Five years ago, Schnookie and I finally decided the “living in Arizona” experiment just wasn’t working. We started compiling a list of reasons to move back to Central New Jersey. Number one on the list was changing seasons; that whole “the sun shines every day” just was not cutting it. Number two on the list? Ice cream. Our neck of the woods, the part of the world where we’d lived since grade school, is ice cream heaven. When you’re used to having at least three top-notch parlors nearby and you move somewhere with zero, it’s just wrong. When you’re used to having homemade ice cream and sundaes and blend-ins, buying mass-market ice cream from the grocery store is just wrong. Not being able to take your ice cream on a stroll on the Princeton campus, testing your ability to eat and walk at the same time, is just wrong. So we moved back, and the first night back in town, we headed out for ice cream. To commemorate the importance of quality ice cream parlors in our lives, we’re doing a Summer series here at IPB Living to review all the various ice cream establishments in the area. Some are old favorites, staples of our youths. Some are new to us. Some offer traditional soft serve, some fancy organic gelatos. All are going to get the IPB Living touch. We’ll be rating the experience of each place on several criteria: quality of ice cream, store ambiance, eating location, special perks, and nostalgia.
Today we start with the granddaddy of Central Jersey ice cream: Thomas Sweet. Thomas Sweet is a Princeton landmark. It’s been there for almost 30 years. (There are also stores in New Brunswick, home of Schnookie’s alma mater Rutgers, and in DC.) It’s also the logical place to start, since it routinely gets written up for being not just one of the best ice cream places in NJ, but for being one of the best nationwide.
Quality of Ice Cream: The homemade ice cream at Thomas Sweet is undeniably excellent. The vanilla tastes like real vanilla, the chocolate is nice and rich. They don’t have thousands of flavors, but they always have a nice range of choices sure to please anyone.
In addition to offering the usual sundaes, milkshakes, cones, and floats, their signature dish is something called the Blend-In. A dish of ice cream and a scoop or two of toppings (usually candy of some kind) is put in a giant drill-like machine and out comes a perfectly blended mixture of creamy goodness. The result is a smooth bowl of ice cream and topping with fully integrated flavors, not like the half-assed blends you’ll get at a place like Cold Stone Creamery. A Blend-In is like an ice cream sundae squared.
For today’s dining pleasure, Schnookie opted for chocolate pudding ice cream with strawberries blended in. The chocolate pudding offered a nice flatness with a slightly unusual chocolate flavor; the strawberries added a mellowness on top of that. Schnookie, in particular, likes the Blend-In format because she loves fruited ice cream but her sensitive teeth (thanks, dishonest dentist!) keep her from eating anything cold that requires chewing. I had a Blend-In of chocolate malt ice cream with Kit Kats. The chocolate malt had a deep but light flavor, which the blended Kit Kat enhanced. Boomer opted for a root beer float; the ice cream was especially cream-y thanks to the French vanilla, but the root beer was a tad too weak. Schnookie rates the quality of her dish an A (but says it would have been an A+ if she’d thought to go with raspberries instead of strawberries), I give mine an A+, and Boomer weighs in with a B- thanks to the sub-par root beer (but the ice cream itself rates an A).
Store Ambiance: Thomas Sweet is a small, narrow store, with a handful of very small tables just inside the door. The cases of ice cream are at the back. At the height of summer the line stretches from the cases, through the tables, out the door, and down the stoop to the sidewalk. Along one wall are a few clippings from newspapers and magazines, and one picture of Walter Matthau enjoying a Thomas Sweet ice cream cone in full Einstein get-up from when IQ was filmed in town. The other wall usually features some fun, colorful mural.
It’s pretty traditional when it comes to what an ice cream parlor should look like. It’s homey and inviting, devoid of the uptight and intimidating atmosphere of a lot of Princeton institutions. We give it a B for ambiance.
Eating Location: This is where Thomas Sweet really excels. The store itself is usually too crowed to accommodate eating inside, but there are picnic tables immediately outside, and right next door is the lawn for the University’s arts building (yup, you can eat your ice cream right outside Joyce Carol Oates’ and Toni Morrison’s offices!) where plenty of people hunker down to enjoy their summery treats. However, if you’re willing to walk just two blocks away, you’ll find the perfect place to sit and eat — the Woody Woo.
The Woodrow Wilson School of International Something-or-Other is a very short walk from Thomas Sweet, and it features a lovely plaza with a seasonal fountain. You know it’s summer in Princeton when the Woody Woo fountain is running. The fountain fills a large, very shallow wading pool; in the hot months you’ll always find kids swimming, adults wading, and dogs cooling off. It turns into an impromptu community pool. Today was an overcast work-day in early summer so there weren’t very many people; but even with weathermen predicting thunderstorms there were still waders.
It’s a townie right of passage, I think, to at some point in your youth run into the Woody Woo fountain on a very hot, very humid day, getting completely soaked only to remember that it’s August in New Jersey and thus your clothes — especially your jeans — will never get dry. When you’re a kid, it’s worth it. Now? Not so much. So we stay off to the side, on the plaza steps.
This eating location rates a solid A+. The walk there takes us past the exotic science labs and the gorgeous ivied walls of the University. We never get over giggling that the building that fills in for the Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital on House is just a block down. And best of all, the people-watching can’t be beat, especially when there are little kids daring each other to swim to the middle of the fountain structure, or when there are adorable dogs chasing balls with an energy suggesting its not 98 degrees with 100 % humidity.
That A+, by the way, would be an A++ except that the short walk is all a Blend-In needs to turn to soup.
Delicious, delicious soup.
Special Perks: Thomas Sweet is located in downtown Princeton, meaning a trip to get ice cream can be easily expanded into a trip to get lunch and window shop. Today we added lunch at Olive’s deli to the equation. Since Schnookie and I both insist on bringing our lunches of leftovers to work every day, I almost never get a nice take-out lunch; Olive’s is such a treat, then, the two or three times I year I go.
The Olives experience was made even better by the construction of the plaza next to the stunning, recently renovated Princeton Public Library.
Eating a delicious turkey-and-brie-on-foccacia sandwich in a bustling, tree-filled plaza is a delightful way to gear up for a trip to Thomas Sweet. This added bonus turns a quick trip out for ice cream into an event. This special perk rates a B+.
Nostalgia: Did we say “Eating Location” was where Thomas Sweet really excels? Because it’s got a lot going for it in the nostalgia category, too. When we were little, Dad and Boomer would pile us into the car and take us into town for sundaes and Blend-Ins. The six of us would then wander up to the campus; us kids would climb on the big bronze tiger sculptures while the adults would stroll in the Summer evening over to the flower garden. We’re too big for the tigers now, and the flower garden is a little out-of-the-way, but every trip to Thomas Sweet contains just a whiff of the summer evenings of our youth, when going for ice cream seemed like an adventure.
There are more contemporary nostalgic elements to Thomas Sweet, too, however. In 2003, unemployed and without a care in the world save the NJ Devils playoff run, Schnookie and I made many trips to Thomas Sweet, believing a Blend-In before game time was lucky for our boys. Obviously, those Blend-Ins were lucky — the Devils have a Stanley Cup to show for our dedication to ice cream consumption! Going to Thomas Sweet now reminds me of the giddy celebration when our team made the Finals, and of the nervous afternoons spent trying to stay calm about the big game that night.
In short, Thomas Sweet makes us equally nostalgic for the very best times of a childhood summer, and the very best times of a sports fan’s life. It doesn’t get any better than that. A+.
Summary: The other places we review are going to have to work very hard to beat Thomas Sweet.