Photograph courtesy of The Creamery at Union Market.
Summer in Washington means mosquitoes and mugginess, but it also means an excuse for ice cream pretty much any time of day. And there are more options than ever. Here, our favorite places for nostalgic shakes and sundaes, over-the-top ice-cream sandwiches, Japanese-style soft-serve, and more.
5718 Pickwick Rd., Centreville
This sleek, minimalist cafe may be in a Centreville strip mall, but it feels straight out of Kyoto. In fact, Bon Tea House—which previously operated as a carryout window in downtown DC— sources its matcha from farmers across Japan. You can find the green-tea powder in all kinds of drinks, but most notably in some of the best matcha soft-serve we’ve encountered. Just as phenomenal: seasonal flavors like banana-milk and lychee, which you can combine into a swirl.
2310 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Wisconsin expats will feel right at home at this Del Ray institution, with its yolk-rich frozen custard, Sprecher-soda floats, and Door County–cherry sundaes. There are three flavors of custard each day—chocolate, vanilla, and a wildcard such as toasted coconut or summer berry pudding—but myriad ways to dress them up. Go for chocolate with Rice Krispies and marshmallow sauce, or vanilla with whatever fresh baked good is around, whether cobbler or cookies. Dogs also get some love, with pumpkin or banana “puppy pops.”
1309 Fifth St., NE
You’ll find lots of local dairy products—glass bottles of milk, Pennsylvania-made yogurt—along with just-baked cookies at this stall inside Union Market. The ultra-rich ice cream is made in-house and comes in old-school flavors (Grape-Nuts!). For ice-cream purists who just want a good chocolate shake or a scoop of butter pecan in a (freshly rolled) waffle cone, this is your place.
200 Commerce St., Alexandria
A vintage Bob’s Big Boy statue stands outside this ice house turned frozen-custard shop with a walkup window in Old Town. Adding to the retro vibes: orange- and grape-soda floats, thick shakes, and a handmade ethos that extends from the custard to the caramel sauce to the baked goods that anchor the sundaes. Owner Brandon Byrd also operates a mobile version—naturally, it’s run out of a 1950s van.
CityCenterDC, Hirshhorn Museum, Dupont Circle, Fairfax, and Bethesda
This gelato maker is the closest thing Washington has to a homegrown frozen-treat chain—you’ll find flavors like peanut-butter stracciatella and roasted strawberry in several area cafes as well as dozens of markets and grocery stores around the Mid-Atlantic. It’s easy to overlook the much shorter list of sorbets, but the 19-year-old operation has farmers-market roots, and its seasonal renditions are lovely. Plus, you can always mix them: Pineapple-lime sorbet and coconut gelato are a pretty perfect match.
713 Kennedy St., NW
Former corporate chef Charles Foreman opened this shop off Georgia Avenue two years ago, and the snug space has fast became a community hub. Cops, afterschoolers, and neighborhood regulars line up for generous bowls of flavors like brown-sugar ice cream rippled with oatmeal cookies, banana pudding with marshmallow, and praline and brown butter. Get them with a drizzle of chocolate sauce, in a flight of six scoops, or—on Wednesdays—on a warm waffle.
1407 T St., NW; 301 Water St., SE; 4238 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
It’s the fruity flavors at these spare shops (you’ll also find pints at some grocery stores) that keep us coming back. Marionberry—a blackberry-like fruit—is liberally swirled into vanilla ice cream with graham crackers. Summery strawberry gets waves of tres leches cake. Another thing owner Victoria Lai has mastered: the ratio of mix-ins to ice cream—just try the vanilla-based scoop dense with cookie dough and crushed Oreos.
33 Maryland Ave., Rockville; 967 Rose Ave., North Bethesda; 10045 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Matcha makes it into all kinds of trendy Japanese desserts at this sweets shop. Think green-tea-flavored crepe cakes, cream puffs, and of course soft-serve (try it swirled with milk ice cream). While we like to keep this frozen treat simple, you can add toppings like boba, mochi, or gold leaf for the ’gram.
8948 Mathis Ave., Manassas
Our visit to this window-order spot featured a line snaking around the parking lot—in the pouring rain. There are several draws: superlative soft-serve (presented atop a cone in an almost comically tall swirl); housemade ice cream in whimsical flavors; and, for the indecisive, Boston shakes, which are half milkshake, half sundae. A sign dares you to try a cowpie sundae, with chocolate cake and gobs of Oreos, hot fudge, and marshmallow sauce. Don’t let that scare you off—it’s divine.
3110 Mount Pleasant St., NW
Brian Lowit and Melissa Quinley, longtime employees of the local punk label Dischord Records, brought this mini-chain to DC after falling in love with its original Maine location. All summer long, families line up for scoops of butterscotch-miso, fresh strawberry, basil, or whatever other flavors are in season. Don’t eat dairy? Mt. Desert offers a number of oat-milk options and sorbets.
114 W. Broad St., Falls Church
This shop, barely bigger than a walk-in closet, is so crammed with knickknacks and figurines, you might think it was an eBay clearinghouse. Its ice cream—all made at Delaware’s Woodside Farm Creamery—is eclectic, too. Elsa fans go wild for the blue mint ice cream with Oreos, while Steam Oil, the standout flavor, translates to coffee ice cream rippled with green caramel and chocolate. Try it sandwiched between cookies, in a brownie sundae, or doused with a shot of espresso.
1010 Massachusetts Ave., NW
The Nashville-born chain is designed for Insta gratification, outfitted with a floral wall featuring a “Get Peachy” neon sign ready to be your backdrop while you flourish one of the desserts. Go for hot cobblers topped with vanilla ice cream, decadent banana-pudding shakes, or over-the-top cinnamon rolls you should get à la mode, because your diet died the moment you walked through the door anyway.
Tysons Corner Center, McLean
This tiny Tysons mall storefront looks, at first glance, like a Ferragamo-fancy chocolate shop. And it is that—but the place is also the only Mid-Atlantic location of one of Italy’s most popular gelato chains. Head to the counter for satiny spoonfuls of roasty pistachio, ultra-dark chocolate, and ethereal stracciatella. Want to bring some home? It’s otherwise sold by the pound.
1142 Maine Ave., SW
Darryl Jones spent three decades running a fish-cleaning business and operating soda vending machines at the Wharf. Today he and his four daughters sell ice cream instead along the revamped waterfront development. Their carryout window specializes in nostalgic staples like banana splits, root-beer floats, and classic cones (choose from soft-serve or scoops). But you can also go over the top with funnel-cake fries or a “cake explosion” sundae.
5027 Connecticut Ave., NW
The Comet Ping Pong crew teamed up with former Little Red Fox baker and ice-cream maker Lauren Parlato to create this darling sweets-and-scoops shop in DC’s Forest Hills. Classic flavors are spot-on, but try more inventive ones, like rhubarb and sage, pineapple upside-down cake, and salty honey butter. Don’t sleep on the pastries either, especially summery hand pies bursting with blueberries.
4231 Markham St., Annandale; 13830 Lee Hwy., Centreville; 10176 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
This Annandale Korean market and cafe is the kind of place where you can get a vat of kimchi and takeout kimbap—but it’s also our go-to for bingsoo. The snow-like shaved-ice dessert comes with toppings ranging from red bean to Oreos to fruit. We’re particularly fans of the green-tea version, with diced mango and corn flakes.
This article appears in the July 2023 issue of Washingtonian.