It's quite possible that we are living in an age of peak ice cream, 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 from old-school custard outposts and soft-serve emporiums to new-wave artisan creameries, with some generations-old stalwarts still operating at the top of their game. Grab a napkin. It's gonna get gloriously messy.
Fireball Whiskey Apple Pies: A Dessert Fit for a Frat Party
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 blood orange olive oil. After all, you didn't stand there for that long just to get vanilla, right?
Goshen, Indiana Maybe it’s the hand-painted sign that simply says “The Chief.” Or the simple red and white decor. Maybe it’s their fantastic version of that weird Midwest flavor Blue Moon, which kind of tastes like nutmeg and vanilla, but is neon enough that you’d think it was created during an EDM concert. It's probably that, plus pie-inspired flavors and the weekly pair of mystery flavors. This place is full of surprises, and they go well beyond what's on the menu.
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, 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 loose cannon! -- 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 peach riesling 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.
Honolulu, Hawaii Owner Robert Borling started his dessert business making colorful, Oreo-crusted ice cream pies, selling them to local restaurants and markets. Popularity grew, however, and in 2016 he opened a full retail shop showcasing an even wider range of flavors (in addition to said pies). Flavor combinations like mango with shoyu or lychee with furikake set it apart from the conventional ice cream experience, but don’t worry if you’re on the fence about trying something new, as they’re incredibly generous with samples. And if you're not in the mood for ice cream pie, you can get these coveted flavors between two cookies as well.
Fairfax, California Back 17 years ago when Ray Martin first opened his tiny Scoop, there were no other locally sourced organic ice creams being peddled around Marin. And yet Ray insisted that all of his ingredients from the berries to the honey in their famous honey lavender to the red chiles in the fantastic cinnamon/ginger/chili Controlled Burn come from local purveyors, and you can watch him or his employees ladle their homemade waffle batter onto the press for the cones and waffle cups. Yes, it’s small, and cramped, and the line is often stretched out around the block. But it’s ever so worth it.
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).
Oakland, California Melvin Fenton is a legend. Not just in Oakland, but all over the world, ever since his grandfather E.S. opened the creamery in 1894. Fenton didn’t just invent memorable flavors for his store, he damn well made them up for THE WORLD, including toasted almond, which is our recommendation for the flavor you should be eating when you go there. Assuming they don’t have spumoni. Or Heavenly Hash. Or…
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.
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 Berkey 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?
Reno, Nevada The Biggest Little City in the World finally got an ice cream joint worthy of its plucky spirit in 2014, when Icecycle Creamery was born from some ice cream hobbyists whose friends and family implored them to bring their creations to a bigger audience. The advice proved sound, as they’ve already opened a second location for showcasing flavors inspired by everything from Thai desserts (coconut rice & mango) to Thanksgiving (sweet potato casserole). They're also rolling on cocktail-inspired scoops, with flavors like a bourbon-spiked mint julep and a dairy-free coconut mojito that makes up for its lack of hooch with a surprisingly refreshing punch of citrus and mint.
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.
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.
Denver, Colorado Look, we’re suckers for anything served out of a giant version of its core ingredient, but it’s not just the fact that Little Man’s housed in a gigantic old milk bottle that has us excited. It’s also not the fact that the Scoop for Scoop program matches each order with its equivalent in rice in beans for those in need around the world, though that’s also great! But this place could serve scoops out of an outhouse and we’d still be stoked about flavors like Fluffernutter, creamsicle, and banana pudding, plus ample gelato and sorbet options. Maybe not as stoked, but still pretty stoked. Given the typical lines, Coloradans seem to be stoked as well.
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.
East Lansing, Michigan At the risk of lending credence to the endless taunts of Wolverines, yes, Michigan State is a "cow college." But the school's agricultural program has given us many gifts, none more delicious than the MSU Dairy Store, which has two on-campus outposts slinging some of the state's best ice cream (and cheese). Some students supplement their education with side jobs. Here, ag students put their focus to work to create perhaps the best damn black cherry ice cream on the planet -- thanks to those ultra-fresh Traverse City cherries -- and Dantonio's Double Fudge Fake, a caramel-filled football-stocked ode to the storied coach. Does Harbaugh have a dedicated ice cream flavor? (*Googles frantically.*) Nope!
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 five different kinds of vanilla (we like burnt honey), and three kinds of caramel (and yes, 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 or American egg, be his guest.
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 with the top honors. 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 saffron passionfruit, carrot cake, 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.
Burbank, California Yeah, it’s named after a fancy French technique for forming ice cream and other foodstuffs into perfect little oblong shapes, but we’re pretty certain that Parisian shops aren’t straight-up dunking ice cream bars in Fruity Pebbles, serving up boozy popsicles and homemade push-ups, or applying their churning skills into heavenly concoctions like root beer float or horchata. This is a place ice cream sandwiches come between funnel cakes instead of cookies, after all. And sure, there’s a merlot ice cream (tres Fronch!), but this place also specializes in turning beers like Cigar City’s Jai Alai into ice cream that still packs ABV. And it comes in a scoop shape, not a quenelle.
Portland, Oregon While Salt & Straw has risen to a three-city juggernaut with lines around blocks, Ruby Jewel has been content to hone its craft and quietly emerge with Oregon’s finest locally sourced, hand-crafted ice cream. And while you’ll find more out-there flavors at the three locations (lavender, sour cream), the balance achieved in flavors like salted honey almond brittle, peanut butter/chocolate, or a simple butterscotch is damn near perfect, made better only when smooshed between two fresh-baked cookies.
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 hella 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 standout 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.
Utica, Ohio In the discernible middle of nowhere on the way-ish to Columbus is Velvet Ice Cream, a parlor with an immigrant's tale as old-school Americana as it gets. Its founder, Joseph Dager, was a Lebanese immigrant who moved to this part of Ohio in 1903 without speaking a lick of English, started his creamery in a basement, and effectively changed the town laws to be able to distribute his ice cream beyond teeny Utica, eventually moving into the larger, now-iconic gristmill the shop resides in now. The ice cream is incredibly good, too.
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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