THE NOSTALGIA FACTOR of soft serve ice cream is strong, right up there with screaming hysterically behind the ice cream truck as if a Firecracker Popsicle were the only thing between you and certain death.
Soft serve was more of a family occasion: Pile everyone in the car, drive a few minutes to the nearest option (often a Dairy Queen, but independent soft-serve-and-burgers shacks were legion) and perch on a curb or picnic table so your dipped cones and ice-cream-covered faces wouldn’t drip all over the car. Unlike the ice cream truck experience, adult companions — relatives, neighbors, friends’ parents — would get their own soft serve. Somehow, possibly through magic, it wouldn’t end up all over their faces.
Within Seattle city limits, this experience was a challenge. The closest Dairy Queen involved a bridge, ferry or highway slog to Burien, Renton or Everett, none of which counts as a “drive a few minutes” summer dessert option. The few alternatives were hard to find, or sported an unreliable machine.
But now a quiet soft-serve movement has built strength through two chilly summers, reaching easy accessibility across the south end of Seattle. It’s also a lot more varied than anything I experienced as a kid.
The first of the new crop remains my favorite. Milk Drunk (2805 Beacon Ave. S.) opened mid-2020, and food critics with less of a sweet tooth than I focused praise on their sandwiches, rather than their exceptional soft serve. There are six flavors — two vegan, two not, two seasonal — and the dairy-based vanilla and malted chocolate swirl cone is an almost-preposterous upgrade in texture and flavor compared to the fast food standard. They have bowls and classic cake cones, but the spiced sweetness of their waffle cone is a nice touch, as are add-ons such as a house-made hard shell. Bonus: It’s less than 300 feet from the Beacon Hill light rail station, removing the car from future nostalgia fests.
If the cone is critical, you need to get to The Flora Bakehouse (1511 S. Lucile St.), where you can experience the genius of a fresh croissant used as a soft serve cone. With their classic-tasting sweet vanilla soft serve (they also always have a vegan flavor), the salty, buttery croissant flavors ramp up in a beautifully balanced way. Yes, the flakiness adds to the drippy mess. Yes, it is worth it. Seasonal sundaes keep things a bit tidier. Last spring, one was Eton Mess-inspired, with vanilla soft serve, meringue crisps and rhubarb sauce. The other was Halo Halo-inspired, with vegan ube soft serve adorned with mango coulis and toasted coconut.
Unlike places where soft serve is part of a broader meal menu, Georgetown’s Matcha Man (6014 12th Ave. S.) is a specialist, serving taiyaki and soft serve since opening in spring 2021. Options abound: Choose a box or chewy-crisp fish-shaped taiyaki to fill with one of six soft serve flavors (or a swirl), decide whether the taiyaki should have a filling (custard, ube jam or red bean paste) and finish off with toppings from Pocky to sweetened condensed milk or crumbled Oreos. Flavors rotate frequently, but on every visit, one has been the irresistible pineapple joy known as Dole Whip.
The Mount Baker coffee shop BrightSpot (2809 Mount Rainier Drive S.) has two flavors, both vegan, like the colorful flavored waffle cones made by The Konery, in Brooklyn. Their oat milk base has a lighter, faintly icy texture compared to the similarly vegan Dole Whip or the richer soy-coconut milk combo The Flora Bakehouse uses. On a hot afternoon after biking up the hill from the lake, that iciness is appreciated.
If all of this seems too fancy — or expensive, as prices for the above options start at around $5 for a small and go up substantially, depending on size, cone upgrades and add-ons — head to Sodo’s Pick Quick drive-in (2990 Fourth Ave. S.), where you can get a mild, marshmallow-y cone that the sign emphatically declares “natural, real ice cream” for less than $3.
Will your kids drip it all over themselves and your car, and grow up to wax nostalgic over the experience? Will they remember it fondly, wherever you take them? Yes, and absolutely yes.