Why are Virginians once more converging on barstools and huddling over effervescent concoctions inspired by the classic soda fountain? You'll see.
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Pop’s patrons enjoying some after-school refreshments.
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Apple Pie and Orange Dreamsicle sodas at The Majestic Cafe.
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The Betty Boop at 9 ½ Lounge in Charlotttesville.
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Anna Robertson and Robert Davis of Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar in Roanoke.
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Cherry ice cream soda at Timberlake’s.
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The Majestic Cafe.
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Old-fashioned thick chocolate milk shake at Timberlake’s.
On a recent Saturday stroll through Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, it was hot, and nothing sounded better to me at that moment than an old-fashioned soda.
I found myself in front of a window sign advertising bubbly delights took me back to my childhood in Indiana where, every spring, my grandmother and I would go to Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor in Columbus. I remembered sipping my favorite cinnamon soda there—a mixture of cinnamon syrup, soda water, ice cream and whipped cream—and delighting in the pink foam that overflowed the glass like a science-fair volcano. I’ll never forget the glint of the cool marble counter and the shiny chrome stools and reveling in the feeling that I’d stepped back in time.
Nostalgia is hot these days. To the television shows like “Mad Men” and “Downton Abbey,” and the popularity of vintage clothing, allow me to add one more nostalgic trend: the resurgence of the old-fashioned soda fountain.
Bubbly water has always had appeal, thanks to its ability to settle the stomach, alleviate indigestion and relieve other common ailments. But it wasn’t until 1832, when British-born inventor John Matthews created a device that could carbonate enough water at one time for a street vendor to have plenty to sell, that soda became something anyone could buy.
Soda water had emerged as a natural mixer for medicine in the 1800s. Thus, soda fountains cropped up inside pharmacies. Behind the counter, proprietors began experimenting with flavoring agents they could use to make the taste of medicine more appealing. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon for medicinal sodas to include such substances as tobacco, cocaine, morphine and arsenic, all believed to be harmless, if not actually helpful.
In the early 1900s, however, government regulation restricted the types of stimulant substances that could be used in soda fountains. That, coupled with luxury taxes imposed by World War I and the development of bottled soda, forced soda fountain owners to add food to their menus and more ice cream to their sodas to keep business afloat.
Even a drink like hot chocolate traces its roots back to the soda fountain. Though “cool drinks were the primary choice for summer, hot soda was preferred in the winter,” writes Darcy O’Neil, author of Fix the Pumps, a history of the soda fountain. “These drinks did not have any soda water in them, but most proprietors didn’t make this distinction because everything at the soda fountain was considered soda. ... Some of them were coffee with vanilla syrup or bourbon with a dash of celery bitters. Hot chocolate [often ordered by the slang term Snow Shoe] was another popular choice.”
Another retro-inspired drink is the egg cream soda, a favorite of visiting and transplanted New Yorkers. The original chocolate egg cream recipe is said to have been developed at a candy store down from the corner of Second Avenue and Eighth Street in Brooklyn, though who actually made the first one has been subject to longtime debate. Today’s best known version calls for milk, soda water and Brooklyn-made Fox’s U-bet chocolate syrup.
Many modern interpretations of the egg cream soda do not contain an egg—the word “egg” in the title is thought to be left over from some of the earliest soda-fountain chocolate “milkshake” recipes, which included a whole egg and heavy cream or ice cream.
Scales of economy are apparent even in some of today’s oldest soda fountains, where most soda beverages are made with bottled syrups, soda water from the soft drink machine and whipped cream from the can. Proprietors who mix their own homemade syrups, carbonate their water onsite and even make homemade whipped cream, as they did in the earliest days of the fountain, are rare.
Happily, Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar in downtown Roanoke is one of the few establishments that do things the old-fashioned way. Owners Anna Robertson, 39, and Brandon Davis, 46, opened their shop ten years ago. They’ve managed to curate a serious throwback space, right down to the repurposed booths, traditional Libbey glassware and reclaimed Formica tabletops. “I had to research Formica to try to get our new [bar] countertop to look like the tabletops,” says Davis. “And this, I think, was the first pattern they ever made.”
“I saw an ad in a 1930s issue of Life magazine with a picture of our glass as well as another 1930s Life cover photo of Rita Hayworth drinking an ice cream soda out of the same glass,” says Robertson.
“The soda fountain is the heart of our business, really,” says Davis, but it sort of happened by accident. “We were planning at first to make ice cream, and we found the soda fountain online,” says Robertson of the 1930s-era fountain they bought on eBay. “The machine itself just had style ... with all this chrome and these curves and porcelain cups for holding the syrups and toppings. Even the sterling silver ladle is beautiful.”
During my visit, Robertson prepares a classic Black & White soda made with house-made chocolate syrup, homemade whipped cream, soda water carbonated onsite, and vanilla ice cream from the nearby Homestead Creamery: “Ours is real, stretchy, gooey ice cream,” says Davis, “it’s custard-based.” All I know is that it is delicious, rich and fresh. A cold, crackly coating forms where the bubbles meet the edge of the ice cream. The whipped cream gives a rich mouth feel and the ice cream is firm in just the right way. Though the soda is served in a small, sensible-size glass (not the super-size to which we’ve become accustomed), the whole effect is satisfying in a way no fast-food milk shake could ever be.
Pop’s menu also includes local food, non-alcoholic rickeys (carbonated drinks make made with a base of fresh-squeezed juice and soda water) and even a homemade cola in lieu of Coke or Pepsi, which they dispense from a lever on the fountain that must be pulled forward in a jerk-like motion—hence the name “soda jerks.”
In another nod to the past, Robertson and Davis use recipes from a vintage 1940s guide to soda fountain proprietorship called Let’s Sell Ice Cream. “It has everything you’d want to know about running a soda fountain,” says Robertson, “from repairs and maintenance of the fountain and freezers to hygiene for employees. There are even posters on what the male and female uniforms should look like. It saved our lives, because we looked around the area to find information on operating soda fountains, and we couldn’t find anything.”
It’s this type of appreciation for craftsmanship, attention to detail and respect for real food that makes Pop’s both a throwback and a modern invention, appealing to those interested in today’s local, artisanal food revival. In that same spirit, the soda fountain is inspiring mixologists at bars and restaurants to create distinctive, high-quality cocktail alternatives.
“We’re trying to offer an option for people who want something that’s good, that’s interesting and fresh without having to include alcohol,” says Daniel Orkwis, beverage director and manager at The Majestic in Old Town Alexandria. The Majestic serves seasonal house-made sodas consisting of homemade syrups mixed with a combination of fruits, herbs or spices and soda water. Lighter than the typical fountain drink, the restaurant’s orange cream soda, served simply in a pint glass with a little ice, is refreshing, with a bit of floral on the finish. Orkwis hopes to bring on a blackberry soda and possibly a strawberry rhubarb soda soon. “Spring is very exciting, because you have all these berries,” he says, “and it’s just fun to dig into a pint of blackberries.”
Those who prefer a little booze with their bubbles have also been influenced by the soda fountain. At 9 ½ Lounge in Charlottesville, manager and bartender Joann Dunkle is developing cocktails against the backdrop of a swanky, near-secret space above her family’s restaurant, Fellini’s #9, in a bid to recreate a Prohibition-era watering hole like that of the Patterson House in Nashville and the Violet Hour in Chicago.
Many of Dunkle’s drinks are inspired by the late 1800s and early 1900s when pharmacists used fruit juices, syrups and other flavoring agents to help the medicine go down. Her house-made tonic is made from Cinchona bark, lemongrass and zest and juice from lemons, limes and oranges. Mixed with vodka and finished with soda water from an antique soda gun, the tonic has a sharp, earthy flavor that mellows with each sip. There’s also the Bronx Cheer, which contains raspberry vinegar, long used for its medicinal properties, combined with Sailor Jerry spiced rum, white crème de cacao, Fee Brothers old-fashioned bitters and soda, and garnished with a blueberry sour string.
For something that blends the complex cocktail with the innocence of the ice cream soda, Dunkle suggests the Betty Boop. “This is my take on a root beer float,” she says. It’s made with rum for a hint of vanilla combined with Galliano, a sweet herbal liqueur with a star anise flavor, coffee liqueur, a tiny drop of sarsaparilla extract and Coca Cola. Dunkle adds two small scoops of vanilla ice cream, drizzles a bit more sarsaparilla on top and garnishes it with a licorice stick. The first sip is stout but delicious. As the ice cream melts, the drink becomes smoother.
But for the classic version of the soda, there may be no better place to go than Timberlake’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain in Charlottesville—one of Virginia’s oldest soda-fountain establishments, in business since 1890. Still a full-service pharmacy and drug store, Timberlake’s drinks are made to order, just like the old days. “That’s where all of our popularity comes from today,” says owner John Plantz. “It’s still like it was 50 years ago.” Though the space has been remodeled, its original character has remained intact. Chrome barstools with cherry-red tops line up neatly beneath a granite countertop. A giant wood-trimmed mirror stretches across one wall. Photos of the original shop hang on the opposite wall. There’s even a fireplace at the end of the counter that heats the store on cold days.
And you can still order classics like milk shakes, chocolate egg cream sodas and a variety of sundaes. I order a cherry soda, made with soda water, cherry syrup and vanilla ice cream. It’s served on a saucer, because any soda jerk worth her fizz will offer something to catch all that foam. It tastes as delightful as it looks.
Charlottesville native Rob Coles, 63, is at Timberlake’s almost every day. (Coles is himself a local institution, being the fifth great-grandson of the father of the University of Virginia.) He remembers coming to Timberlake’s as a child. “Back then, you couldn’t have ice cream soda at home because you didn’t have the paraphernalia,” he explains. “We had an ice box at home but nothing like this. That very thing makes it a treat.”
Perhaps the authenticity and deep history of the traditional soda fountain is what has made soda beverages endure through changing tastes and fads. Or it could be that the fizzy drinks they produce just taste, well, really good. “For me,” says The Majestic’s Orkwis, “it’s just about taking something fresh and making something delicious out of it ... something people want to taste and share.” I’ll drink to that.
A Swell Sip
Head to one of these establishments for a delicious soda fountain-inspired beverage this summer.
Timberlake’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain
322 E. Main St
Goolrick’s Modern Pharmacy
901 Caroline St.
Pop’s Ice Cream & Soda Bar
1916 Memorial Ave. SW
911 King St.
200 W. Market St.