The Ice Cream Bar: Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain Goes Modern

As you'd imagine, most of the children at Cole Valley's Ice Cream Bar were pressed around the ice cream case at the front, saplings amid a greedy thicket of adults clutching numbered slips, awaiting their chance at a cone. Those of us who pushed through to the smaller counter in back jostled to claim stools with a view of a young woman in a white apron. She stirred precise jiggers of syrup and spoonfuls of powders into fluted soda glasses, finishing each with a last tug at the soda-water taps to bulk up the bubbles on top.

“The soda fountain was once an equivalent to the local saloon,” writes Darcy O'Neil, author of Fix the Pumps, a history of soda fountains and one of the guidebooks for the 2-month-old Ice Cream Bar. “Prior to Prohibition, both cocktails and sodas were creative, well-balanced drinks, but evolved over the years to become synthetic mixtures laced with gads of sugar.” There were 126,000 American soda fountains by the time Prohibition went into effect, O'Neil reports, a boom due in part to the invention of commercial methods of producing soda water and the popularity of pharmaceutical tonics, many of which included cocaine, strychnine, and opium. The fountains thrived during Prohibition, when many out-of-work bartenders became soda jerks, until the rise of bottled sodas doomed them to obsolescence and nostalgia.

Just as bartenders have re-engineered pre-Prohibition cocktails, a small group of soda-fountain enthusiasts is trying to sell Americans on lost soda recipes. One of them is Juliet Pries, The Ice Cream Bar's owner. With a deft use of aluminum, plywood, and tile, she has given the narrow room the look of both an Airstream and an ice cream parlor. The bar is designed around a 1930s-era soda fountain at back, which she imported from the Midwest; at night, the lighted green above it casts a glow that unintentionally evokes Edward Hopper's The Nighthawks.

Pries hired Rickhouse bartender Russell Davis to design a non-cocktail program based on O'Neil's book and historical manuals. The results resemble what you'll find at Rickhouse or Bourbon & Branch: giant cubes of ice that the bartenders must chip by hand, dozens of tincture bottles and misting sprays, and former bartenders who've decided to go sober, at least on the job. And in fact, The Ice Cream Bar can be plagued with the modern cocktail movement's pretensions, but it's also a fascinating way to score a sugar high.

If you decided to order ice cream with your milkshakes, that high could verge on the hallucinatory. I didn't find Pries' ice cream all that compelling — the flavors were often faint, and its texture wasn't the smoothest — but the scoops were improved when smothered in sour cherries and garnished with cornmeal shortcakes, as in the Keller's Farm ($9), or drizzled with homemade butterscotch and hot fudge sauce and flanked by bruléed bananas, in the banana split ($12).

Still, the sundaes were overshadowed by the ornate, adult flavors in drinks like the Too Good to Be True ($8). Not some Osterized ice cream, the milkshake was made by shaking — and vigorously — milk and cream with malt powder, raw eggs (pasteurized), and butterscotch syrup. A couple of golf-ball-sized ice chips went into the shaker, whipping the cream and eggs into a froth with the texture of a thick crème anglaise. The Too Good tasted of grain and caramelized sugar, and could be so rich that ice cream breaks between sips were called for.

The most intriguing section of the drinks menu: the phosphates and lactarts, which owed their tartness to phosphoric acid and lactic acid, respectively. Less sweet than modern sodas, they were also the most playful and contemporary. Acid phosphate gave the wild cherry phosphate ($7) a brash fruitiness. It could also play a more restrained role, such as in the Touch of Gray ($10), where the acidulant offset the maple-and-earth flavor of candy-cap mushroom syrup, and counterbalanced its creaminess. The sourness of lactart was less vivid by comparison, and could sometimes be felt more than tasted. Stirred into soda water, along with roasted pineapple syrup and pink peppercorn tincture, lactart gave the My Girlfriend's Girlfriend ($7) a crisp finish to match its spice. In the Ode to Mr. O'Neil ($8), the acid was mixed with chocolate syrup and double-charged soda — which contributed tiny, fierce bubbles — to give the sweet drink the same dry edge as a fresh apple. It was a lovely effect.

Creating elaborate sodas is not, apparently, quick work. One weekend afternoon, we waited 45 minutes for our drinks — here's hoping Pries doubles up on jerks when the weather warms up — and even late at night, when the children had disappeared and stools were easy to find, it still took four to five minutes to mix each soda. Part of the delay was caused by customers who asked the jerks to describe everything they were doing. Their responses were gracious and thorough, but the teaching moments were tinged with barista-worthy pomposity. Just before our jerk handed over the Peche No. 3 ($6), flavored with cherry syrup and anise, he misted the crushed ice floating on the top of the glass with mint tincture. “We recommend that you not drink the sodas with straws because they have delicate aromatics that would get lost,” he intoned as he pushed it over the counter. I nodded, then grabbed a fistful of straws. These were fizzy drinks after all, not museum exhibits.

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