Whether we need to thank Dairy Queen, Carvel or Margaret Thatcher, soft-serve ice cream was the most delightful invention to come out of the early 20th century. Just wrapping your fingers around a blond, scratchy, paper-like cone topped with a fantastical swirl is enough to make you forget your worldly cares, if only for a moment.
Soft serve has come a long way since the days of Mr. Softee, though. Flavors go far beyond the traditional territory demarcated by chocolate and vanilla and dip into the realm of exotic, whimsical and even savory — although the classics still have their place.
Here’s 15 places in Philly to scoop up a sweet cup or cone of fun.
Hysterically irreverent Twitter and Instagram feeds are enough to make this shop endearing even if it is an NYC export, but the ice cream is better than average (it’s made with milk from organic, family-run Ronnybrook Farm Dairy), and the pre-designed combos are inspired — it’s not many places you regularly see servers grinding fresh sea salt over your cone (521 S. Broad St. — entrance on South, 267-886-8024).
Not only can you get pop-tarts, hamburger-shaped cookies, cupcakes and pizza at this G-Ho shop from the owner of Sidecar Bar and Kraftwork, you can get chocolate and vanilla cones, too. As might be expected from a full-service bakery, toppings are on fleek, ranging from carrot cake to lemon curd to salted caramel goo (2204 Washington Ave., 267-639-4267).
The fior di latte soft serve at Marc Vetri’s pizzeria is bright, tangy and extremely refreshing, especially if you’ve just housed a margherita pie or two. There’s no cones, but that’s just even more reason to go affogato — espresso-topped ice cream is summer’s ultimate pick-me-up (1939 Callowhill St., 215-600-2629; 1615 Chancellor St., 215-763-3760).
Vetri’s North Broad birreria does soft serve too, but in changing flavors made with fresh fruits according to what’s in season. Blueberry, watermelon, mango and concord grape have all made appearances, but if you want to take things up a notch, go with regular fior di latte blended with raspberry ale in a sinfully good beer milkshake (1410 Mt. Vernon St., 215-600-0017).
Nothing at this mischievously esoteric dumpling house is standard, from the anthropomorphized bao buns on on the walls to the bubble waffle with Nutella dip for dessert, and that includes the soft serve flavors. Recent offerings include guava, chile-mango, Thai coconut and cherry sake. You can get a sugar cone with your swirl, too (1648 E. Passyunk Ave., 215-279-7702).
Like just about everything else at this street food cocktail lounge next to Rittenhouse Square, the soft serve is vegan, but you’d never know it. Sweet veg whiz Kate Jacoby blends up creamy concoctions and serves them in unique combos, like kumquat creamsicle and Cuban coffee with guava bars. Tip: word is the restaurant keeps a secret stash of cones on hand if you want to take your dessert to go (126 S. 19th St., 215-278-7943).
A night of dim sum and satay at this Midtown Village restaurant where the walls glow violet, emerald and fuchsia is best finished off with the trio of miniature sugar cones, each containing a bite-sized dollop of soft serve. Breakfast cereals often show up on the flavor list, which has included Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Honey Nut Cheerios and coconut Froot Loops (124 S. 13th St., 215-732-3501).
Cereal not only goes into the ice cream at this Wash West beer hang, it also gets sprinkled on top. Because nothing makes Fruity Pebbles soft serve better than a sprinkling of more Fruity Pebbles (941 Spruce St., 215-627-5200).
Soft serve sundaes are a dessert staple at this wood-fired cooking haven on Walnut — the ice cream doesn’t roast in the oven, but it’s just as rich as any of the savory dishes served. The flavor rotates — sometimes it’s vanilla, but it could just as likely be strawberry or coffee (1121 Walnut St., 267-225-8232).
Stephen Starr’s Fishtown beer garden is open year round, but summer’s the best time to take advantage of ice cream. If you’re not up for one of the boozy shakes (Jack ‘n’ Smores is better than it ought to be), a chocolate or vanilla cone will do you right (1210 Frankford Ave., 215-634-3338).
There’s something for everyone at this candy-striped ice cream parlor with three locations around the city, and that includes soft serve — or as it’s called on this menu, custard. Also a good option: housemade “chipwich” soft serve surrounded by two giant cookies (2004 Fairmount Ave., 215-232-7748; 343 S. 13th St., 267-519-8982; 44 S. 19th St., 267-928-4079).
It might be officially called custard here, too, but the menu description for the frozen dessert at this Danny Meyer burger chain clearly describes it as ice cream. We’ll just go with soft serve — get it on its own, or even better, blended in a “concrete” with Termini Bros. cannoli shells or chunks of Federal Donuts (2000 Sansom St., 215-809-1742; 3200 Chestnut St., 267-338-3464).
This summer’s egg shortage is forcing this water ice chain to sub out its custard for actual soft serve ice cream, available in chocolate, vanilla or a twist. However, it’s a short-lived swap, according to the corporate website, which notes: “Our company is built on ‘ice, custard and happiness’ so we will transition back to our award-winning Frozen Custard as soon as the nationwide egg supply returns to a stable level.” (multiple locations)
Somewhat hidden at the north end of East Passyunk (but familiar to patrons of the Royal Tavern) is this creamery, which offers classic soft serve swirls with a huge variety of nut, fruit and candy toppings (932 E. Passyunk Ave., 267-319-1808).
This Roxborough dessert shop has been run by the same family for the past half century, and even better than the down-home service is the fact that orange joins vanilla and chocolate on the soft serve flavor list (5461 Ridge Ave., 215-487-1920).