One of the best things about San Franciscans is that we don’t require warm temperatures to provide us with an excuse to eat ice cream. This could be attributed to the fact that if we waited around for warm weather, we wouldn’t eat nearly as much ice cream as we should. But more than that, it’s because San Francisco churns up some of the best ice cream in all of the land.
There’s no shortage of places to get a cone (or a cup, if for some reason that is your thing), but we took it upon ourselves to lick our way through many, many scoops so that we could come up with our list of the places with the most delicious and satisfying ice cream available.
Mission We have yet to pass this scoop shop on 18th Street and not see a line of people out the door eager to satisfy their craving for housemade, small batch, organic ice cream. And though they probably don’t care that much about those adjectives, we have to think that they have a lot to do with Bi-Rite’s insane popularity. That, and the signature flavors. Honey lavender and salted caramel are two that never disappoint; our trick is to get a cone of soft serve (balsamic strawberry if they have it) and buy a pint of one of the classics to take home. Of course, that trusty plan has been slightly thwarted now that Bi-Rite also offers brioche doughnuts from Mr. Holmes Bakehouse filled with vanilla soft serve and paired with a dipping sauce and ice cream bars, but we are fully prepared to come up with a new plan that takes all of that into consideration. And though we’ve never tried it, it’s worth mentioning that Bi-Rite also has vegan options beyond sorbet.
Mission and Embarcadero It’s become very easy to pick up a pint of ice cream from this brand that started in the Mission and is famous for its unusual concoctions, but we believe that as much as there is a time and place for a pint of ice cream (and no, the time is not always post break-up and the place is not always your couch. Sometimes the time is whatever time it happens to be and the place is, well, usually on your couch), if you want to really maximize your ice cream-eating experience, you need to sample a bunch of flavors before making a decision, something they frown upon in most corner stores. As far as which Humphry Slocombe favors to sample, you should always start with the classics: Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, Malted Milk Chocolate (made with Guittard Chocolate), and, of course, the signature flavor: Secret Breakfast (bourbon ice cream with cornflakes).
Cole Valley Go back in time at this 1930s-inspired soda fountain and lunch counter where you can not only indulge in malts, milkshakes, sundaes, and floats, but delicious savory items like a grilled cheese or an egg salad sandwich (or pie. They also have pie). This charming spot is a hit with adults as well as they can opt for one of the must-be-21-or-over “remedies,” milkshakes and floats with the lovely addition of alcohol. Everything on the menu is made in-house, including the soda syrups, tinctures, and even the bread for sandwiches, and though all of the ice cream flavors are popular, nothing captivates the neighborhood residents quite as much as when the roasted pineapple. When that happens, get a pint (or hell, an entire quart) to take home (it goes fast).
Potrero Hill You can get ice cream in a cup or a cone at pretty much any scoop shop, but if you want it stuffed inside of a warm glazed doughnut, you’ll need to head to this Potrero Hill spot. The ice cream flavors range from traditional (peanut butter cup, birthday cake, etc.) to, well, less so (ube, red bean, watermelon) and that goes for the toppings as well (hot cheetos, anyone?). All of this makes for creations that are very Instagrammable, but get that shot quick because if that melting scoop falls onto the sidewalk, you’re going to be super mad you have to wait in the long line all over again.
Mission Mitchell’s has been delighting San Franciscans with rich, creamy, hand-crafted ice cream (made fresh daily) for over 65 years. There are 40 flavors in total, all with a 16% butterfat base (yeah, when we said “rich and creamy,” we meant it), including some more exotic ones, like buko, ube-macapuno, jackfruit, and avocado. Keep in mind, a lot of the flavors are seasonal, which means you’ll need to plan quarterly trips to the popular shop if you want to experience all of them. After all, you don’t want to miss out on eggnog, cinnamon snap, or pumpkin (fall and winter). Irish coffee (spring), or the super popular cantaloupe, which sounds weird, tastes a million times better than any side of fruit you’ve ever gotten at a brunch, and is only available in the summer.
Dogpatch There’s nothing fancy or precious about the sparse, light-filled space that houses Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous’ ice cream; that’s all saved for the artisanal ice cream, which is made by a husband and wife team with pastry chef backgrounds at restaurants like Postrio, Spago, and Cut. There’s something for the purists and those who prefer a more unconventional take on their scoops. For the former, the vanilla bean is a must (maybe add some hot fudge if you’re feeling wild). For the latter, well, it all depends what’s available that day, but options like sloe gin and orange blossom are fan favorites. Bonus: everything is made in-house, including the waffle cone which you can add for just an extra 50 cents.
Hayes Valley, Lower Pacific Heights Salt & Straw originated in Portland, Oregon, but we don’t hold that against the scoop shop. Regardless of its origins, the small-batch, chef-driven ice cream made with local, organic, and sustainable ingredients, has never failed to bring us joy thanks to its inventive and seasonal flavors that are consistently exciting and delicious. You can always count on the classics, like sea salt with caramel ribbons and Sightglass coffee cashew praline, but the best part about visiting this shop is to see what crazy new flavor they’ve invented that month. Go around Halloween and you’ll find something like Dracula’s blood pudding. Stop by during the holidays and you’ll find flavors like caramelized grapefruit eggnog. The key is to go in often as the flavors change around every four weeks as once a seasonal flavor is gone, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever be able to put it in your mouth again.
Hayes Valley, Lower Pacific Heights, Mission We’re always wary of a gimmick, but when a gimmick works we’re happy to give it credit. And in the case of Smitten, we’re giving it full credit and top-of-the-class scores. That’s because it turns out made-to-order-while-you-watch ice cream that’s flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen in 90 seconds. Turns out, this is actually a delicious way to make fresh, creamy ice cream, especially since all of the ingredients in Smitten’s ice cream are fresh and “made from scratch using only unprocessed, real, locally sourced and sustainable ingredients.” Why is it so smooth and creamy? Something about science, patented “Brrr” machines, and the fact that ice crystals that are really, really small make smoother ice cream. It’s a little nerdier than our brains can completely comprehend, but that’s okay because we can absolutely comprehend how much we love it, especially when it’s black sesame in a waffle cone.
Russian Hill The Swensen’s on the corner of Hyde and Union opened in 1948 and was the first-ever location of what’s now a global chain. Of course, as much as we look down on chains in SF, we still love Swensen’s -- which was started by a man who learned how to make ice cream while serving in the Navy in WWII, and is mentioned more than once in “Tales of the City.” Since then, there have been more than 180 flavors created, including favorites like Swiss orange chip and rum raisin, all of which taste even better as you enjoy them while listening the ding of the cable car making its way up and down the hill.
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Daisy Barringer is an SF-based writer who, when she was little, would order the bubblegum ice cream from Swensen’s and proceed to spit out all of the pieces of bubblegum and eat them all at the end. Tell her how disgusting she is on Twitter @daisy.