Allen Pierleoni

Counter Culture: Retro ice cream parlor fun

For a couple of months, two lunch pals had urged me to review one of their favorite restaurants, promising good things to come. As a bonus, they volunteered to write their own reviews as supplements to this one. Finally, last Saturday we organized an expedition and grabbed a booth inside Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour.

The feel is corporate-slick faux-1890s, with walls covered in patterned red flocking and servers dressed in period costume – ties, vests, long-sleeve white shirts, boater-style hats. The dining rooms are lit by mini-streetlamps and pendant chandeliers with stained-glass lampshades patterned in an ice cream motif.

Near the entrance is a player piano with free plays, and a little shop selling retro candy such as Boston Baked Beans, Necco Wafers and Bit-O-Honey.

What’s your go-to? I asked the young woman running the shop. “I’m a Rolo girl,” she said, referring to the caramel-filled chocolates that originated in 1939.

We paused at a long counter to watch the joking crew hand-scoop ice cream, assemble milkshakes and floats, and artfully build intricate ice-cream concoctions, topping them with ladles of hot fudge and flourishes of whipped cream, fruit and nuts.

The surprisingly pricey menu is literally a newspaper, with stories on the front page such as the results of the fourth annual Splendiferously Superiffic Spectacular Ice Cream Eating Challenge. The inside pages are devoted to lists of starters (sliders, cheese sticks), eight burgers (including a portobello mushroom), sandwiches, soups and salads ($5 to $13). Then things get serious with tempting descriptions of ice cream in all its incarnations – Fountain Fantasies, Belly Busters, Sundaes and the like.

The Fake Chicken Dinner is “a hoot, served with mashed potatoes, peas and carrots (made of ice cream). Ask a server about this without the kids around.” The Farrell’s Zoo is carried to the table “by two strong servers” and can serve 10. The Hot Fudge Volcano features “a lava flow of streaming hot fudge covering 30 scoops of ice cream.” A lit sparkler on top helps the illusion of an erupting volcano. Ice-cream novelties top out at $60. For customers, the mantra is: Share.

Farrell’s mission statement is clear: “Delivering happy-itis to every guest, every day.” The well-trained, good-natured staff does that with a flourish, reveling in the fun.

Well-choreographed pandemonium breaks out whenever certain ice cream specialties are ordered (the Triple Chocolate Brownie Sundae among them) or actually finished by kids with blurring spoons (the Gibson Girl is one), or someone tells a server a birthday is being celebrated.

Over and over, the house was entertained by enthusiastic servers who gathered at guests’ tables and booths to sing rousing songs, clap their hands and dance with seeming abandon. Lights flashed, someone beat a drum, a siren sounded, bells clanged. “Shouldn’t there be a parade with this?” asked a mother at the next table. All the kids in the place loved the action and the noise, which is the whole point. Speaking for the adults, three celebrations in 15 minutes seemed like enough.

“We easily have 250 spontaneous birthday (celebrations) over a weekend, and that’s not crazy. Crazy was when we opened last August and had 1,000,” said manager Zachariah Federowski on the phone later. More formal “party packages” are available, he said, with about 30 each weekend.

The 25 or so birthday/ice cream-novelty songs are short, imaginative takes on such tunes as “Rockin’ Robin” by Bobby Day and “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” by the Exciters (covered by Manfred Mann), with altered lyrics, of course.

Back at our table, we ordered thick, icy milkshakes and a gargantuan root beer float that could have doubled as a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But lunch pals-reviewers Ava and Bianca Brown – who are 9 and 7, respectively – and two adults wanted to see how far Farrell’s could go beyond ice cream specialties.

Soon, we were tasting a pretty good patty melt, a grilled chicken breast sandwich with pesto dressing that was a bit salty, “grown-up” grilled cheese sandwich with five undistinguished cheeses and bacon that needed to be crisper, a trio of tacos filled with tasty deep-fried fish fingers, and french fries three ways – plain, garlic and waffle, which became stale as they cooled off. The fare was OK, though it felt like it had been ordered off the kids’ menu. The ice cream was tops.

To quote from the girls’ more optimistic tasting notes: “Playful ambiance … Friendly presentation … Best breading ever on the fish … Everything was served with pizazz … Patty melt was stunningly juicy … Good balance …”

As for history, Farrell’s was founded by Bob Farrell in 1963, grew throughout California, then was sold and went nationwide. The 130-unit chain sold again in 1985, but the concept changed and stores began closing until only one remained, in San Diego. It was sold in 1996 to Parlour Enterprises, which revived the original concept and began selling franchises. One of the financial requirements to buy a franchise is a “net worth of $1.5 million and minimum liquid assets of $750,000 per restaurant.” Now there are six stores in Southern California and one in Sacramento.

(Many Sacramentans recall the tragic events of Sept. 24, 1972, when a Sabre Jet leaving an air show at Sacramento Executive Airport careened out of control and crashed into Farrell’s in the Crossroads shopping center on Freeport Boulevard, killing 12 children and 10 adults.)

On a happier note was our Gibson Girl sundae, which arrived after our “we-ordered-too-much” lunch. It’s a mountain of vanilla ice cream, rainbow sherbet, and butterscotch and cherry nectar sauces, topped with whipped cream and toasted nuts. “The Gibson Girl busts out all over and is totally excessive,” enthused humorist Mo Rocca on the Food Network’s series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

“I know two Gibson girls,” Bianca said between spoonfuls of ice cream. “One is a girl in my class, Gabriella Gibson, and her mom is Kelly Gibson.”

Ava had the idea of using two spoons to churn the remains of the Gibson Girl into a slurry she called “happiness potion,” yet still the girls could not finish the dessert, which meant no song and dance at our table.

“Too bad we can’t take it to go,” one of them said.

That’s OK, we’ll overindulge again another time.