7 Perfect Cups of Soft-Serve Ice Cream in SF

By Tamara Palmer  |  February 20, 2014

Despite a lack of summerlike temperatures outside, soft-serve ice cream is booming in San Francisco. With several new hot spot restaurants offering their own take on creamy, swirly soft-serve for dessert, it's not just food trucks and ice cream parlors getting a piece of the action. Here's a quick primer on the best places to find soft-serve in the city right now. If we missed your favorite, feel free to let us know in the comments.

  • Credit: Flickr/tastingsf

    The Old-School

    When Bruce Hill took over Picco in Larkspur in 2005, he inherited a soft-serve ice cream machine, sparking memories of an East Coast childhood spent devouring cones at carnivals, county fairs and the local Carvel. Knowing that soft-serve typically contains half the fat of regular ice cream, Hill started making his own with Straus Creamery's organic ice cream mix. He meticulously tweaked the recipe until he nailed the perfect texture and has gone on to great success serving it at Zero Zero and Pizzeria Picco as well. Hill even persuaded Straus to introduce the soft-serve mix that is now the local industry standard. "It's all based on my childhood memories," he admits, "so it's really just me trying to recapture my childhood."

    He's captured more than memories of being a kid. Hill told the New York Times that he was making six figures a year on soft-serve - and that was six years ago. Today, he continues to offer just two flavors: vanilla and chocolate, with a host of gourmet toppings like chipotle caramel sauce, housemade granola and Fiordolio olive oil. You can try out his latest mad-scientist move - Straus frozen custard - at the new Fog City on the Embarcadero. But more on that later.

  • Credit: Alta CA

    The New-School

    Daniel Patterson's new mid-Market restaurant Alta CA offers soft-serve sundaes in inventive combinations such as rocky road with swirls of pine, marshmallows and malt balls (pictured), milk and honey with vanilla, oats and star anise and root beer with vanilla and beer jam in a chocolate shell. 

    Another relative newcomer, TBD, is serving a daily rotation of flavors like salted persimmon, pistachio, marzipan with almond toffee and honey lavender topped with goodies like hearth-dried fruits, various nut pralines, candied citrus and brandied raisins.

    "Soft-serve to me is very Americana. For our staff and our guests, it resonates with a lot of nostalgic feelings," says TBD's Mark Liberman, who shares Bruce Hill's sentiments about childhood memories. "As much as I love ice cream, soft-serve is lower in fat, which allows us to really incorporate various flavors. And it has an amazing texture."

  • On the Go

    Most often spotted inside Golden Gate Park, Twirl and Dip is a truck dispensing soft-serve cups, cones and sundaes. The titular dip is made from local dark chocolate by TCHO, while sundae options include a honeycomb candy-laced number and an ode to pralines and cream with pecan praline candies and butterscotch sauce.

  • Credit: Flickr/apasciuto

    The Express Lane

    Bi-Rite Creamery is notorious for its gruesomely long ice cream lines, wrapping around the shop in front of Dolores Park. So you could say that its adjacent, much-shorter soft-serve window is the equivalent of an express lane with two dedicated soft-serve flavors like coffee, salted caramel, coconut malted vanilla and/or roasted banana waiting for you at the end. As a special bonus, you can throw any of the ice cream garnishes - like spiced pecans, Snickerdoodles or lemon gingersnaps - on top. 

  • Credit: Kristen Loken

    A Word on Frozen Custard

    Bruce Hill serves frozen custard rather than soft-serve for dessert at his newest restaurant Fog City. And despite local quick-service frozen dessert shops like Easy Breezy advertising frozen custard out of a soft-serve machine, Hill says there's no such thing. Frozen custard uses a special machine called a continuous-flow freezer and comes out in more of a scoopable texture, though its creaminess can be reminiscent of soft-serve. Beware of soft-serve ice cream masquerading all over town as frozen custard. Fog City's got the real deal.