1930’s Revived in a Cole Valley Soda Fountain + An Interview with Menu Creator Russell Davis

Ice Cream Bar’s delightful team of soda jerks

ICE CREAM BAR & SODA FOUNTAIN, Cole Valley (815 Cole St. at Carl; 415-742-4932)

Double-charged Ode to Mr. O’Neil

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 white-bread 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 Soda Fountain is no 1950’s milkshake time capsule. Blonde wood ceiling, restored 1930’s bar (which owner Juliet Pries found in Michigan), illuminated art deco signs, all evoke the 1930’s. Soda fountains filled a communal void in the wake of Prohibition and thus were popular in the ’20’s and ‘30’s, but they date back to the 1800’s when, similar to pharmacies where signature bitters (e.g. Peychaud’s) were created, effervescent mineral waters were considered to have healing properties.

Making sodas

Soda fountain revivals and techniques are popping up around the US but I have yet to see this level of detail and historicity anywhere. Bartender Darcy O’Neil’s book Fix the Pumps, is responsible in part for the inspiration behind Ice Cream Bar. Bartender Russell Davis (Rickhouse) 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.

Classically-inspired recipes line the menu: frappes, floats, crushes, phosphates (soda with phosphoric acid), malts, lactarts (natural lactic acid, commonly found in buttermilk, yogurt, Lambic beers). Davis created over 75 house syrups, tinctures and extracts, using forced cavitation, a culinary extraction technique that maintains flavor intensity of the original source. In keeping with history, bar staff are referred to as soda jerks, deftly operating vintage soda fountains.

Jerks finesse 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, their sweet cream ice cream, golden eagle tincture (sarsaparilla), and soda. Root beer floats are herbal and creamy, using Russell’s sassafras root beer (an 1890’s recipe – learn about this root beer below in the Q&A with Russell Davis).

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A vivacious Wild Cherry Phosphate

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 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 Ice Cream Bar is about to launch a casual menu of soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, egg and chicken salads, and the like, plus baked goods, house brittles, toffee, hard candies, there’s currently more than the soda fountain to draw you out. Their ice cream is of unexpectedly high quality, overseen by Ray Lai, who worked at Bi-Rite and Fenton’s.

Lactart revival

They once again shine with cherry in a tart sour cherry ice cream. Sicilian pistachio is rich and nutty. I’ve likewise been pleased with their ice cream sandwiches, particularly roasted pineapple ice cream layered in ginger cookies.

The ‘jerks’ are a delightful team assembled from various bars, offering earnest, knowledgeable service. Tell them a flavor you’d like from the house tinctures and syrups (grapefruit to dill weed), and they’ll make you a custom drink.

Sipping a custom mint egg cream at the soda fountain while listening to big band tunes is a respite I relish whether midday escape or dessert. Crowds of Cole Valley strollers and families abruptly center me back to today, but, then, it’s fair to say there is something appealing for everyone, child to adult, at this already widely embraced neighborhood hangout.

Q&A with Russell Davis

– Why is Ice Cream Bar different from other soda fountain revivals in the US? There are a few spots in the country supporting the “revival” of the soda fountain and its lost drinks, but none take it to the extent and level that we do at Ice Cream Bar. From top to bottom, our menu is not just based on using quality ingredients and refined processes, but also on its inherent historical value. Our syrups are all fresh, cold agitated and our ice is all hand cut. Even our floats are built to the same specifications as they would have made them in 1894 Chicago. We are not playing around.

– What connection do you see between classic and creative cocktails, the world you come from, and old fashioned soda fountain drinks? Many bartenders who didn’t flee the country during Prohibition to practice their craft became soda jerks. There was a beautiful way of mixing that was refined during this period. Also, the techniques that we apply to soda fountain drinks can, and I believe will, be used in the crafting of a refined cocktail.  What I’ve noticed as the biggest difference between Mixology and Soda Jerking… where bartenders focus on using fresh fruits and other seasonal ingredients, soda jerks try to capture flavors (in a tincture or extract).

– Tell me about your Sassafras Root Beer. How is this different from other homemade root beers? First, it’s made using fresh sassafras and a house built sassafras extract, something that you do not find in mass-produced root beer because, by USDA standards, it is illegal because of its slightly carcinogenic properties. But, there is nothing to be afraid of: it’s about as dangerous as cinnamon or nutmeg.  Most people use wintergreen, spearmint, and licorice or anise to replicate that sassafras flavor that was in the original old school recipes of root beer, but nothing compares to the flavor of the true stuff. Next, I use black and jasmine tea as a base combined with a variety of other herbs, then cold brew it with ground marshmallow root to create a thick creamy texture and give it head. Lastly, I add a little bit of St John’s Wort in so, hopefully, it will put you in a good mood as well.

– Given over 75 tincture options and house-made extracts, what crazy concoction would you order if you wanted something unusual? [Laughs] You’ll just have to wait and see when the next menu comes out!