Say “soda fountain” to any red-blooded American and you produce instant nostalgia. Just try it. White people especially go misty when you start talking about root-beer floats, black-cherry sodas, and grilled cheese.
Drugstore soda fountains with lunch counters are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness as the embodiment of all that is wholesome and neighborly. Despite playing a prominent role in American public life for 150 years, working drugstore fountains are hard to find these days.
The East Bay has two. They’re not museum reconstructions or nostalgia factories, just places to get vanilla Coke and a BLT as your mothers, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers used to do. Your great-grandmother might even have eaten at the lunch counter at Ozzie’s Soda Fountain, which has been an Elmwood landmark since the Elmwood Pharmacy and Soda Fountain opened in 1921. Named Ozzie’s after Charles Osborne, who bought the fountain in 1950 — yes, they called him Ozzie Osborne — it’s now run by Mike Hogan, who took over the business four years ago and subleases it from the pharmacy.
Sit a while at Ozzie’s and your childhood may just seep back over you. Hogan has tiled the wood-paneled walls surrounding the lunch counter with kitschy album covers, but otherwise he’s treated his business as a fragile ecosystem. He believes in the small-town approach to customer service, too. Ozzie’s regulars are retirees and women with children, and Hogan greets them all by name. He even lets them keep a tab.
Ozzie’s menu sticks to all-American cuisine, slipping into the present with a few rare items such as a Veggieburger and a Cozmo shake (vanilla ice cream with mango and saffron). Hogan works off two electric skillets in the corner, but puts a lot of care into his sandwiches. He butters his crusts and griddles them evenly brown, waiting until the cheese is thoroughly melted, then cuts the sandwiches in precise halves, separating them on the plate with a pile of potato chips and a pickle wedge. An egg salad with olives contained enough mustard to give it some sass; the tuna melt was thickly packed with albacore mixed up with finely diced vegetables and dill. The BLT was made the right way, with good-quality bacon, crisp lettuce and tomato, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it all in place.
The shakes and malts are the real thing, too, creamy enough to suck up a straw and big enough to fill two glasses. They come in flavors such as black cherry and mocha. In the true old-fashioned style, Ozzie’s jerks still measure flavored syrups into tall glasses and then top them off with carbonated water.
The drugstore-soda fountain combo is no coincidence. These days experts are blaming sweetened, carbonated sodas for America’s diabetes epidemic, but two hundred years ago their counterparts hailed the medicinal powers of carbonated water.
According to Anne Cooper Funderburg, author of Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains (Popular Press, 2003), the first known soda fountain in this country was started in 1806 by a Yale chemistry professor named Benjamin Silliman. In the tradition of mineral springs, where the ill made pilgrimages to “take the waters,” Silliman created an on-command spa, carbonating water by combining marble dust and sulfuric acid. Though he wasn’t a successful businessman, Funderburg says, his concept spread to New York City.
After the Civil War, soda fountains really took off. They became more and more ornate and the concoctions they served began to evolve from bracing tonics to sweet treats. Yet drugstores continued to be the place to find them.
We can really attribute the transition from medicine to snack, Funderburg says, to Robert Green: “Green operated a soda fountain at the 1874 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, but he had a small, unpretentious soda fountain, and people weren’t paying attention to it. So he started experimenting, and came up with an ice-cream soda. Then he hired shills who would come up to the fountain and exclaim how good it was.”
During Prohibition, the drugstore soda fountain and lunch counter that we know and love emerged. “Drugstore sodas were a wholesome alternative to liquor,” she says. “Another reason drugstore fountains were popular was because the drugstore was where you could get a legal drink, because you could get a prescription to buy alcohol. Some doctors wrote a lot of those.”
The pharmacists at Hayward’s Medicine Chest won’t write you a scrip for Wild Turkey, but they will let you order a Coke while you wait for your order to be filled. James Cohen so loved the idea of having a soda fountain that when he moved to his current location on B Street four years ago he installed one. He picked reconstructions of diner furniture out of catalogues and installed the lunch counter along the wall opposite the pharmacy window.
The Medicine Chest Soda Fountain hasn’t accumulated years of clutter and memory yet — it’s clean, well lit, and painted a pale, timeless yellow. But the two booths up front are upholstered in shiny red leatherette, and the chrome on the matching counter stools is buffed to a shine. More importantly, the period shake mixer works fine.
The Medicine Chest’s menu mirrors Ozzie’s: cold and hot sandwiches made on the griddle in back. They’re not put together as lovingly as Ozzie’s: The egg salad contains chopped eggs with mayonnaise — lots of it — and a little yellow mustard to tint. A roast beef sandwich on lightly toasted bread was fine, but nothing to haunt my dreams. The grilled cheese (with American cheese, of course), though, was as good as anything my mom ever served. And unlike Ozzie’s, the Medicine Chest does bagels and espresso.
The Cokes come from a modern soda dispenser, not a fountain, but you can still tweak them with vanilla, lemon, or cherry syrup. The shakes, made with your choice of ice cream, are creamy and thick, and the root beer float is filled with so much ice cream that it threatens to overflow unless you eat fast.
The best part? The jukebox. One of those early 1960s models that can load about fifty 45s, it’s stocked with an oddball mix: AC/DC, Aretha Franklin, the Go-Go’s. Two songs for a quarter, five for a half-dollar. Except for one thing — the jukebox doesn’t take requests. Select Ray Charles, and you’ll get Peter, Paul, and Mary, and every set starts with the Marcels’ “Blue Moon.” Another secret: It’s free.
Funderburg attributes the disappearance en masse of soda fountains to the spread of fast-food restaurants and canned sodas. Walgreens and Rite Aid probably had something to do with it, too. But though this two-hundred-year-old institution is on the endangered species list, the owners of Ozzie’s and the Medicine Chest are making sure that the drugstore soda fountain is not yet extinct.