In a more innocent time, soda wasn’t just a tall glass of empty calories. Vintage pops like Moxie, Bubble-Up, and Grape Crush were never fraught with guilt or blamed for any health crisis. They were sweet, wholesome refreshments—fun you could sip through a straw.
The crack of the bottle, fizz as your poured, and that involuntary “ah” you uttered upon your first sip were as essential to the American experience as Halloween candy and popcorn at the movies. Today, several of Philadelphia restaurants are trying to restore the pleasures of soft-drink sipping by creating innovative coolers sans the standard soda gun
“You start with the syrups first,” says Vernick Food & Drink bar manager Vincent Stipo. “In a restaurant kitchen, there are scraps of cucumber and ends of rhubarb you can juice.” Salvaging scrapes that would otherwise be wasted can spur creativity and hold prices in check. Currently, Stipo offers two sodas ($5), mixed to order with the same care and attention the food receives.
A sugary infusion of ginger, lime, and chili preserves the sharpness of the root in Vernick’s ginger-lime soda. It’s spicy and softy effervescent from the carbonated filtered water the restaurant has on draft. “My family always visits the restaurants I work in,” said Stipo. “My little sister loves sodas, so I always want to serve her something special. I basically created a menu of drinks just mixing up things for her.” Not that these quenchers are just for kids. Vernick’s raspberry-basil soda appeals to grown up palates thanks to its savory rim of salty basil powder mixed and a bracing splash of vinegar.
A better tasting beverage isn’t the only reason a restaurant might turn to crafting its own sodas. Earth Bread & Brewery in Mount Airy believes that reducing its carbon footprint is just as important as serving fantastic food. For its first two years in business, Earth Bread & Brewery served Boylan’s gourmet sodas, but the environmental cost of shipping these heavy glass bottles around the country weighed on owner Tom Baker. He now mixes up sodas like a big-flavored sarsaparilla, complete with the root, raisins, and root beer extract. Other nostalgic treats include a spicy ginger ale infused with lemon, lime and, clove and a take on the creamsicle all priced at $3.
Meanwhile, on South Street, Hot Diggity owner Keith Garabedian and manager Jake Sherwood are hand-bottling small batches of experimental flavors, all priced at $3. Some skew local, including a golden raspberry and ginger brew, made from ingredients sourced from nearby Green Meadow Farm. There are exotic blends on the menu, such as a pineapple soda spiked with lemongrass and dragonfruit. A recent recipe for lime, cilantro and jalapeno soda barges onto the palate in hot pepper boots, leaving behind a clean wash of lime.
Hog Diggity’s creations are carbonated one batch at a time. These pops are washing down hotdogs, another classic maligned by the health police. The dogs are creatively dressed and come with cones of thick-cut fries that are a contender for city’s best. It’s here you find local soda’s smartest pairing of bite and sip, with the saltiness of fries and snappy fried dogs standing up to unexpected flavors of the fizz.
Not every pairing of soda and sustenance comes together so seamlessly. “Great soft drinks are generally missing in nicer restaurants,” said Steve Wildy, beverage director for the Marc Vetri family of restaurants. “We’ve picked up on it and began making our own soda syrups that meet our flavor standards.” The lemony pineapple soda available at Amis is sheer and clean enough to enjoy alongside savory foods.
It isn’t a perfect match. “Sweetness is tough with food,” Wildy says. “Alcohol is easier. We developed a non-alcoholic beverage pairing at Vetri that hits on all the flavors you see in cocktails and wine—tartness, bitterness—but no one liked it.” When it comes to sodas, according to Wildy, people want something sweet. Amis’ strawberry-rhubarb soda is candified and creamy enough that it makes a good stand-in for dessert.
There is, of course, a fine line between pleasingly sweet and cloying. “When you are house-making something like soda syrup, you have to be vigilant,” says Eric Berley, co-owner of ice-cream-parlor-slash-time-machine Franklin Fountain. Berley says that Commercial soda syrups are excessively sweetened because high fructose corn syrup and sugar act as preservatives, giving the products longer shelf life.
Franklin Fountain’s phosphates ($5)—sodas spiked with phosphoric acid to add a refreshing tartness—have been available at Franklin for the last eight years, but it was only in May that pastry chef Sara May concocted the first syrup in-house: a mixed berry. Whole, locally sourced fruit became the strawberry and raspberry syrups currently in rotation.
As with their décor and disdain for air-conditioning and credit cards, Berley draws from the historical (read: pre-refrigeration) practice of turning fruit into syrup to preserve it. “We try to store as much as we can at the peak of the season,” says Berley, “and keep it for the whole year.”
One nearly lost flavor Franklin Fountain is keen to preserve is orgeat, a syrup made primarily from almonds, orange peel, and rose. Most syrup manufactures have dropped those last two ingredients from their formulations. The Berleys build their best-selling phosphate named the “Japanese Thirst Killer” on homemade, traditional orgeat syrup. It’s then mixed with grape juice, Angostura bitters, and cracked ice. Like the best creations in this new crop of craft sodas, its flavors feel nostalgic and trendy at the same time.
Photos by Kara Khan