San Francisco does a few things better than any other city in the country. Bread, fog banks, athleisure, and most importantly, ice cream.
And after a long summer-that-mostly-feels-like-winter, the fog is lifting - and that means ice cream season is upon us. SF is full of incredible options, from old-school mom-and-pop corner stores to technologically dubious but very delicious scientific creations. With so many options, you need to be eating the best of the best, not a carton of chemical ice that’s only 240 calories for an entire pint. Which is why, after extensive data collection and analysis (i.e. eating as much as humanly possible), we’ve built our official SF Ice Cream Power Rankings - these are the 14 places you need to be eating ice cream right now.
Secret. Breakfast. Those are two critical words to combine and use often. This is the best flavor at Humphry - maybe because it’s bourbon-in-your-breakfast-cereal ice cream or maybe because the chunks of corn flakes are well-dispersed and delicious. There are Humphry locations in both the Mission and the Ferry Building, and since they’ve been around for a while, the lines are never insane at either. The cinnamon tres leches is also worth trying, and whatever crazy seasonal sh*t they think up almost always nails it too. This is undoubtedly the best ice cream in the whole city.
Being Dolores Park-adjacent leads to abominable lines at Bi-Rite on the weekends. And at night. And during the day. But said lines move quickly, and if you’re impatient to get your sugar fix, there’s a little takeout window with soft serve and a few of the best regular flavors (balsamic strawberry, salted caramel, toffee coffee) in cups to go. If you have the time though, it’s worth getting in line for multiple scoops and pushing the limits of the tasting policy. Whichever you choose, the texture will be creamy and perfect, and the flavors are creative without being too weird.
Smitten - which makes its ice cream in typically precious SF fashion using liquid nitrogen and maybe even algorithms - could easily be dismissed as a smoke and mirrors operation. Except that all that dry ice smoke and the mirrored custom-made machines result in phenomenal ice cream. And given that Smitten has undertaken an extensive campaign to take over all of San Francisco, the lines are way shorter than they used to be. In terms of your order, the cookie dough with pretzels and strawberry mascarpone are the way to go. Science rules.
Not a place you are likely to casually stumble across, Shakedown is no-frills and all business. This tiny spot in the Tenderloin does insane milkshakes that will rearrange your life priorities, taking children, pets, and oxygen down a few notches. The Derby Pie is their most intoxicating elixir, but they sometimes run out of the walnut cookie bourbon ice cream that is the key ingredient, so brace yourself for that possibility. The flavors do change frequently, so it’s sort of luck of the draw, but the Jacker Crack is also a good move. Either way have your spoon ready - straws are inefficient and just lead to brain freeze.
Garden Creamery is a newcomer and they are coming in strong. They have a gimmicky churro cone only sold on Saturdays, but they don’t need it - the ice cream stands up on its own. The flavors are mostly Asian-inspired, with some traditional options thrown in the mix as well. We like the roasted almond oolong, and the extensive non-dairy section is worth investigating (get the earl grey). Opening up shop a few blocks away from Bi-Rite is a power move we can respect.
No matter how good your ice cream is, it’s important that people be able to access it in a relatively reasonable manner. And when the line is so overwhelming and moves so slowly that you have to go around the corner to Smitten for a pregame, you’re going to get docked some points. While you can cut the line at Salt & Straw and grab a pint to-go, this is ice cream that’s definitely better fresh-scooped, yet it takes a solid hour (or more) out of your day to acquire. Having said that, this is incredible ice cream - everything from the honey lavender and the roasted strawberry to the almond brittle are delightful. Warning: if you try to get weird (i.e. zucchini bread ice cream) it doesn’t always go as well.
This one probably won’t be acceptable to the ice cream purists, but we don’t care. When a concoction is made of condensed milk and tastes this good it matters very little what official definition of dessert category it falls into. The cereal snow with cinnamon sugar is basically the frozen version of cinnamon toast crunch and the matcha topped with mochi is amazing too. As an added plus, the texture of the ice cream is super-airy so you can eat a large size without feeling gross. And you will want a large size.
Mr. & Mrs. Miscellaneous plays pretty hard to get. They’re closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and only open until 6pm, so you have to keep this Dogpatch spot in consideration for daytime consumption only. But it’s some of the best ice cream around - because the quality of ingredients is very high and maybe also because they always have at least one flavor that involves alcohol. Get one of the homemade cones and call it a day.
Unless you work at Facebook, it’s pretty rare to see adult humans walking around in the middle of the day eating ice cream cones. Coletta, in SOMA and very close to FiDi, is well-positioned to make that sighting more common. The little scoop shop is very simple (minus the enormous mural of a hand holding gelato) and does a perfect pistachio and gianduia (chocolate hazelnut). Take a walking meeting and go here.
If you can get excited about a small selection of extremely rich gelato, Lush is for you. The flavors can be a little weird, involving ricotta or blue cheese, but this spot still makes it into our top 10. Lush is more of a grab and go situation (there are only a couple of seats inside), and we’d suggest the mint, creme brulee, or dulce de leche.
A very old-school spot on a corner of Russian Hill, Swensen’s is an SF classic that has more than stood the test of time. All the flavors are classics, despite the confusing convention of labeling certain ones ‘sticky’ for an unclear reason (isn’t all ice cream sticky?). The black raspberry swirl, cookies ’n cream, and thin mints are our go-to’s (always in one of their superb cones). Bring the kids or people who fear mint ice cream called ‘grasshopper’ or anything outside the chocolate/vanilla spectrum.
Boozy milkshakes are dumb if you’re trying to get drunk. But they’re not dumb if you just want to give your afternoon a little kick, a scenario in which Ice Cream Bar is here for you. The PX Pie, with pumpkin ice cream and beer, and the Dublin Honey (Guinness with port and honey ice cream) are both excellent, and if you can finish an entire shake in a sitting, then please apply for a job with us. The Cole Valley spot is set up as a retro ice cream fountain, though the ice cream flavors are modern and change seasonally - the cherry, basil, or caramelized honey are all excellent.
When you want to live on the edge and let the winds of fate dictate what ice cream you’re going to consume, you have two options: blindly opening the grocery store freezer and grabbing a random pint (or tub of frozen gravy) or going to Polly Ann in the Sunset. Show up, have one of the scoopers spin the wheel, and take what you’re given. Ok fine, you can actually choose the one it lands on, or one of the options on either side of it, but in any case, it’s a good way to get out of your vanilla rut. Flavors range from more classic to Asian-influenced (green tea, durian, black sesame, jasmine). This is by far the best ice cream option in the Sunset.
This place might be a pure novelty ploy to get you to take (geotagged) pictures of your adorable fish-cone with pretty, colored ice cream in it. And even though those social media-friendly fish are not the most structurally sound delivery devices for soft-serve, the black sesame and matcha are surprisingly delicious. Those cones taste pretty great too - if you can get to them before they go soggy. Uji is a place you definitely have to be looking for, since it’s located inside the mall in Japantown, but it’s worth a trip if you want something way more interesting soft serve than a chocolate-vanilla swirl.