the hell are there swings inside this place?” is something you could be expected to think upon walking in the nondescript ice cream shop in a Boulder strip mall. Look at the menu board. Vanilla, chocolate, sure. Uh, Wood-Roasted Peach with Bourbon and Biscuit made with Colorado peaches and glorious chunks of housemade buttermilk biscuits? Yeah, that too. Stop asking why there are swings. Don’t wonder why the chef/co-owner decided to make a sweet, refreshing Campari, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and Bitter Orange ice cream. If you must know why, it’s because he’s also the chef/brewmaster of the Bru brewpub next door, and he's a tinkerer. He brews a 14% beer named after Thor's hammer one day and tests new ice cream flavors the next. That’s why he created an organic ice cream base with over 20% butterfat, resulting in a dense, decadent spoonful onto which he layers absolutely original flavor combos like Squid Ink and Lemon. If a soda float floats your boat, there’s housemade cherry soda and root beer to drop ice cream scoops into, or the more challenging Blackberry Szechuan Pepper or Orange Blossom sodas, both of which benefit from a vanilla scoop. Because you’re always in need of caffeine, nitro coffee affogatos are another option to boost your energy levels and spirit. Or take the employees advice and blend it all together, resulting in a rich, sweet coffee beverage. Sometimes it’s nice to turn off your brain and sip something sweet on the swings.
Overland Park, Kansas The modern ice cream consumer is a fickle thing. Not only do they covet desserts that are super ‘grammable, but they’d prefer something that’s relatively healthy too. The Thai shaved ice from the brand-new I Am A Frozen Dessert cafe in suburban Kansas City neatly ticks off both boxes. These beastly bowls are as big as a Nerf football, and come with a variety of eye-popping looks from pretty pink strawberry to the soft orange glow of the Thai tea. Husband and wife team of Ann Niramol Riensin and Ike Nuttakit Piyapant own a restaurant around the corner, and created this spin off to showcase the southeast Asian version of shaved ice, which is made from low-fat frozen milk. They then get a fat dollop of rich whipped topping. The coconut (called I Am Love… everything here is named in the first person) is highly recommended, even if its white hue isn’t quite as visually extravagant as the others.
Washington, DC It can take a lot for us to crave ice cream during an East Coast Winter, but Ice Cream Jubilee managed to change that entirely by adding booze, of course. When the temperature dropped in DC a few years ago, flavor-wizard Victoria Lai rolled out egg nog, a cream laden with nutmeg and rum. Lai, who attended a Berkeley ice cream short course and also spent some casual time as a presidential appointee to the Department of Homeland Security, has only had her shop for a couple years, but those creative flavors (think gin and tonic -- lime sorbet with Beefeater -- and coconut lychee lime) have won her quite the following. Because who doesn’t want to sub out the egg nog thermos for a waffle cone?
St. Paul, Minnesota Husband and wife co-owners Lara Hammell and Jeff Sommers came to the conclusion the ice cream biz was way cooler (!) than lawyering or teaching nearly two decades ago, and Twin Cities residents have come to appreciate said conclusion more with each passing year. Their Kashi-infused cereal milk (one of their signatures) is far too good to involve anything even so much as resembling a health food, and the Swedish Garden Party (raspberry swirl and ginger snap crumbles in an elderflower base) is more fun than anything you could possibly ingest at Ikea.
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin Of course the heart of dairy country would be churning luscious ice cream. Self-proclaimed as the "Best Ice Cream in the Middle of Nowhere," Kelley Country has been a 200-acre family farmstead for more than a century and a half, but the ice cream side of the biz came only shy of a decade ago and quickly gained accolades from media like a little show called Good Morning America, which called it the best ice cream in the country in 2013. Likely the secret to this success: The Kelley clan lets their cows live out a happy pasture life to produce the highest-quality milk for the highest-quality ice cream possible.
Honolulu, Hawaii Lappert's is one of our all-time favorite old-school ice cream spots, and not just because they happen to offer their creamy, deeply satisfying treats in paradise. Completely independent of the same-named company on the mainland, Lappert's has been scooping outstanding, hand-packed ice cream since 1983, with oh-so-Hawaiian flavors like Kauai Pie, Kona Lava Java, and banana fudge. Spring for a Brownie Pa'Ina if you're feeling extra frisky -- you can always counter housing a brownie topped with any two ice cream scoops and housemade hot fudge with an espresso… or an affogato, if you're really going for it.
Austin, Texas You can get traditional flavors like vanilla bean and salted caramel almost anywhere, but seldom are they as good as the dense, eggless, brown rice-sweetened varieties at this Austin emporium. For the adventurous, there are insane concoctions like goat cheese, thyme & honey and roasted beet on offer, which work alarmingly well. Still, when you have one of the best mint ice creams in the world in the freezer alongside everything else, it’s tempting to play it safe. But, hey, that’s what sampling is for.
Chicago, Illinois Situated on the border of two Chicago neighborhoods in varying stages of hipsterfication, Margie’s has remained a comforting oasis of sweet, creamy, stability since opening at the corner of Armitage and Western in 1921. The neon sign is a beacon on summer nights, and the marble soda fountain and cozy booths ooze nostalgia, but it’s still the reliably outstanding sundaes dripping with equally outstanding homemade hot fudge that deliver the warmest feelings.
Los Angeles, California In Los Angeles, most of the city’s best gems are often located in seemingly random strip malls. That holds true when talking about one of LA’s best ice cream shops: Mashti Malone's, which lives between Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards has been slinging Persian ice cream for nearly 38 years. Owner Mashti Shirvani whips up 1,000 gallons of ice cream a day in over 40 flavors. You can find scoops of vanilla and chocolate and even bubblegum if you really want it, but it would be foolish to skip over legendary flavors like floral rosewater, creamy saffron pistachio, zippy Turkish coffee, fragrant orange blossom, and refreshing cucumber sorbet. The pro-move is to get a couple of scoops over a piece of zoolbeya, or a sticky sweet Persian funnel cake.
Traverse City, Michigan Seldom do you get to eat something delicious while looking out the window at the animals that provided the ingredients, largely because there’s no quicker way to ruin a burger. But this little country creamery in gorgeous upper Michigan lets you gaze upon cows while getting down on your choice of 160 (!) amazing handmade ice creams ranging from a take on regional fave Superman called SuperMoo to cupcake and Chocolate Monster. Get your scoops in sandwich form, or buddy up on the Wholey Cow -- 10 scoops with every single topping -- then plop down and say thanks to Bessie before you drift off into a blissful diabetic coma.
Atlanta, Georgia Opened in 2008 by a husband and wife who realized making ice cream was way more fun than pharmaceutical sales, Morelli’s has been an Atlanta sensation ever since, rotating a deep roster of flavors that ranges from childhood-channeling (PB&J sandwich) to sophisticated (strawberry rosewater), to gloriously Southern (Krispy Kremier, whose components you should be able to deduce). Pro tip: Try the salted caramel, whose salty-sweet recipe is guarded so closely, it’s known only by the owner and one other staff member.
New York City Nicholas Morgenstern’s ice cream cart at the General Greene was famous, not only for the delicious ice creams it offered, but also the lines that came with them. So when he decided to focus on an ice cream parlor, everyone in New York got very excited about the possibility of waiting in shorter lines to eat more and more ice cream. Morgenstern focuses on mastering simple flavors with different tweaks, like multiple different kinds of vanilla (think burnt honey, raw milk, and bourbon) and caramel (he even goes for unsalted). But if you want to scrap all of that and just get a crazy flavor profile from something like banana curry, burnt sage, or salt & pepper pine nut, be his guest.
Sierra Madre, California Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, seemingly hidden in the hubbub that is Los Angeles, is the cutest ice-cream-shop-slash-bakery-slash-jam-store-hybrid that has ever existed. Even the name is charming: Mother Moo Creamery specializes in small batch ice cream with unique flavors, locally sourced ingredients, and a seasonal rotating menu. Fan favorite flavors include the surprisingly complex salty chocolate, indulgent triple milk, nostalgic organic cornflakes, and a fragrant and floral orange blossom and cardamom. Their ice creams are smooth, rich, and dense -- truly the ideal, ultra-creamy consistency that makes for a memorable scoop. If dairy and lactose aren’t your friends, Mother Moo also makes refreshing sorbets using ingredients that are in season. An added bonus is that there is cow memorabilia everywhere, and you can also purchase delicious homemade pies, brownies, cookies, and jam here, too.
Bar Harbor, Maine This funky little shop on an island in Maine's Frenchman Bay is old school. Not just because it's an adorable little storefront in a tiny town, but because everything here is done by hand the slow way, from the squeezing of the juices to dipping pretzels in chocolate for experimental flavors. That latter thing is actually a bit newer-school, which is exactly what takes MDI to the next level. This is a place that churns things 5 gallons at a time, but the things they churn are absolutely remarkable, ranging fom a fantastic blueberry sour cream crumble to cinnamon cardamom and a White Russian-inspired concoction called The Dude, which anyone would abide, regardless of their bowling skills. The place has since expanded to the mainland, with both Portland and Washington, DC getting outposts. But it's on Desert Island that you can get it at its purest form, with a chaser of ocean air.
New York City New York has enough incredible ice cream shops to warrant its own list (like this one), making it extra tough to crown OddFellows among our favorites. But we're suckers for Sam Mason, the former pastry chef of the city's most lauded (and shuttered) gastronomic restaurant wd~50, using his chops to make perfect concoctions that lean savory, like raspberry/peppercorn sorbet, matcha rocky road, and the much chattered about miso cherry. The East Village location also specializes in DIY ice cream sandwiches, called Odd Pockets (essentially brioche sandwiches stuffed with cornbread ice cream, cornflake crunch, with a rich blueberry compote) and a variety of soft serve flavors like raspberry sherbet and tangerine.
Durham, North Carolina Here’s a Durham success story that in no way involves basketball. A married couple uproots from Philly so one of them can attend grad school at Duke, finds the homemade ice cream scene not quite up to snuff, takes matters into their own hands, and takes ice cream making from a hobby to a thriving business not even the most ardent Blue Devil adversary could be mad at. Seriously, the biggest Tar Heel fan ever could take one bite of salted butter caramel or lemon buttermilk and be like “you know, Christian Laettner was actually kind of a stand-up guy.” Fine, that’s a stretch, but there’s no way they’d hate on the ice cream.
Chicago, Illinois When one of Chicago’s most talented pastry chefs decides to leave her post in the kitchen to open an entire shop dedicated to ice cream bars, it's, well, pretty cool indeed. Dana Cree, who has worked at legendary restaurants like Blackbird and Avec, opened the brightly colored, kid-friendly shop in partnership with Michael Ciapciak, the guy behind one of the city’s best pie shops, Bang Bang Pie Co. The result is a menu filled with treats-on-sticks that will make your ice cream truck driver jealous, and waffle cones upset that you will never need them again. For those who like extra creamy things, there are the rich custard bars, which are all dipped in a luxurious magic-shell coating and come in flavors like coffee pretzel toffee and peanut butter potato chip. There are tangy buttermilk bars in flavors like mango lassi. Vegans get “plant pops” in flavors like pina colada and caramel cake. And of course there are “piecicle bars,” made with -- yes -- pie.
Columbus, Wisconsin Unless America somehow breeds a cow that dispenses ice cream from her udders, the ice cream does not get any fresher than it is at Sassy Cow. That's a result of a dairy farm located a half-mile North of the creamery, owned by the same family. And in the summer, when they're making ice cream as fast as possible, you could get ice cream two to three days after the cow's been milked. That delicious ice cream comes in 30 flavors, including 10-15 new flavors each season. Don't pass up on the Caramel Overload, which takes their uber-popular salted caramel ice cream with pecans, and adds caramel pretzels, whipped cream, and a cherry to the mix.
Scottsdale, Arizona The Scottsdale favorite -- known for using recycled materials -- has expanded to Phoenix, but the funky, inventive creamery has remained committed to its high-quality, impeccably crafted offerings, among them a Belgian chocolate masterpiece that would stand out in Brussels just as much as it does in the desert and a horchata number that you might be tempted to let melt and drink in a cup. And though we’re usually partial to pure ice cream, we recommend you mix it up and opt for one of their Brown Cows, which use their delicious Madagascar vanilla ice cream and Mexican Coke.
St. Louis, Missouri Before Shake Shack came along and made the whole “concrete” thing popular nationwide, there was Ted Drewes. The family has been selling frozen custard for more than 80 years, and -- even more strange but nonetheless awesome -- “Christmas trees for over 50 years.” So even if you’re just there to purchase a tree under which you will put wrapped boxes of Micro Machines, you might as well get one of their amazing concretes, especially the Twisted Caramel, since the crumbled pretzels add just the right saltiness to that caramel.
Cambridge, Massachusetts Tosci’s is pushing through its fourth decade of supplying the smart (ahem, smaht) kids of Cambridge (and ice cream fans of all ages and intellects) with their daily intake of dairy fat. Their burnt caramel is the stuff of dessert legend. Their Vienna finger cookie will make you forget all about cookies & cream, even though their cookies & cream is also fantastic. Their khulfee is an incredible cardamom-pistachio-almond concoction that takes its name from the Urdu word for “ice cream,” and definitely not any kind of commentary on recent presidential Twitter mishaps. Though if any creamery could create culinary gold out of a typo, it’s this one.
Hockessin, Delaware Hey, it’s another longtime farming family that took awhile to get into the ice cream game! The Mitchell family established a farmstead here in 1796, and for some 160-plus years it operated mostly as a dairy farm until the herd was sold in 1961 as the farm shifted its focus to other livestock and produce. Luckily, some wise family remembers remembered that dairy fat is incredible, got back to milking cows, and the creamery was born in 1998. Now they’re packing in an entire apple pie when they make a batch of their cinnamon apple pie ice cream, and dumping gummy worms and Oreo bits into chocolate ice cream to make the kid-friendly “Dirt” that adults should in no way feel shy about ordering.
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