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Brown cow, anyone? South Sound soda counters with fountain desserts of yesteryear

Post by Sue Kidd / The News Tribune on Aug. 29, 2014 at 12:00 am | No Comments »
August 29, 2014 9:07 am
The soda fountain counter at Don's Ruston Market. Get yourself a brown cow, an egg cream or a phosphate soda here.
The soda fountain counter at Don’s Ruston Market. Get yourself a brown cow, an egg cream or a phosphate soda here.

As Labor Day weekend arrives, so does my habit of seeking end-of-summer rituals.

Today’s tour takes me to destinations perfect for a yes-you’re-going-back-to-school trip – soda fountain counters with ice cream.

I’m talking places that serve egg creams and brown cows, and 1940s-era fountain desserts not seen on restaurant menus for decades.

Two South Sound soda counters still are outfitted with 20th-century soda dispensers, which are worth a gander if you’re a fan of such memorabilia (although only one is in working order).

Both offer hard-scooped ice cream, custom-blended shakes and one even still serves phosphates, which are sodas with a pucker from the addition of citric acid. Consider those an acquired taste.

The best part? The soda fountains mentioned here are close to waterfronts — Steilacoom and Ruston. Hit the beach one last time before summer ends.

I’ve also got a few bonus stops for ice cream in Tacoma, too.

A Cherry Coke float from Don's Ruston Market.
A Cherry Coke float from Don’s Ruston Market.

DON’S RUSTON MARKET AND DELI

5102 N. Winnifred St., Tacoma; 253-759-8151; donsrustonmarketanddeli.net. Open 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday

Don’s Ruston Market and Deli owner Don Torbet still gets plenty of requests for the brown cow, a root beer and chocolate ice cream combination made popular in the mid-20th century. However, Cherry Coke and vanilla ice cream wins for most ordered soda concoction at his soda counter in Ruston.

Don’s still looks like those soda counters of yesteryear, the kind that used to be tucked into the corner of just about every drug store.

Be sure to check out the collection of Coca Cola memorabilia along the back wall that customers have gifted to Don and Beth Torbet.

You’ll find a few rows of snacks and groceries, a chiller full of old-fashioned bottled soda pop (including Green River) and a couple of booths against the wall. Counter seating gives a great view of the soda fountain, manufactured in 1946 by Tacoma’s Andrews Co. The soda dispenser, unfortunately, is broken at the moment, but Torbet is happy to give customers a fountain history lesson as he churns out those old-time menu items, including phosphates, sodas he flavors with a sour jolt of citric acid.

The flavor list for sodas and shakes is lengthy — more than a dozen each for milkshakes and sodas that you can mix and match into a concoction of your making. Try the sarsaparilla soda. I dare you.

Soda fountain menu: Egg cream ($3.10); shakes ($3.50); floats ($3); malts ($3.75); banana split ($4.75); Hard-scooped ice cream or sundaes ($2-$3.75) and sodas/phosphates ($1.50-$2).

A root "Bair" soda with ice cream. Turn this into a brown cow with the addition of chocolate ice cream.
A root “Bair” soda with ice cream. Turn this into a brown cow with the addition of chocolate ice cream.

THE BAIR BISTRO AT BAIR DRUG AND HARDWARE

1617 Lafayette St., Steilacoom; 253-588-9668; thebairbistro.com. Open 8-4 Tuesday-Saturday and 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.

Think of this downtown Steilacoom destination as a double treat for lunch and dessert. I relish Bair’s yesteryear atmosphere, which features knick-knacks representing the building’s former life as a drug and hardware store. Grown-up libations are served, as well as those ’40s-era treats from the fountain. You can sit at the counter and watch the soda attendant dispense from the 1908 Bastian Blessing soda fountain.

A counter worker prepares a custom soda using the early 20th century soda dispenser.
A counter worker prepares a custom soda using the early 20th century soda dispenser.

The restaurant has tableside service for breakfast and lunch. I recommend a lunchtime visit and if you order anything, make it the bacon cheeseburger ($11.49) with hand-cut fries.

I had to sip an egg cream, a Brooklyn creation that, contrary to its name, has no egg or cream. Here, it’s made with milk, chocolate syrup and carbonated water – and it’s delicious. They also make a Boston cooler, ginger ale with vanilla ice cream.

Soda fountain menu: Egg cream ($2.75); ice cream floats of any flavor ($3.50); flavored sodas ($2.50-$3); malted milkshakes ($6); hard ice cream by the scoop or in a cone ($2-$3) and one-topping sundaes ($4-$5, $1 additional toppings).

A burger and shake from Shake Shake Shake. Be sure to check out the shake counter in the middle of the restaurant. File photo 2013.  Peter Haley/Staff photographer
A burger and shake from Shake Shake Shake. Be sure to check out the shake counter in the middle of the restaurant. File photo 2013. Peter Haley/Staff photographer

SHAKE SHAKE SHAKE

124 N. Tacoma Ave., Tacoma; 253-507-4060 or shakeshakeshake.me. Serving lunch and dinner daily; open late Friday and Saturday.

Find what I consider a 21st-century version of an old soda/ice cream counter at Shake Shake Shake, the Stadium neighborhood burger diner from Tacoma artists Steve Naccarato and Robert Stocker. The retro-themed burger joint features a shake counter right in the middle of the dining room, which is decked out in throwback fixtures from the old Elks bowling alley, amidst a stunning aqua and electric orange palette.

If you go, order a burger with the restaurant’s signature skinny fries. Think of the burgers ($3.99-$5.39) as similar in style to Fife’s Pick-Quick, with solid construction.

Grown-up concoctions recently were added to the menu. Flavors here roam decidedly adult — and not just because they’re now making some of their shakes with booze. Find banana brulee, mocha banana malted, Nutella and miso butterscotch on the shake list; alongside the classics. Soda floats are listed here as “spinners.” Any shake can be turned into a malted for 75 cents.

Treats menu: Classic shakes ($4.59); deluxe flavor shakes ($4.89); spinners ($3.99) and Nesquik flavored milk in three flavors ($2.75). From the grownup menu, find boozy shakes for $7.50. There also is a list of specialty cocktails — including the fizzy variety — and beer, wine and cider. Happy hour is 2-5 p.m. daily.

A dish of strawberry sorbet from Ice Cream Social on Sixth Avenue.
A dish of strawberry sorbet from Ice Cream Social on Sixth Avenue.

Not a soda counter, but worth a visit for ice cream: Ice Cream Social

Have you discovered Ice Cream Social in the 6th Avenue neighborhood? It’s a recently opened scoop shop with something unusual – handmade ice cream, which is a rarity in the South Sound.

Find Ice Cream Social at 2914 Sixth Ave., Tacoma; 253-327-1660, icecreamsocialtacoma.com; open daily at 11 a.m.

Owner Layla Isaac sells ice cream with lofty ingredients, as well as the standards. Find dairy-free and vegan-friendly ice cream, too. Ice Cream Social got its start in 2012, selling ice cream at local farmers markets and the company expanded to a scoop shop earlier this summer.

Flavors are written on the daily changing menu. Diners might find fanciful blends such as French toast, Earl Grey tea, roasted banana, cherry chevre, salted caramel, buttered popcorn, vegan-friendly lavender coconut and dairy-free strawberry sorbet. The basics also are covered: dark chocolate, vanilla, strawberry. Scoops ($3-$4.75) are sold in a cup or tucked into warm waffle cones, made fresh at the counter. Pints are $7.

Sue Kidd dines anonymously, and The News Tribune pays for all meals.

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