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A haven for soda jerks at The Ice Cream Bar

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Soda jerk Leo Piller dons his white cap proudly to dispense artfully crafted soda cocktails and ice cream wonders. - JUAN PARDO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Juan Pardo/Special to The S.F. Examiner
  • Soda jerk Leo Piller dons his white cap proudly to dispense artfully crafted soda cocktails and ice cream wonders.

When someone loves sugar as much as Juliet Pries, it might not surprise you when she says she bought and shipped every piece of an antique soda fountain from Mackinaw City, Mich., to The City's Cole Valley neighborhood. Across the white-marble counters, her crew of soda jerks in white collars and black bowties scoop ice cream, measure syrups and pour drinks for first dates, neighborhood folks and city bartenders. When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, some bartenders migrated to the soda fountains to expand on craft drink-making, given their limitations. Pries has brought what was once a neighborhood staple back to the center of a cozy San Francisco block. This place has more tinctures, bitters and syrups than most serious bars in The City do, and they're all made from scratch. Over enough sugar for the week, we sat and chatted with soda jerk Leo Piller and got as boozy as we could, in the sweetest way possible.

You seem very passionate about soda. Is that funny to ask? I started doing this scooping ice cream. But once you start to read the history about it, it became very interesting to me. It's something that was lost and we wanna get it back.

So you came in knowing you'd be scooping ice cream, but it looks like this job turned out to be something more than you expected. I didn't really know what to expect. I'd only been in once. I had a scoop of butterscotch and I was hooked. I live around the corner. I just came in one day, dropped off a résumé and the rest is history.

I always ask people who live near their jobs: Are you ever late for work? Oh yeah. I've got no excuse.

That cola totally changed the way I think about soda. This is what sodas were originally. There's more citrus in it. That's closer to what colas were originally. Now you don't know what the flavor is in cola. You can't pinpoint it. They're highly carbonated.

What kind of crowd comes around here? We get a lot of mixologists, a lot of first dates, a lot of Internet dates. We get people who come in here almost every day. It's also really cool to see older people come in here and be excited to get something they used to get when they were a kid.

So once you started working here, did you ever have another canned soda again? Not really. There's a soda shop on Haight [Street] that sells bottled sodas. Once in a while, I get curious. Sometimes it's nice to taste something else to see if I can bring those flavors here.

You probably get grilled for questions more than the average bartender. It's interesting to make all the tinctures from the herbs. Rather than basing drinks off of alcohol, it's sort of no-limits to what we can do with flavors, so they're gonna be curious. We're always back here, trying stuff. And we haven't even tried all the herbs and spices yet. It's pretty fascinating.

SHERRY TRIFLE

Splash of soda water

1 small (2-oz.) scoop banana pudding ice cream

1 small (2-oz.) scoop morello cherry ice cream

2 oz. Bodegas Hidalgo Alameda cream sherry

1 dash mace tincture

Scoop ice creams into 8-ounce glass. Pour sherry over ice cream, add dash of mace tincture and a splash of soda water. Top with whipped cream and vanilla wafer.

Note: Mace tincture may be substituted with a small pinch of freshly ground nutmeg, or mace. Ice creams may be substituted with one fruit based (such as strawberry or raspberry), and one custard based (such as French vanilla).