Making Merry

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N othing says summer quite like a cone full of soft serve from an old-fashioned drive-up ice cream joint. There’s just one place like that in New Haven: Bill’s Carousel on Whalley Avenue. The little boxy eatery, located on a busy stretch of Whalley and fronted by a small white tent shading two picnic tables, doesn’t look much like a merry-go-round. Its signs are faded and its seating is mismatched. But that’s all part of the charm.

Summer soft serve is a pleasure you never outgrow. Business at Bill’s one recent weekday afternoon was slow but steady, and every single customer was a grownup. Merrin Hargrove (pictured third) stopped in on a 15-minute break to get a vanilla cone with sprinkles. She said she’d been thinking about it all day, and Bill’s is one of her favorites. She’ll go out of the way to get there. “You can taste the difference,” she said as she dug into her ice cream with a plastic spoon.

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If sitting next to bustling Whalley while enjoying a frosty treat isn’t your idea of relaxation, there’s a drive-through window at Bill’s as well. About half of the customers that afternoon used it. But if you don’t sit out front, you’ll miss the vintage carousel horse posing mid-gallop next to the order window. Sure, kids are allowed to play on it. But owner E. J. Akdeniz says the adults sometimes sit on it, too. It’s a sturdy horse.

Akdeniz bought Bill’s Carousel 10 years ago from the wife of its original owner—Bill, of course, whose last name Akdeniz couldn’t remember for certain. To the best of his knowledge, the drive-up opened as a Carvel in 1957, but it had become Bill’s Carousel by 1959. He has no idea where the carousel theme came from, but he’s the one who added the horse, which he got from New Jersey when an old carousel was dismantled.

As for its raison d’etre, Bill’s carries all the usual favorites: traditional soft serve ($2.29 to $6.79), sundaes ($4.39 to $7.09), milkshakes ($4.29 to $5.99), frozen yogurt ($2.89 to $7.19) and more, plus hot dogs ($2.65 to $3.25), hamburgers in several incarnations ($5.49 to $7.99), fries ($3.29) and piping hot churros filled with caramel (two for $4.25).

Akdeniz makes some hard ice cream of his own: butter pecan, cookies and cream, chocolate fudge shortcake, cherry vanilla and banana, which he says is the most popular. I tried the latter two, which featured chunks of fruit, and both passed the flavor test with flying colors (pink and yellow).

The soft serve comes in 24 flavors created by mixing various syrups into a vanilla base. The cheerful young women working the drive-thru and the front window helped me choose a few to try. The espresso soft serve had a nice caramel undertone, and the black raspberry was tasty without being cloying. But, for me, the coconut was the surprise knockout—super thick, creamy and so coconutty I could smell it before I tasted it. Among the other soft serve flavors are the usual fruity suspects as well as piña colada, rum, crème de menthe and amaretto; butter pecan, peanut butter, maplenut and pistachio nut; and cheesecake, caramel and German chocolate. Akdeniz also makes ice cream cakes to order (prices vary) in every flavor and filling combination, promising, “I can do anything.”

But the soft serve is the summertime star. I wondered why as the traffic roared by, including an ice cream truck blaring its electronic jingle. There’s a happy simplicity to it, I decided—the fun of smoothing the spiral of ice cream with every lick. It makes you feel a little bit like a kid again, and you’re never too old for that.

Bill’s Carousel
1185 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Daily 11am-midnight
(203) 891-7302

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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