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The Hidden History of Root Beer Floats in Chicago

And where to find five outstanding ones.

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Vogelsang's Drugstore's soda fountain at Lincoln and Fullerton in Chicago in the 1890s.
Vogelsang's Drugstore's soda fountain at Lincoln and Fullerton in Chicago in the 1890s.

It might be the type of ice cream mixed with the right root beer that makes this treat so delicious, or the perfect ratio of root beer to ice cream. But maybe Chicago's love for root beer floats, also known as a black cow or brown cow, is something more than that. It could be nostalgic memories of sitting with your family at a diner or ice cream shop and enjoying a delicious treat; a treat you just had to finish until the last sip of root beer and spoonful of ice cream were gone.

Since the 16th century, the first Europeans who settled in North America made sassafras-based beverages similar to the root beer we enjoy today, which is made from sassafras roots, bark and other ingredients (depending on the root beer recipe). But it wasn't until the late 19th century that root beer was considered a commercial drink. Charles Hires, the first person to market root beer successfully, hoped the drink would replace alcoholic beverages during the temperance movement, according to "Sundae Best: The History of the Soda Fountain" by Anne Cooper Funderburg. A devoted Quaker, Hires promoted his product, Hires Root Beer, on the claim that the drink had medicinal effects. In 1893 Hires got a spot at the World's Fair in Chicago to share his root beer, Funderburg writes.

Chicago claimed it had the most soda fountains than anywhere else in the country in 1896, writes Funderburg, but the first Chicago establishment to make and serve a root beer float remains a mystery. In 1848, druggist Josiah H. Reed opened the first soda fountain in Chicago, and they were popular until the 1960s. The creation of the root beer float came years after the first Chicago soda fountain, supposedly invented in 1893 by Colorado gold mine owner Frank J. Wisner, according to CNN.

To this day, diners, restaurants and frozen treat shops in Chicago serve their own version of the beloved root beer float. Here are a few places serving them into the fall—or any time of the year—all of them with a story.

  1. Eleven City Diner: Brad Rubin's throwback diner serves a giant root beer float made with Homer's ice cream combined with blonde or regular root beer. The story behind this root beer float and the other soda creations at Eleven City goes back to Rubin's childhood, where his love for the soda fountain started in his dad's basement. "I grew up in a house where my father actually had a soda fountain in the basement, so at a very young age I was learning how to make soda fountain creations," Rubin said.
 His inspiration for Eleven City derived from the road trips he took as a kid with his family. 
"It all started because growing up and traveling around the country with my parents as a kid, we would always stop and go not to fancy restaurants, not to fast food places, but we'd always go to family roadside diners."
 Eleven City's root beer float is served in a giant mug with generous scoops of vanilla ice cream and a side car of root beer. 
    [Photo: Facebook]
  2. Scooter's Frozen CustardThis root beer float is inspired by the menus at custard shops in Wisconsin and is made with Sprecher's root beer—brewed in Milwaukee—and Scooter's vanilla custard. "We're just trying to create a better experience with something that tastes really good," Mardi Moore, owner of Scooter's Frozen Custard, says. 
Moore said Sprecher's, which is not overly sweet, goes well with their custard. Moore and her husband make sure there's enough ice cream to handle the root beer while serving the remaining soda on the side.
 "We put the ice cream in first and it foams up," Moore said. "We get the float started and hand you the bottle."
 Scooter's has been open since 2003.
    [Photo: Foursquare]
  3. Au Cheval: The root beer float at Au Cheval is made with Berghoff's root beer and malted vanilla gelato from Zarlengo's. Copious amount of gelato are put in first, then draft root beer is poured over top. "Similar to our burger, we are not trying to reinvent the wheel," said Erika Golz, general manager of Au Cheval. "We just want to serve a quality product with simple but excellent execution."
 As to why the modern diner serves up a root beer float, Golz said, "It felt right and who doesn't love a root beer float?"
    [Photo: Courtesy of Au Cheval]
  4. The Berghoff: Berghoff started brewing root beer in 1918, just before prohibition. When the brewery was forced to stop brewing beer due to the ban on alcohol, they started brewing root beer and other flavored sodas to help stay in business. But Berghoff's root beer float wasn't added to the menu until the 1970s when third-generation owners Jan and Herman Berghoff took over, introducing it because their kids loved getting floats so much when they would go to A & W drive-in restaurants, said Ashley Mazur, marketing and media manager of Berghoff Catering and Restaurant Group.
 Vanilla ice cream is scooped into a 12-ounce Berghoff stein glass and root beer is poured over the ice cream. At the Berghoff Café, a glass bottle of Berghoff's root beer is poured over the scoops of vanilla ice cream, while Berghoff Restaurant uses draft root beer. 
"It's representative of our brand because it's our root beer and it kind of tells our story," Mazur said. "And growing and staying a strong brand for 117 years—that's just proof of it. It tells our story in a glass."
    [Photo: Foursquare]
  5. Margie's CandiesThe root beer float has been on the menu ever since Greek immigrant Peter George Poulos opened the venerable Margie's Candies in 1921, said manager Maria Gomez. This historic Chicago ice cream parlor makes their own root beer using Clover's Club syrup, and, of course, Margie's makes their own ice cream. It's served in a crystal tall glass with whipped cream on top. 

"Everything is homemade, so that makes a big difference," Gomez said.
    [Photo: Yelp]

Scooter's Frozen Custard

1658 W Belmont Ave, Chicago, IL 60657 (773) 244-6415 Visit Website

Eleven City Diner

1112 South Wabash Avenue, , IL 60605 (312) 212-1112 Visit Website

Au Cheval

800 West Randolph Street, , IL 60607 (312) 929-4580 Visit Website

Margie's Candies

1960 North Western Avenue, , IL 60647 (773) 384-1035

The Berghoff Restaurant

17 West Adams Street, , IL 60603 (312) 427-3170 Visit Website