Putnam Pantry, Danvers, Massachusetts
Fair Oaks Pharmacy, South Pasadena, California
Restaurants such as Boston’s historic Union Oyster House and Madrid’s centuries-old Sobrino de Botín have expanded over the years yet still maintain the rustic charm of antiquity. In a time when it’s easier to raze a historically significant structure and build a modern tribute or Disneyesque replica, kudos are due to establishments that although they may not be original to their locations, have been restored to period ambience. Two such places of historical importance are Putnam Pantry in Danvers, Massachusetts and South Pasadena, California’s Fair Oaks Pharmacy, unlikely bedfellows on opposite sides of the country that share a common denominator – ice cream.
Since Galo Putnam Emerson decided to open a confectionary in an old wooden building in 1951 north of Boston, Putnam Pantry has been a favorite year-round spot for purchasing candy and enjoying cold, creamy confections in their old-time ice cream parlor. What even some of Putnam Pantry’s biggest fans don’t realize is the historical significance of both the business and the location. The building has expanded over the years, but if you happen to be sitting in the room with the large central fireplace you’ll be able to visually mark out the original structure – a former shoe factory that was built in 1786 (the fireplace is a functional feature as during colonial times it served as the main source of heat to allow the factory workers to endure the harsh New England winters). As if that wasn’t historic enough, the property is still owned by the same family who built the shoe factory and the adjacent Putnam House (built around 1648) back when the area was known as Salem Village, lending their name to the establishment. Putnam Pantry’s logo features a side-facing bust of a man in Revolutionary War attire – Major General Israel Putnam who was born in the house in 1718. General Putnam is probably best known as the strategic leader credited with giving the order to William Prescott on Breed’s Hill, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” as the British approached at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Also born in the house was the General’s uncle, Thomas Putnam Jr. whose name may not be familiar, but was instrumental in escalating the 1692 witchcraft trials (his daughter Ann was one of the primary accusers).
Although Putnam Pantry was opened in the 1950s, the decor is a jumble of colonial and Victorian fixtures, including period steel-wire parlor chairs and rough-hewn exposed beams and posts. Behind the fireplace is counter where the line forms to order ice cream, decorated sparsely with plastic letter menu boards and a long stainless steel counter covered with sneeze shields. The flavors don’t change too much, but there is a wide variety of most popular flavors (including coffee and pistachio) – you can order anything from a single-scoop junior sundae, up through a banana split and culminating in the frozen orgy that is The Battle of Bunker Hill, featuring 17 scoops of your choice of flavors with the revolutionary price tag of $17.76. If you’re with a group of more than four people, the Battle of Bunker Hill is actually a more cost-effective choice, but if you’re calculating in your head how much ice cream your party can eat in your head, consider this – that gleaming metal counter that seems to stretch out to the horizon is home to Putnam pantry’s trademarked (seriously) Ice Cream Smorgasbord. This assembly line of sticky, nutty and crunchy toppings will more than likely provide at least half the volume of your ice cream; your carefully selected flavor of ice cream is suddenly engulfed in a blanket of pineapple, strawberries, peanuts, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, penuche, crushed Oreos, M&Ms, hot fudge and a laundry list of toppings too lengthy to repeat here.
The ice cream is good, but don’t expect some artisan rum and brown butter with cane shavings and blackcurrants – visiting Putnam Pantry is more about the ambience and the social activity of elbowing your way down the topping buffet with your friends. A visit to the newer section of the building where the candy is sold is a must; in addition to what is made on site, they also sell hard-to-find, novelty candies and gift boxes of chocolates. The Putnam House is currently undergoing restoration, so you history buffs should be able to shortly tour the house by appointment and walk off that colonial sugar high.
On the other coast, the ice cream at Fair Oaks Pharmacy is available in the same quantities and preparations you’d expect to find in an ice cream parlor, but more frequently finds its way into its authentic fountain drinks. The location has been a pharmacy since South Pasadena Pharmacy opened their doors back in 1915, conveniently located on what would become historic U.S. Route 66. When Meredith and Michael Miller purchased the modernized property in 1989, they decided to restore it to a period pharmacy and soda fountain. Their search for furnishings led them up Route 66 to Joplin, Missouri, where they essentially purchased the entire interior of the turn-of-the-century McGee Pharmacy. In addition to the antique furnishings, the Millers gutted the space and installed wood cabinetry in the pharmacy and hid the modernizations inside. On the far wall, a variety of hard-to-find candy is sold from old-fashioned penny candy jars (although you’d be hard pressed to find anything for that price anymore).
The tin ceiling is a nice touch (although it is suspended using a modern lowered-ceiling frame) and as is the honeycomb black and white tile floor. Although there is a small area for table service, there’s something warm and nostalgic about sitting at the antique bar bathed by the neon “Soda Fountain” light from above. Just as you would expect to find working a fountain, the jerks behind the counter look like this may be a temporary job right out of high school (I can empathize, since one of my first part time jobs was as a busboy at an ice cream parlor). Although Fair Oaks Pharmacy has tried to present as authentic experience as possible, I was a little disappointed that the soda jerks wore ball caps, eschewing the familiar paper crested hat.
The menu is full of items with names that have disappeared from modern culture: lime rickeys, egg creams, phosphates and the legendary ice cream soda. The beauty of bellying up to the bar on one of the swivel stools is that you get to watch them prepare your selection; I watched slack-jawed as one of the employees built a banana split that required a step ladder to consume. The ice cream flavors change regularly; on my visit I was intrigued by the pumpkin, but since I was taking a trip down Memory Lane with a root beer float, I thought it best to stick with tried-and-true vanilla. The staff is knowledgeable about the products they serve; I discovered that the root beer on tap is Barq’s, appropriate since their “Famous Olde Tyme Root Beer” has been manufactured since the turn of the last century. The beverage arrived in a manner I had never seen before; rather than “floating” in the root beer; the ample mound of ice cream was wedged into the mug so as to have its suspended above the surface of the beverage. A couple of digs with the spoon, some rooting with the straw and a sticky, wet counter later and I was drifting off to sweet, foamy heaven.
Although the egg creams are an interesting choice from a historic standpoint, they can be a little disappointing to the uninitiated -they are neither eggy nor creamy, as they do not contain those ingredients. The beverage is essentially milk and flavored syrup stirred with a long spiral-handled spoon and then finished off with a squirt of soda water, resulting in a concoction that tastes similar to Yoo Hoo or some hopped-up chocolate milk. The beauty of ordering the egg cream, rickey (an old-time play on limeade) or a phosphate is that your refills are free – I don’t know where else you can get that kind of deal outside of a coffee shop. As an unexpected and unrelated attraction that registers high on the Trippymeter, the Mission Street west of the pharmacy appears to be the roosting home of the wild flock of Pasadena parrots that have become a familiar sight in the area. Instead of the clutch of 5 or 6 of the squawking nuisances found around town, there was a flock that darkened the sky and drowned out traffic as they took to the wing in clouds around the building.
Neither Putnam Pantry nor Fair Oaks Pharmacy have the longevity of some taverns or bigger restaurants, but they both proudly flaunt their ties with the past in historic settings that take you back to days gone by when life was simpler, and these days that can be a fulfilling experience. Scratching a little below the surface offers a treasure trove of historical information about these ice cream emporiums, and I’m more than happy to have given you the full scoop.