In the past few years we’ve seen the resurgence of retro, milk bar-style dining in Sydney. Thickshakes are again acceptable at breakfast, burgers keep appearing every direction we turn and now, the humble soft-serve ice cream is experiencing a glorious renaissance. Although we have fond, ’90s-tinged memories of 50-cent kiddie cones dribbling their vanilla contents down our forearms, lately the dial has been turned up to full whack.

It’s not just neighbourhood ice-cream shops that are changing their style, either. Even Gelato Messina has launched a new dessert bar dedicated to the soft stuff. Fine-dining restaurants such as Enmore’s Hartsyard and Potts Point’s Cho Cho San are also leading the charge, swirling complex flavours – such as green tea or caramelised black sesame – with unusual textures, toppings and dazzling colours into their artisanal cones.

Hartsyard’s pastry chef Andy Bowden’s obsession with soft serve is inspired by something a little nostalgic. “Remember that feeling of chasing the ice-cream van down the street as a kid and being allowed only a single cone, not a double?” It’s fair to say that Bowden’s gigantic soft serve offerings have more than made up for any childhood lactose deprivation. Though visiting soft-serve legends Big Gay Ice Cream in New York’s East Village also had a hand in his decision to start it up here. Changing weekly depending on what inspiration strikes, Bowden’s soft serve comes horizontal on a platter, to fit on more toppings. Recent creations have included pistachio and hazelnut crunch, caramelised filo pastry and Nutella and grape jelly and saltine crackers. “They’re more of a dessert than a soft serve,” he says. “There are a lot of components to them.” He’ll never do the same flavour twice, even though customers keep asking for the Snickers – a combination of milk-chocolate soft serve, salted peanuts, thick salted-caramel fudge and a milk-chocolate dip. No time to sit down? They’re also available takeaway.
33 Enmore Road, Newtown

Gelato Messina Dessert Bar
At Gelato Messina’s Dessert Bar on Victoria Street – which is based nearly entirely around ice cream served soft, and 25 wild garnishes – things have really hit the fan flavour wise. Order your selection of Fanta or burnt-vanilla soft serve squiggled on top of a doughnut or fresh crepe, or dipped in chocolate fudge and crowned with a cloud of pink fairy floss. Even its house-made waffle cones come in different shades of pink (strawberry) or purple (blueberry). “Soft serve tastes amazing if you get it right,” says Messina co-founder, Declan Lee, who tells us that most commercial soft-serve vendors actually plump up their versions with air, which, though eating a sweet cold cloud may seem like a nice idea it means “you’re basically buying air.” No thanks. Messina’s version is nearly exactly the same as the excellent gelato you’ll find in its original shop, but churned at a higher temperature (-8 degrees as opposed to -18 for regular gelato) and served smooth and fresh, straight from the churn. Now, how to decide between toppings such as smoked chocolate fudge, strawberry meringue or burnt-honey mousse?
243 Victoria Street, Darlinghurst

Cho Cho San
Freshness is also key for Nic Wong, head chef at Potts Point’s modern-Japanese restaurant, Cho Cho San. “Soft serve is the perfect ice cream because it’s freshly churned all the time,” he says. After trying all the soft serve Japan had to offer – which is a lot – on a recent trip, Wong was inspired to bring it back home. Cho Cho San’s clean, bright interior and light, fresh food calls for a dessert that doesn’t weigh diners down. And for Wong, after a lot of experimentation with other, more complex flavours, green-tea soft serve is it. “Green tea has been the most successful flavour we’ve tried. It suits our food a lot more to finish with something light and refreshing,” he says. “All the caramelised ones, like our caramelised black sesame flavour, or one we did with banana and Japanese black sugar, peanuts and salted caramel were delicious, but we’re not about super-sweet desserts at the end of a meal.” If you’re strolling down Macleay Street and are after a cool dessert on a balmy night, Cho Cho San offers its soft serve takeaway, if you ask nicely.
73 Macleay Street, Potts Point