What’s the biggest cultural divide in our fair city? Is it natives vs. new comers? Leftists vs. ultra-leftists? Tech people vs. everyone else? No, it’s much deeper.
Yes, that cool childhood treat is the true issue that keeps people up at night in San Francisco and causes passionate debate into the small hours. In some homes, it may even end marriages. Once again, San Francisco is ruled by a big four: but this time instead of Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins, it’s Swensen’s, Bi-Rite, Mitchell’s and Humphry Slocombe. What does your ice cream allegiance say about you? Can your heart belong to more than one parlor? And what about mixed relationships: could a Bi-Rite Cheesecake Blueberry Swirl and a Humphry Slocombe Cinnamon Brittle ever make a go of it? What about a Swensen’s Swiss Orange Chip and a Mitchell’s French Custard Vanilla? How would they raise the children? Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know about the big four in the ice cream wars. There’s just something so perfectly San Francisco about waiting in line outside for forty minutes on a bone-chilling, foggy night for a scoop of one of your favorite local flavors.
1999 Hyde Street
History: The first Swensen’s on Russian Hill begat franchises throughout the United States and beyond, but for long-time San Franciscans nothing compares to hearing the ding of the cable car while enjoying a sundae at the original. Most San Francisco kids have memories of visits to the parlor and judged juvenile birthday parties by whether or not cake time included a scoop of hand-packed Swensen’s Thin Mint or Midnight Brownie (Lord help the child whose parents went to Baskin Robbins).
Ice Cream: Earle Swensen was fond of saying he sold ice cream as “good as father used to make” and, although a lifelong vanilla man himself, went on to supervise the creation of over 150 Flavors during his lifetime. Classic sundaes with lady finger wafers, butterscotch sauce topped scoops and banana splits with hot fudge are the staples: this is a strictly old fashioned ice cream parlor and proud of it.
Notable Flavors: Swiss Orange Chip, Rum Raisin, Bubblegum (as a connoisseur of bubble gum ice cream I can say, as far as pink bubble gum flavors go, this is the one to beat), Macadamia, Strawberry-Banana Swirl, Sherbets Orange, Lemon and Lime (authentic recipe-hasn’t-changed-since-the-sixties Mad Men punch bowl style sherbet).
Parlor Vibe: A neighborhood institution, as Russian Hill has changed over the years the parlor’s griege and orange color scheme and checkerboard floors have remained unchanged. Many (if not all) of the original fixtures and ice cream tools remain making the chocolate malts lumpy like every San Franciscan knows they’re supposed to be.
Patrons: Natives, neighborhood regulars, private school kids crossing over from Pacific Heights in the afternoon, tourists wanting an authentic taste of old San Francisco, people old enough to remember when ice cream wasn’t a city wide debate.
What it says about the fan: For Swensen’s fans, ice cream isn’t a trend or a foodie hobby: it’s dessert. Most old city dwellers have a go-to flavor they can instinctively describe no matter how long it’s been since they last had it. You’d call Swensen’s ice cream nostalgic if it wasn’t such a consistent flavor on the city’s palate.
One of the City’s Best: Swensen’s was such a neighborhood iconic by the 1970s that author Armistead Maupin frequently mentions the parlor in his Tales of the City. Heroine Mary Ann Singleton enjoys a scoop of Swiss Orange Chip in the first book in the series and opens her return to San Francisco in Mary Ann in Autumn with a trip back to the old Barbary neighborhood for the taste of the treat she loved in her twenties. Only in San Francisco does ice cream take the place of the Proust Madeleine when it comes to evoking memory.
3692 18th Street and 550 Divisadaro Street
Since: 2006 (Divisadero since 2013)
History: The Bi-Rite food business has roots in San Francisco going back to the opening of the Art Deco market on 18th in 1940. The Mogannam family has run the business since 1962. In 2006, pastry chefs Anne Walker and Kris Hoogerhyde opened the Creamery/Bakery across the street and an ice cream revolution was born. Although Swensen’s and Mitchell’s may have more years in the business, the Bi-Rite Creamery invented San Francisco designer ice cream. No real San Franciscan waited in line more than fifteen minutes for ice cream before Bi-Rite: ice cream overnight went from dessert to serious status symbol.
Ice Cream: Proudly handmade in small batches and organic. Flavors rarely have more than five ingredients, no stabilizers and nothing artificial. Get any sundae with the word “toasted” in it and you will leave happy.
Notable Flavors: Basil, Balsamic Strawberry, Salted Caramel, Chocolate Coconut (vegan), the divine and much commented on Honey Lavender, Ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodles), Roasted Banana, Malted Vanilla (with peanut brittle and milk chocolate pieces).
Parlor Vibe: Who can tell? It’s always so crowded, you’re usually pushed out the minute you grab a scoop. Although the Creamery is in a new building, the design team kept the Art Deco feel from the market across the street: same with the new location on Divisadero.
Patrons: The Dolores Parkarazzi, Nouveau Missionites, Foodie locals and tourists, and one time I saw Cate Blanchett’s stand-in during a break while shooting the new Woody Allen movie on 20th and Lexington.
What it says about the fan: Definitely an ice cream with a certain snob quotient, Bi-Riters are usually deadly serious about their devotion to the creamery. Overhearing fans talk about “notes” they detect in certain flavors and differences from batch to batch brings to mind the kind of highfalutin discussions about wine people had in movies in the 1990s.
Proud First: Bi-Rite is proud to be the first San Francisco ice cream made from Strauss Family Creamery organic dairy.
Mitchell’s Ice Cream
688 San Jose Avenue
History: The Mitchell Family has roots going back even further than Swensen’s and Bi-Rite in San Francisco to when the family owned large swathes of land in the 1860s. When the road widening of San Jose Avenue in the late 1940s threatened to demolish the apartment building that currently houses Mitchell’s, the family fought the city and had the property lifted and moved away from the widened street. When relocation was finished, the Mitchells opened their shop in 1952 in the space that had previously housed a liquor store pre-lift. Like Swensen’s, this old San Francisco favorite has fans of all generations who recall it from childhood and happily pass it on.
Ice Cream: One of the creamiest ice creams in San Francisco (if not the world), all Mitchell’s products are made fresh daily in the parlor with a rich 16% butterfat base from hormone free, free range dairy. In a nod to the times, the website now notes that most flavors are gluten free.
Notable Flavors: Avocado, Butterscotch Marble (personal favorite), Cantaloupe, Grasshopper Pie, Irish Coffee, Ube-Macapuno, White Pistachio.
Parlor Vibe: Classic neighborhood ice cream parlor, the decor hasn’t changed much since 1952. The Mitchell’s let the ice cream be the most colorful design aspects in the shop.
Patrons: People who have lived in the neighborhood their entire lives, people who moved out of the neighborhood who can’t get ice cream as good anywhere else (the store sold Mitchell’s is no substitution for what’s in the shop), fans who want no fuss, old school ice cream and wouldn’t be caught dead standing in line at one of those new fancy young people ice cream shops.
What it says about the fan: Mitchell’s is the “authentic” San Francisco ice cream for natives who never liked Swensen’s. Although the least pretentious crowd in the ice cream wars, Mitchell’s defenders would rather go to their deaths then concede defeat or talk about “artisanal” flavors.
Dairy Dynasty: From the 1860s through the turn of the century, the Mitchells owned dairy farms going from what is now Noe Valley to their location at 29th Street and San Jose Avenue. Butterfat is in the family’s blood (in a good way).
2790 Harrison Street
History: If Bi-Rite is the Beatles of the San Francisco ice cream scene then Humphry Slocombe is proud to be the Rolling Stones. Although Bi-Rite undoubtedly paved the way when it came to advanced Mission ice cream, Humphry Slocombe has pushed even farther into the avante garde with their unconventional flavors, decadent sundae combinations (I’ll take a “Hot Mess” or “Bourbon Coke Float” any day) and owners Jake Godby and Sean Vahey’s neighborhood partnerships with businesses ranging from Flour + Water to Blue Bottle Coffee have made them ubiquitous in the cuisine world internationally. The creamery, named for characters in the Brit sitcom Are You Being Served, was a local hit before a game changing New York Times article that made them a foodie tourist destination.
Ice Cream: Artisanal, experimental and organic: this is where you go for ice cream on the edge. Taking older relatives here is always a guarantee of a good time: sometimes more for you as Great Aunt Rita looks at the menu in confusion and says “they put what in ice cream?”
Notable Flavors: Blue Bottle Vietnamese Coffee, Candied Ginger, Fluffer Nutter, Hibiscus Beet, Jesus Juice (red wine with Coke) and Secret Beakfast (vanilla with bourbon soaked cornflakes), Sweet Corn, “Red Hot” Banana, Thai Chili Lime.
Parlor Vibe: Traditional parlor swizzle chairs and counter meets two headed calf and Warhol homage pop art, a decor that reflects the ice cream pretty accurately.
Patrons: International foodies, the hippest of the hipsters, ice cream lovers unafraid of breaking convention (or in some cases, flavors that look a little like dares). Also, more than one customer has commented that the servers behind the counter are among the cutest ice cream scoopers of either gender, so in all likelihood, people looking to pick up more than a cone.
What it says about the fan: Although this is rather experimental ice cream at times, most fans have a sense of humor about their adventures in flavor combinations. With a mix and match flavor philosophy and more is more sundae model, fans seem to see the absurdity in some of their favorites, which makes them love it all the more.
Rumor has it: The parlor allegedly makes an appearance in the pilot of Michael Lannan’s new SF based series for HBO. So far, no confirmation from HBO or HS.