The scoop on ice cream shops in San Francisco is that everyone’s got their own unique swirl—from old-fashioned cones to modern interpretations of classic treats and artisan innovations offering flavor combos that will have you rethinking the boundaries between sweet and savory. New wave ice-cream makers such as Humphry Slocombe and Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous cater to a more mature crowd, who hanker for creations such as Russian Imperial Stout, candied violet and Vietnamese Coffee. Even longtime institutions like Mission fixture Mitchell’s deliver inventive twists on traditional favorites, and food trucks also offer fresh approaches to frozen confections.
San Francisco’s best ice cream shops
Bi-Rite's creamy salted-caramel ice cream launched the craze for this heavenly pairing in San Francisco, and it's still the bar that all others strive to reach. Since then, it has introduced other taste sensations that have garnered cult followings, among them balsamic strawberry, brown sugar with ginger caramel swirl, honey lavender, basil and ricanelas (cinnamon with snickerdoodle cookies). Next door, the bake shop features house-made cupcakes, cookies and seasonal sweets. The Creamery is the offshoot of the gourmet Bi-Rite Market down the street, so if the line is too long, you can always opt for a pint or a quart from the store.
Dating back to 1864, Ghirardelli Square is the former factory of Domingo Ghirardelli, San Francisco's original chocolatier. The factory was long ago converted into a high-end shopping and dining complex, but the original chocolate manufactory and soda fountain is still the spot to pick up one-pound chocolate bars and indulge in enormous ice-cream sundaes and banana splits. If you're brave, team up and try the Earthquake: eight scoops of ice cream, eight toppings, fresh bananas, whipped cream, chopped almonds, semi-sweet chocolate chips and cherries in a trough-size bowl; or the more modest Ghirardelli Square—a classic sundae made with scoops of vanilla ice cream covered in hot fudge, whipped cream, chopped almonds and a cherry. Don't miss the demonstration production center at the back of the room where luscious melted chocolate sloshes around in big vats.
Humphry Slocombe caters to a decidedly grown-up crowd of ice-cream aficionados, with intriguing sweet-savory flavor combos that occasionally sound dubious, but taste fabulous. Popular choices on the constantly changing menu include Secret Breakfast, made with a base of anglaise ice cream, mixed with bourbon and corn flake cookies; pink grapefruit tarragon; Blue Bottle Vietnamese coffee; Russian Imperial Stout and Limoncello. The Mission District location is the main shop, but there's a small outlet at the Ferry Building Marketplace and limited flavors are served at Blue Bottle Coffee, restaurants such as Starbelly and Little Star Pizza, and Off the Grid food truck gatherings.
A contemporary take on an old-fashioned ice cream shop, Ice Cream Bar recalls the Golden Age of the soda fountain and lunch counter—complete with soda jerks in chevron hats and bow ties, an authentic 1930s fountain carted in from Mackinaw City, Michigan, and Streamline Moderne decor. The fountain features updated and upscale interpretations of 1940s and '50s ice-cream treats—cones, floats, phosphates, sundaes, malts, milkshakes, ice-cream sandwiches and Lactarts (flavored sodas made with lactart, a milk acid). There's also a savory menu with nostalgic items such as tuna melts and grilled cheese sandwiches. Everything is made in-house, including the cones, the cookies for the ice-cream sandwiches and the hot dog buns. The Art Deco bar at the back of the room offers grown-up fountain drinks, including “remedies” like the Royal Red Milkshake: Duchesse De Bourgogne Flemish Red Ale, Sandeman Royal Ambrosante, 20-year-old sherry, cherry ice cream, and turbinado syrup.
This old-fashioned mom-and-pop shop on the outskirts of the Mission District opened in 1953 and the lines haven't let up since. There are no fancy machines here—Mitchell's just creates seriously good ice cream. Along with traditional favorites such as Grasshopper Pie (peppermint ice cream with chocolate chips, Oreo cookies and fudge swirls), caramel praline, and Mexican chocolate (dark chocolate infused with cinnamon), Mitchell's makes a whole series of exotic tropical flavors—mango, langka (a tart melon), halo halo (sweet bean) and the incredible macapuno (meaty coconut) and buko (sweet baby coconut), which should be ordered on a cone with chocolate dip. The best part—they're open until 11:30pm. on weekends.
Started by two former pastry chefs, this artisanal ice cream parlor offers kid favorites like chocolate chip, peanut brittle and strawnana (strawberry banana) alongside sophisticated hybrid flavors such as candied violet, white sesame, and the wildly popular Ballpark—a blend of Anchor Steam beer ice cream, roasted peanuts and chocolate-covered pretzels. Frozen custard, White Rabbit (condensed milk and white chocolate) and sundaes made with house-made hot fudge, butterscotch or pineapple sauce are decadent options alongside the daily changing scoops.