When it comes to ice cream, I am savage. I habitually gobble every frozen treat, always craving more after licking through the last scoop in record time. And I have an inherent zeal for finding the quirkiest of flavors. From salty olive oil in San Francisco to betel leaf in Punjab all the way to dunking sorbet on my salad in Philadelphia, I have done it all. But sometimes, a trip back in time to the simplest of things is so gratifying.
I am a bit of a nostalgic guy, and while digital and tech are my games and toys, I frequently indulge in old fashioned and retro pop style. When it comes to culinary, this means conjuring a whiff of an old fashioned memory, a bite of mom’s Indian cooking or an old school gigantic sundae, devoid of modern day gastronomy an frills. And after finding many Alice in Wonderland Worlds in dessert, or voyaging through dessert havens across the earth, I returned to one of my favorite, quaint little food towns, Philadelphia. A town where I learned about myself and came to find one particular Willy Wonka style haven, stepping right out of a bygone era.
Franklin Fountain is an ice cream parlor, serving ice cream and sodas in a charming, old fashioned way. It was founded by brothers Eric and Ryan Berley, who still use fresh and local ingredients for their ice creams and homemade sodas. The confectionary literally transports visitors into a golden era of the 1900s. With a passion for history, the detailed vintage interiors and signage have visitors who travel miles and wait in lines that are equally as long, but worth the wait. Philadelphia itself is a city enriched in history, and every nook breathes of an era where people told stories instead of sending texts. The Berley brothers preserved this by even naming their parlor after Benjamin Franklin.
Fun fact: they took 18 months to recreate a porn shop called Eroticakes into a children friendly ice creamery!
The entire store, right from the Alice style entrance sign, is filled with paraphernalia from yesteryears. Old fashioned and boldly packaged turkish taffy bars and colorful glass soda bottles made way for a plethora of workers clad in traditional baker and server outfits. One of my favorite finds was Chiclet gum packet, ones that I used to gobble up in elementary school… and get in trouble for!
Marble countertops and ink printed mirrors as back walls with oak cabinets were interlaced with functional technology like vintage intercom, and even antique cash registers in rusty silver, all the way from 1910! Almost embracing me into a trance, the detailed interior decor made me forget what I had walked in for. There was a root beer keg with a Robin Hood style font sign that plunged me into my toddler nights of watching Disney in pajamas. A hand painted milk gallon embossed out of the center stood out, literally, from the vintage styled kitchenware.
On snapping out of my daydream, I started with one of the ice cream sundaes, which arrived in a large, epic metal bowl. Once again, a forgotten way to serve ice cream, and one that I used to devour through – until they got swapped out for plastic or styrofoam. It was a tumultuous task to pick one sundae, given the whimsy of ingredients and storytelling that reflected Benjamin Franklin’s own humorous personality. I evidently sympathized with myself by ordering the Southern Sympathizer: rum raisin and pistachio ice cream with salted pistachios, hot caramel, spicy cayenne pecans and sans the whipped cream. While a tad sweet, the spice and nutty crunch was a textural surprise for the retro fair happening in my mouth. What I learned about old fashioned ice cream was that it is exceptionally soft, and melted easily. Which is why, a few minutes into the massive sundae, it was a sugary soup!
The institution was known for its epic and simple sundae aptly titled Mount Vesuvius for its visible height. Chocolate and vanilla ice creams were atop brownies, with hot fudge and malt powder. While too simple for my gastronomical ambitions, I could see how the classic flavors and whimsical metaphor were an instant success.
There were a plethora of handmade flavors on the menu, which in turn was painted on long slabs of wood and pinned up to the walls. The array of homemade sodas were constructed with a flavored syrup mixed with seltzer and phosphates on the spot, offering a custom experience and recreating an era of the past when this was a habitual sight. They were arranged in a rhythmic rainbow pattern on the glass wall, almost like an adult version of a bar.
Ice cream floats inevitably had countless combinations, and on being unable to choose, I settled for two disparate ones, thus continuing my legacy of multiple sugar inhalations in one seating. My first was a grape soda with lavender ice cream, an ode to a former Pantone official hue purple. Definitely aesthetic, it was a floral, summery combination with light lavender flavors on sweet grape ones.
The second was a more palette-cleansing combination with a green tea ice cream in a lime lemon soda. Acting as a digestif, it was tangy, refreshing and satisfying.
As a destination store, this ice cream and soda shop did so much more than give people a sugar rush. It enlightened passerbys on a rich history and brought back forgotten flavors and times, when life was tranquil, and simple. And even the adventure seeker in me was genuinely thrilled by stepping back in time and witnessing a life well lived.