“You look like a raspberry sundae,” pronounced the small, gray-haired man in a white smock.
We had just entered an ice cream parlor on 55th Street, lured there by the unmistakable sound of a wire whip cutting through cream. We were a little puzzled, but the man spoke with such authority that we didn’t argue. We meekly followed as he led us to a small table underneath a fan on the ceiling.
The coolness of the immaculate room, all black and white, was a welcome respite from the sweltering day.
That was our introduction to the eccentric world of Old-fashioned Mr. Jennings, one of a handful of New York City’s honest-to-goodness ice cream parlors. These havens of super-thick cream and rich hot fudge make perfect stops during a day of shopping or sightseeing on a steamy summer day in Manhattan. As most also offer sandwiches and salads, they’re inexpensive lunch stops.
Opened at Bonwit’s
Louis Jennings brought us our raspberry sundaes. He said he opened his first soda fountain on the ninth floor of the old Bonwit Teller department store, where a whole generation of New York City children had been taken by mothers and grandmothers.
Today his 55th Street parlor caters to stars and society matrons, in addition to Fifth Avenue shoppers and office workers from nearby high-rises.
If his sundaes are not the best in New York City, they are certainly contenders. The ice cream, made on the premises, was rich, while the raspberry sauce was fresh and not overly sweet. Jennings still whips his cream in the same pewter bowl he first used.
“If it isn’t pure, hand-whipped cream, we don’t serve it,” he said. Believing that cherries and cream should not be mixed, he never puts a cherry on top. He uses a strawberry instead.
Scoffing at those who scorn such concoctions because of calories and cholesterol, Jennings said: “Ice cream is the only food you can eat that will never upset your stomach.”
Sandwiches and Salads
In addition to various flavored sundaes and sodas, Jennings serves sandwiches and salads that cost $6 to $9. The sundaes come in two sizes. Regulars start at $4.65 and supremes at $7.15.
Banana splits and special sundaes, such as the Fruit of the Azores--pineapple, an assortment of ice creams, fresh strawberries and raspberries, whipped cream, fudge, butterscotch and creme de menthe--are close to $9. Sodas, shakes and fresh fruit libations are $5.50 to $7.50.
A more conventional ice cream parlor is Rumpelmayer’s. It’s the sort of place your great-aunt would take you after shopping downtown.
Traces of Egyptian-motif mosaics decorate the pink walls and stuffed animals sit around the room. It’s in the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South, and is popular with residents who order light lunches and snacks, as well as pies, cakes and great ice cream desserts.
Our search for the perfect hot fudge sundae led us to Rumpelmayer’s late one evening. The sundaes were served in shallow bowls with large scoops of Louis Sherry ice cream and a light whipped cream.
The chocolate fudge was on the side and was among the best we have tried. It was rich and had a slight bitterness that served as a foil to the sweet ice cream. The wafer that topped the sundae was fresh and crisp.
Special desserts include coupe aux marrons, candied chestnuts with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream for $6.75, and “strawberries Romanoff"--vanilla ice cream, strawberries with orange liqueur and whipped cream--for $8.50. The hot fudge sundae is $6.50.
Rumpelmayer’s is open late and within walking distance of Broadway, so it’s perfect for after the theater.
Most Fountains Gone
There was a time when every department store had a tearoom and soda fountain. These have largely disappeared, but Macy’s carries on the tradition in The Fountain on the fifth floor.
This pleasant, modern room with trellis-framed mirrors and a plant-festooned fountain is one of the best and most reasonable ice cream parlors in town.
The sundaes, made with Sedutto’s ice cream, arrive in tulip-shaped goblets overflowing with hot fudge and whipped cream and cost $4.50. They have a light dusting of nuts and a cherry on the top.
Other specialties include “Macy’s Parade,” an array of boysenberry sherbet, plus mocha almond fudge, apricot brandy, pistachio and butter pecan ice creams for $4.50, and the “Broadway,” a soda with coffee and chocolate syrups and coffee or chocolate ice cream for $4.
Old-fashioned phosphates are still served there, as well as freshly made soups, quiches and sandwiches.
The most famous ice cream parlor in the city is Serendipity 3, a favorite of entertainers Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand and Cher. When it opened in 1954, with its Tiffany lamp shades and walls covered with 19th-Century memorabilia, it set an eclectic style of decor that has been copied in restaurants and bars across the nation.
“When we started the place we didn’t have much money,” says co-owner Stephen Bruce, “so we decorated with whatever we could find.”
Started in Basement
Bruce was a window dresser and aspiring costume designer when he founded the first Serendipity with dancer Calvin Holt and songwriter Patch Caradine (Caradine has since left the company). The three had once scooped ice cream at Howard Johnson’s.
With $500 they started their own place in a tenement basement on East 58th. Success was immediate, and after twice outgrowing their quarters, they moved to the present spot on East 60th, just down the street from Bloomingdale’s.
“Andy Warhol was one of our early customers,” Bruce said. “He was a commercial artist then, and he used to sketch ads for ladies’ shoes at the table. We put some of his early designs up for decoration.”
The food is as eclectic as the decor. Red spice soup, curried chicken amandine and “zen hash” (brown rice and vegetables) share the menu with omelets, sandwiches and salads. The quality of everything is high, but it is in the realm of desserts that Serendipity earns its reputation.
This is not a place for cautious eaters. Sundaes, made with Louis Sherry ice cream, are served in gigantic beer glasses piled high with rich whipped cream. The banana split ($8.95) is enormous, and the maple walnut sundae ($4.95) teems with walnuts in a maple syrup.
Chocaholics can test themselves on the “frrrozen hot chocolate” ($5). An early invention of the partners, it’s made from 14 chocolates blended into an icy mixture that practically overflows its lake-size serving bowl. You get four straws to handle it.
Recommended: The Fountain, Macy’s, 7th Avenue at 34th Street, (212) 695-4400; Old-fashioned Mr. Jennings, 12 West 55th St., (212) 582-2238; Rumpelmayer’s, 50 Central Park South, (212) 755-5800; Serendipity, 225 East 60th St., (212) 838-3531.