The 21 Best Old-School Ice Cream Shops in America
According to scientific data and children's songs, everyone screams for ice cream. It's just that these spots have been screaming at that ice cream for a lot longer.
We decided to get nostalgic and look for the best old-school ice cream shops in the country, meaning everything from places that opened in the 1860s, to ones that opened even as far forward as the 1980s, but still have that certain special something. Maybe it's a checkerboard floor, or one of those cool neon signs, or, you know, A 19TH-CENTURY WORKING PHARMACY. To help balance the list we asked editors and writers from all over the country to share their favorite deeply nostalgic picks, and then I whittled them down to the top 21. If we missed a surefire ice cream shop in your neighborhood, leave a comment in the digital Wild Wild West that is the comment section, but for now let's just get back to screaming for ice cream:
If I had a dollar for every story I’ve heard about a Quaker teacher making ice cream in his backyard using a mule-turned churn, I would have a single dollar, which I could then spend at that Quaker teacher’s ice cream shop in Philly. Though Bassetts is now sold all over the country, we’re specifically talking about the original location at Reading Terminal Market, which the family has been using since the farmers market opened in 1892 (just look for the big three-scoop ice cream cone sign). The pro move here is really to get a DiNic’s roast pork sandwich and then hit up Bassetts for some English Toffee Crunch, and THEN to ask people in Philly to tell you stories about throwing snowballs at Santa. They’re not sick of that, I swear. - Kevin Alexander, National Writer-at-Large
You can recognize Bennett’s right away, because, in the LA Famers Market, it looks like someone just delicately placed a tiny red and white striped ice cream shop right inside. Since 1963, the Bennett family has been toiling away in this space, literally making ice cream mixed up right there in the window for all kinds of people, from celebrities and athletes to Scott Baio. Though the current owner Scott inherited the place from his uncle Chuck, he wanted to be even better than his uncle, so he went to the ice cream manufacturing program at UC Davis and learned all sorts of cool moves, which he puts to the test with creative flavors like cabernet sauvignon sorbet and Fancy Nancy, which tastes like a coffee ice cream conjugal visit with a caramel dipped banana. In other words: SEXY. - KA
This charming Mobile institution has been in the capable hands of Cammie Wayne since 1998, though the location's been giving Alabamans their dairy fix since 1956 (in fact, Wayne worked in the shop as a teenager). Since she started running the place the legion of admirers has only increased, lining up for rotating flavors like a butter pecan that does NOT skimp on the nuts, and red velvet cake that's blended up with an entire damn red velvet cake. Of course, if you're disinclined to limit yourself to ice cream alone, you can level up with Amsterdam Royales (think a sundae with banana wheels rather than a split, though if split-styles you're thing they have those too!). Also, the "Meal in One," an enormous malt made with five scoops of ice cream that still costs less than five bucks, is one of the best excuses to have ice cream for dinner you'll find anywhere. - Matt Lynch, Executive Editor
Dairy Joy is the lifeblood of my childhood, a time spent riding bikes and walking on fallen logs and pretending I had an imaginary fox named Calvin which came equipped with a saddle. On warm summer days, I would ride Calvin from my dad’s house to Dairy Joy to get a creamsicle or javaberry soft serve, which are really the only two acceptable flavors to order. We would sit out on the logs by the side of the road and get absolutely mauled by mosquitos, which might explain why DJ is only open until dark. Afterwards I was usually too tired to pretend to ride a fake saddled fox home, so my dad had to carry me. Oh also, I just realized I’m supposed to use this space to tell you why you should go to said ice cream shop, so how’s this: Dairy Joy is the greatest ice cream place on the planet (Calvin co-signs). -KA
So look, Dairy Lane has more than just ice cream, OK? Back in the '50s when it opened it was basically just desserts and snacks, but now you can get barbecue and burgers and breakfast and all of those things, and that can make you happy (and not just when you discover they have local legend Robert Edwards' Patriots jersey hanging in the store). But the true joy in going to this small shop in a small town two hours southeast of Atlanta next to even smaller towns with cool names like Deepstep remains the shakes and ice cream. There are no tricks, or special flavors, or any new fangled moves. But once you get the Butterfinger Blast and sit outside on a Friday night watching every single teenager in the county blast music and hang out, it’ll make you feel happy and nostalgic for things you haven’t even done. - KA
Opened in 1909 and located across the street from one of New York's last remaining neighborhood movie theaters, Eddie's feels like a slice of New York that time forgot. The SODA sign above the front door welcomes you into a world where the ice cream is made in-house and served from behind a long wooden bar by -- let me tell you the God's honest truth -- the nicest kids you could ever hope to meet in your entire life.
Grab one of the old wooden bar stools, and they'll gladly scoop up one of their classic flavors, in cones, shakes, malts, and sundaes -- with the sundae dishes always served atop tin platters, because there's no way your melty, syrupy concoction won't ooze over in a perfectly delicious mess. The truly incomparable order is the Float -- two scoops of ice cream with a milk shake poured over them. Sit and savor it while your feet dangle over the mosaic tiled floor and the woman at the stool next to you -- likely to be 5ft tall, old as your grandmother, and wearing orange nail polish -- asks for a glass of seltzer along with her sundae. - Bison Messink, Deputy Editor
At the top of the menu, Goolrick’s lists out their summer and winter specials, in case you’re in the mood for some deviled eggs or their winter Saturday chili. But just below that is what you’re really looking for -- the simple pleasure of their dessert list. There are no 40 flavors. This is chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry in a cone or dish, or as a hot fudge sundae, or on top of some pie. You want sprinkles, son? That’ll be extra.
Oh, did I mention that when Goolrick’s calls itself a “pharmacy,” it isn’t doing it in the hipster old-timey manner. IT IS REALLY A PHARMACY AND HAS BEEN SINCE 1869. You can sit on of the iconic blue stools at their soda fountain (which has been in use since 1912) and get a sundae or an egg cream and wait for your prescription for that foot problem to be filled. It is a glorious relic, an iconic must-stop for anyone who has ever wondered what it must be like to eat ice cream inside a Norman Rockwell painting. - KA
Hank’s Ice Cream is not going to be the oldest spot on this list. But Hank’s, opened in 1985 by Hank Wiggins (who passed away in 2012) and his wife Okemah in the city where I was born, represents a time from my past when someone might open an ice cream shop without a fancy marketing plan, but just because they know how to make damn good ice cream, and they’ll figure out the rest of the deal later. Well, 31 years after the fact, Hank’s shop is still going, probably due to the fact that they make the best damn banana pudding ice cream in the entire world. Seriously. Oh also: Beyoncé eats it when she’s home, but whatever, don’t focus on that, just know that I LIKED IT FIRST. - KA
Of the million things I envied as a merely well-off kid growing up in a notoriously rich neighborhood, a monthly, parentally funded account at Highland Park Pharmacy perennially occupied a Top 10 otherwise filled with mansions, exotic vacations, deb ball invites, and first cars most people can’t afford ‘til after they sell their first business. Which is funny, because the 104-year-old treasure -- since renamed the Highland Park Soda Fountain -- specializes in exceedingly cheap, Rockwell-basic counter-diner fare, including impossibly perfect malts, the kind with the requisite metal cup containing the overflow, because you know you'll be ready for more after you kill what's in the glass. And possibly what's in the cup. Hey, that brownie sundae looks pretty good? - David Blend, Director of Content
It is a deli. There are sandwiches, and sodas, and bags of chips. And when I was first told to check this place out as an ice cream shop, when I walked in, I thought I had the wrong place. But then you see the containers of their own homemade ice cream, and you know something magical is about to take place.
Open since 1932, and still in the same family, Husky is the type of place that makes me wish I was a regular, mostly so I could take down as many scoops of their Girl Scout Cookie ice cream as possible (pro tip: buy the Thin Mint and the Samoa and mash ‘em together). If you go in, tell Jack that Kevin sent you. He won’t know what you’re talking about, but it’ll make me feel pretty good. - KA
You know how most South Floridians enjoy spending hot summer afternoons? Other than stealing your identity, it's standing in sweltering lines for ice cream. Or at least so you’d be led to believe if you happened upon this spot at the tail end of a Ft. Lauderdale strip mall, where people line up all day, every day, to get the most iconic ice cream in South Florida. The line is flanked by merry-go-rounds and rocking horses to entertain the children in line, but to truly get the Jaxson’s experience you need to step inside.
Up front you'll see a kitschy souvenir shop full of candy and Styrofoam barber shop hats, and the dining room's done up with enough license plates and other bric-a-brac to make an old TGI Friday's blush. The ice cream menu is full of sundaes that will make your teeth hurt just reading about them, but the king of them all is the Kitchen Sink (yes, it's served in a sink), which is made from whatever the hell the people in the back feel like throwing in a sundae before charging $13.95 per person (minimum four people). You'll need everyone. - Matt Meltzer, Staff Writer
My friend Emily grew up in Hawaii, and loves food, and so I usually bug her about all my Hawaii-related questions. So when I asked her if there was an old-school shop she loved on the island, she didn’t hesitate. “Lappert’s,” she said, alarmingly fast. “It has to be Lappert’s.”
And so it is. Lappert’s Hawaii (which operates independently of the company on the mainland) has been around since 1983, and has just the right mix of old-school hand-packed ice cream shop but with incredible local flavors like Kona Lava Java, Kauai Pie, and even Banana Fudge that make me jealous of everyone currently in driving distance. - KA
As it creeps towards its 100th birthday (it opened in 1921), Margie's remains a blessed island of stability anchoring a rapidly changing intersection on the border between Chicago's Bucktown and Logan Square neighborhoods. Yes, the Beatles famously came here in the '60s, and no, that's not why locals keep it perpetually humming throughout the summer.
As the name would suggest there's no shortage of homemade candy on hand, but the ice cream is the real showstopper. Choose from a dozens-deep lineup of splits and sundaes (the Turtle is the most consistently called-upon crowd pleaser) and enjoy the startlingly rich hot fudge (which they dangerously sell in jars as well). But hey, if you just go with a simple cone, they'll still hook you up with a sugar wafer just to make you feel special. - ML
"Marvel? I think you mean CARvel," is heard by everyone who's tried to take a first-timer to Marvel Frozen Dairy. And whether or not the Lido Beach legend is true -- and the original owner bought a former Fudgie The Whale-seller and was too lazy to do anything other than change the "C" on the sign to an "M" -- you should definitely perpetuate it.
Another thing new people get confused by is how absolutely goddamn excited you were to take them to a place that basically just fires a seemingly unremarkable chocolate-and-vanilla soft-serve swirl into a cone, and rolls it in some simple crunchies. But Marvel isn't for ice cream fanatics who only frequent artisanal establishments that hand-milk their cows behind the store. It's for the people who went to the south shore Long Island beach when they were 8 years old, ended a long day of getting thrashed in the waves absolutely starving, had a parent with a few bucks in their pocket, and walked past Marvel. Even 10, or 20, or 50 years later, it's still the best ice cream those people have ever eaten. - Ben Robinson, Editorial Director
Watertown, Wisconsin is a small town of about 2,000 people an hour west of Milwaukee, and about 20 minutes from Oconomowoc, which I just mentioned so you could try and say it aloud. Since 1932 under an iconic red and white Badger-colored awning, Mullen has been selling their milk and ice cream to the good people in the town, and though the place has changed hands from the original Mullen crew, it’s still family-owned and operated.
Inside, the move is to sit up on one of the red stools at the soda fountain, get a little bit of a cheese curd appetizer, and then hunker down for the serious business of the “Tin Roof,” a longtime Mullen favorite that consists of vanilla ice cream, hot fudge, and Spanish peanuts. Oh, and maybe get a malt to go. This is Wisconsin, after all. - KA
My grandfather went to Colby College, and, as a proud White Mule grad, loved taking us up there for Maine summers. I first went to Red’s in the early '80s, and I remember my grandfather telling us that we were allowed to get anything we wanted as long as it was a swirl in a cone.
The soft serve there is smooth and creamy and cold, and, since that time, I’d always gotten swirl. But then I discovered that in the late spring, early summer, they’ve often got fresh Maine blueberries to mix in with the vanilla, and it tastes somewhere on the better side of glorious. I like to think my grandfather would understand. - KA
In all of my ice cream tasting in my many years on this planet, I’d never seen a place before that actually used its own chocolate milk as a topping for its ice cream (it’s called a Brown Cow). But that is Reed’s Dairy in Idaho Falls. The sign on Reed’s says “Support your local cows,” and I can’t think of a better way than by pouring one of their products on top of the other. I could tell you more about their incredible creamy ice cream, and how you should get Huckleberry or Burnt Almond Fudge, but I’m pretty confident the ice cream topped with milk anecdote speaks for itself. - KA
As a child I went to Cape Cod every year, because my grandparents would rent their family friend’s tiny house in Orleans and we would somehow pack 12-15 people into a three bedroom house. I think I slept in a crib until I was eight.
Anyways, the best part about the house was its proximity to Sundae School, a small glorious shop that’s been around since the '70s and always had cool-seeming high school and college kids working and laughing at jokes I didn’t get as I waited for them to give me a scoop of Grape Nut in a sugar cone. There are now three Sundae Schools in different points across Central Cape Cod, and you can even buy the delicious ice cream by the quart at a few local markets, but my heart will always be in Orleans. Hmmm... I wonder if they’re still taking applications for the summer. - KA
You can’t see the ice cream in the containers. One of the usual small joys of ice cream ordering is the intense window shopping that takes place as you stare at potential flavors and contemplate getting serious with them. But at the original Swensen’s in Russian Hill, they’re kept in these metal containers with lids closed, and so you’re basically forced to taste test upwards of four to eleven flavors. IT’S JUST WHAT HAS TO HAPPEN, OK?!?
Although the name Swensen’s rings out as a chain with 300 spots all over the world (almost all outside the US at this point), Earle Swensen retained the rights to the original store he’d opened in 1948 in a former failed ice cream shop along the cable car tracks at Union and Hyde, and operated it himself until a year before his death in 1995. It is tiny (maybe 200sqft), only room really to order your a couple of scoops of Fresh Banana and get out of the way, but it is also a glorious reminder of the glory of old San Francisco, before the food drones and self-driving Teslas took over. - KA
1984 isn’t that old school for this list, but it's old enough that T + W has become a Nebraska landmark of sorts. With a wacky color scheme that sort of evokes a midwest Ben and Jerry’s, the Omaha shop slings all made-from-scratch 18% butterfat flavors that vary daily, though that shouldn’t matter if you do what I say and get the strawberry shortcake sundae with vanilla ice cream and realize that nothing in your life will ever be the same. - KA
A loyal band of regular customers wanders in to Washtenaw Dairy each morning for their locally-famous-but-simple cake donuts, before a whole new crowd fills the place on sunny afternoons for the heaping scoops of ice cream, piled onto cones and sold for prices seem to have hardly budged since the dairy opened in 1934.
Come to Washtenaw Dairy on any summer's evening, and you'll find a line out the door of kids still dressed in their baseball uniforms, ready for a post-game treat of one of the 50 ice cream flavors dished up, including local favorites like Blue Moon (think Smurf-colored sherbet), Mackinac Island Fudge, and Michigan Black Bear. It's so iconic, it doesn't even have a sign. "Who needs a sign," a store manager once told the Ann Arbor News. "Everyone knows where Washtenaw Dairy is." - BM
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