Step into the Wayback Machine: this new Cole Valley spot serves a panoply of delicious soda fountain treats
APPETITE I was born of another time. As much as I wouldn't trade the rights and access of today, I hunger for the romance, artistry, and intellectual pace of eras gone by. As a child, I grew up on classic films and whitebread shows like Father Knows Best, where youth hung out at soda fountains listening to the jukebox. Naturally, I was delighted upon hearing a retro-inspired soda fountain was opening near my home.
Cole Valley's new Ice Cream Bar and Soda Fountain is no 1950s milkshake time capsule. Blonde wood ceiling, restored 30s bar (which owner Juliet Pries found in Michigan), illuminated art deco signs, all evoke a glowing past. Soda fountains filled a communal void in the wake of Prohibition and thus were popular in the '20s and '30s. But they date back to the 1800s when, similar to pharmacies where signature bitters like Peychaud's were created, effervescent mineral waters were considered to have healing properties.
Soda fountain revivals and techniques are popping up around the US: however, I have yet to see this level of detail and historicity anywhere. Bartender Darcy O'Neil's book Fix the Pumps (Art of Drink, 2010) is responsible in part for the inspiration behind Ice Cream Bar. Bartender Russell Davis of Rickhouse, www.rickhousesf.com, developed the soda fountain program, sourcing data not only from O'Neil's book, but from 1894's Saxe's New Guide or, Hints to Soda Water Dispensers by D.W. Saxe. (Read my revealing Q&A with Davis here.)
Classically inspired recipes line the menu: frappes, floats, crushes, phosphates (soda with phosphoric acid), malts, lactarts (natural lactic acid, commonly found in buttermilk, yogurt and Lambic beers). Davis created more than 75 house syrups, tinctures, and extracts, using forced cavitation, a culinary extraction technique that maintains the flavor intensity of the original source. In keeping with history, bar staff are referred to as soda jerks, deftly operating vintage soda fountains.
After trying most of the menu over multiple visits, I can't help but gravitate to the wild cherry phosphate ($7) time and again. Rather than saccharin cherry flavor, it tastes of fresh, wild cherries, in a house syrup and cherry bark tincture, fizzy with acid phosphate and soda water. Another highlight is Ode to Mr. O'Neil ($8), a tribute to Darcy. Like an elevated Brooklyn egg cream, it's a lactart made with lush Scharffen Berger chocolate syrup and double-charged soda imparting a piquant effervescence.
Oh, that many a day could start with the robust New Orleans Hangover ($8). It's better than a coffee milkshake with chicory coffee syrup, housemade sweet cream ice cream, golden eagle tincture (sarsaparilla), and soda. Root beer floats are herbal and creamy, using Russell's sassafras root beer (an 1890s recipe).
I wished to taste more pink peppercorn in the pineapple-based My Girlfriend's Girlfriend ($7) and more tobacco in the chai-dominant Passion Project ($7.50), both lactarts. Yet all-in-all, each visit yields very few disappointments. Splurge on the decadent pistachio milkshake for two ($16), or go earthy-sweet with Touch of Grey ($10), a candy cap mushroom phosphate.
Though it's about to launch a casual menu of soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, egg and chicken salads, and the like, plus baked goods, house brittles, toffee, and hard candies, there's currently more than the soda fountain to draw you out. The ice cream is of unexpectedly high quality, overseen by Ray Lai, who worked at Bi-Rite (www.biritecreamery.com) and Fenton's (www.fentonscreamery.com).