The Bay Area ice cream guide (in progress)

With nearly 15 years in the Bay Area, and having lived in both SF and various parts of the East Bay, I’ve tried a lot of ice cream 'round these parts. We have some incredible options, both “local” (started here), and “import” (mini-chains like Salt & Straw). Many of them change their flavors quite often and unless you’re really dedicated to trying them all each month, you’ll probably miss some. But are they all worth trying and returning to? And perhaps more importantly, which ones that you haven’t tried might be more likely to match what you love about ice cream? Here I’ll try to answer some of those questions, based on my subjective experience, and with some opinions on what I think is worthwhile or not. But I also hope to help you find ice cream that’s right for you, even if it’s not what I personally what I prefer. Because each of these places has unique aspects that just might fit your particular taste.

I’ll expand my thoughts on each one of these in a dedicated topic over time. Also note, you can jump to the bottom of this topic for some details on the subjective qualities I may use for descriptions.

Shops and In-store

Companies that have permanent physical locations and/or broad store distribution.

Humphry Slocombe

  • Good for: innovative flavor combinations, local collaborations, availability
  • Not so good for: ice cream texture, mix-in texture, consistency, keeping flavors in stock, price, sizes (no split scoops)
  • Stand-out flavors: Brown Butter, Fluffernutter, Cinnamon Brittle, Besan Burfi

One of the first of a newer generation of ice cream shops (the ice cream revolution, if you will?) focusing on unusual and creative flavors. About half of their ice cream will typically have mix-ins, in my experience, while the rest are often simpler combinations or even single flavors (e.g. Vietnamese Coffee). I have been wow’d by some of their combinations over the years, but ice cream texture and mix-in handling have never been their strongest qualities. And as a result, their flagship flavor “Secret Breakfast” has always disappointed me (soggy Corn Flakes? no, thanks). They’re also one of the few in the area that frequently experiments with boozy flavors, including Beer Week specials with e.g. Stout Ice Cream.

Unfortunately, as they’ve expanded locations and into local grocery distribution, I do feel overall quality and consistency have gone down. They still have occasional hits, but I don’t visit that often now that other, more consistently outstanding options are available. Further discouraging me from visiting are also their higher prices and no “split scoop” policy, as of a couple of years ago. Prior to that I was glad to sample more often, but now it’s a bigger “investment”, nearly $6 for a “small”, and only one flavor at that.

Salt & Straw

  • Good for: some of the most successful innovation, ice cream texture (usually), variety, sizes
  • Not so good for: lines (certain times of day), no East Bay locations (yet), frequent innovation (repeated flavors year-to-year)
  • Stand-out flavors: everything Thanksgiving (multiple flavors), Dracula’s Blood Pudding, Smoked Salt and Chocolate Crack

An innovative Portland, OR import with several locations in the Bay Area now. Unfortunately nothing on my side (East Bay) yet, but I’m hopeful. Their ice cream tends to often have mix-ins, and fortunately their handling of them is generally good, though not always (occasionally some things end up soggy/chewy). Flavor-wise, as an increasingly large chain, they have a fairly consistent menu that changes month-to-month, but they do repeat flavors (sometimes with minor variations) from year-to-year in a particular season/month. That’s good if you really like a certain flavor and await its return each year, but it does mean less frequent genuine innovation. That said they have some of the most interesting inspiration, often coming from existing foods and dishes, even savory ones (like Thanksgiving turkey, or egg salad!), and they pull off an ice cream version of these dishes surprisingly well, enough of the time to keep me coming back. And in general they are one of the highest quality and most consistent spots in the area. I recommend going earlier in the day and on weekdays to avoid likely weekend/evening lines, especially at the Hayes Valley location.


Companies which are mostly pop-ups, often at regularly changing locations. Some have limited store distribution.

Bad Walter’s Bootleg Ice Cream

  • Good for: ice cream texture, mix-in quality (crunchy stays crunchy!), intense flavors, innovation
  • Not so good for: not the best for variety (many flavors have similar elements), availability
  • Stand-out flavors: Campfire :heart_eyes:, Crazy Squares

A pandemic-era darling, started in Spring of 2020 by a brilliant and delightful woman out of her home kitchen, by October of that year she was doing weekly flavor drops. Then the county shut her down for not having a food production license! It took some time but she found a commercial kitchen to work and sell out of, and has been consistently putting out some pretty amazing - though almost always very intense - flavors since then. Mostly preorder-based, and with a fairly narrow 2hr pickup window, so availability is relatively limited. But it’s lactose free for you lactose intolerant folks! Her flavors tend to be heavy on mix-ins, almost nothing is just a simple, unmixed, pure ice cream, so if you’re more into simpler or purer flavors this is probably not your jam.

I’ll ding her just a bit on lack of “variety” as well, because there are usually only 2 flavors per week, and I also feel like a lot of her flavors have similar elements and tend to stick within a kind of “traditional” flavor zone. But what she does within that “zone” is often innovative and really delicious, and she has also made some genuinely crazy, yet very successful, flavors like Campfire (literally charred marshmallow, so good!), Goldilocks (passion fruit and graham cookies), Froot Looped (fruit loops flavored, hah), etc. I suspect the feeling of variety would be a lot greater if she was able to produce more flavors, and this is really a small complaint, relatively speaking. Bad Walter’s is some of the ice cream I return to again and again, and keep in my freezer almost always, so… that’s saying something.

Gone but Not Forgotten

Places that have closed.

Randy’s Best

Good for: consistency, ice cream texture
Not so good for: innovation (with some exceptions), sizes, sampling (not an option)
Stand-out flavors: only in memory (OK, Espresso Caramel and anything with Roasted Banana)

I basically created this entire category for Randy’s Best. This was an adorable little cart (run by an equally adorable and awesome guy) that would show up on weekends on Solano Ave in Albany/Berkeley, selling surprisingly excellent flavors. He had a lot of personal variations on classic flavors like espresso or passion fruit, and he always did a good job with them, but in general I felt like his flavors were a bit less innovative and out of the box than some others. That said they were almost always delicious, and the unique flavors he did create (like Roasted Banana and Honey) definitely stood out. He decided to close down and focus on other areas for his future, and as a young, talented guy I can’t begrudge his decision, but I do miss his ice cream. One of the other few I tended to keep stocked in my freezer!

By Texture

Ice Cream Base

The “base” of the ice cream is usually the largest component, the simple ice cream before mix-ins, swirls, etc. Each place typically has a base recipe (a different one for each type, e.g. ice cream vs. sorbet vs. various vegan bases), and what ingredients they include (stabilizers, emulsifiers, egg or no egg, dairy fat content) and how they make it (churn temperature, method, machine) will greatly affect the resulting texture. Even how it’s stored and served (temperature, humidity, and consistency of both) can have a notable effect.

Personally I love smooth, creamy, dense, and rich ice cream most of the time. But not everyone does. So my tastes and recommendations will tend to bias toward the smoother results, but I’ll try to call out notable makers whose texture is less dense and rich.

More “Rustic”, Grainy, even a bit Icy

If you don’t like ultra-creamy, or prefer more “rustic”, sort of grainy textures, these are good options.

  • De la Creamery

Mixed or Inconsistent

If you want your ice cream somewhere in-between “grainy” and “creamy”, or you like options that vary in this way (or you love being surprised, sometimes with icy, um, ice cream :face_with_raised_eyebrow:), then these are for you… Look, I’m trying to be charitable here, but I think sometimes these ones are just messing it up. :smile:

  • Humphry Slocombe

Smooth and Creamy

  • Mitchell’s
  • Bi-rite
  • Salt & Straw
  • Garden Creamery

Smooth Criminals

They’re, uh, criminally smooth? Seriously, the smoothest, consistently. Almost never icy.

  • Smitten - smoothest of the smooth! (thanks to liquid nitrogen)
  • Tara’s Organic
  • Bad Walter’s

Specialty Textures

Fluffy (shaved, “snow”), rolled, etc.


Few or No Mix-ins

Most flavors from these places don’t have mix-ins. Or if they do, they’re very small in size and not really a textural component (e.g. Smitten). There are exceptions. But if you prefer no mix-ins, these are your best options.

  • Garden Creamery
  • Tara’s Organic
  • Smitten
  • Polly Ann

Some Mix-ins, Sometimes Inconsistent Results

If you like mix-ins but don’t care as much about crispy things staying crispy, try some of these options.

  • Humphry Slocombe
  • Mitchell’s

Lots of Mix-ins, Generally Well Done

If you love mix-ins and you want crispy things to stay crispy, your options are mostly these.

  • Salt & Straw
  • Bad Walter’s

By Flavor Ranges and Specialties


  • De La Creamery - Mexican flavors
  • Garden Creamery - Hawaii
  • Mitchell’s - Pan-Asian

Childhood but Make it Adult

Some places just do a really good job distilling childhood into ice cream, but for adults. Whether it’s candy mix-ins, or even savory snacks turned salty-sweet. For those cravings, these are your best bets.

  • Bad Walter’s
  • Salt & Straw

Creative and Weird

  • Salt & Straw
  • Humphry Slocombe
  • Bi-rite

Guide to Review Criteria

Note that in this summary I won’t be rating every place on each of these, but will include what stands out to me. I hope to write longer reviews of each which will go into more depth.

  • Texture - the overall texture of the ice cream itself, which should be creamy, not icy
  • Mix-ins - how well they handle mix-ins, including preserving crunchy elements that should stay crunchy
  • Innovation - how innovative they are in flavor combinations, and how successful the actual results are to my subjective taste
  • Flavor variety - not just the sheer number of flavors, but the actual amount of differentiation between them
  • Consistency - how much you can rely on the qualities above to remain similar over time and between successive visits
  • Availability - number of physical locations as well as distribution in stores
  • Busyness/Lines (and best times to go) - my personal experience of how busy the place tends to be, relative to others, and any recommendations on when to go for shorter lines
  • Price - price relative to competitors
  • Sizes - the number of available sizes and whether you can get a sufficiently small (e.g. kid’s) and large (e.g. sampler) size, as well as whether you can get a “split scoop” (2 flavors in a “normal” size serving)
  • Vegan options - how many vegan options and how good they are (not my area of focus though, so I may not always have info on this)
  • Menu - how often do they update their flavors, and how clearly and easily do they make this info available
  • Unique qualities - anything that they do different and/or better than most others

Another Take

Here’s the SF Chronicle covering similar ground, with surprisingly little overlap. Truth be told I’ve only been to a handful of the choices on this list! Interestingly it features few of the more hyped options (many of which I’ve covered above, for better and worse). I’ll definitely need to check out some of these picks! (subscription needed, sadly)