I may not be screaming for ice cream, but I’m definitely panting heavily for it. That’s because Ice Cream Jubilee, the homegrown parlor that hit the D.C. frozen-treats scene like a 10-ton Good Humor truck, is a brisk 17-minute walk from my office. By the time I arrive at its sunny store in the buzzing 14th Street neighborhood, I’m a bit out of breath.
But I’m quickly revived by a scoop of Fresh Minty Chip. Its leafy taste surprises me, a pleasant reminder that mint is actually an herb, not a flavoring out of a bottle.
I didn’t really need to walk that far to get my sugar fix. As local food critic Nevin Martell says, “It’s hard to go a block in D.C. without coming across a bakery, a pastry shop, an ice cream stand or a candy store.”
The nation’s capital has a serious sweet tooth. How serious? One of the most famous, and long-running, reality TV shows set here follows two sisters who make cupcakes. Even the thriving local salad franchise—salad!—nods to D.C.’s favorite taste in its name: Sweetgreen.
As Washington’s food scene has exploded in the past few years, the dessert landscape has also grown, with local start-ups and outposts of nationally known spots. It doesn’t hurt that D.C. is full of young, food-obsessed professionals who fill Instagram feeds with posts tagged #dessertporn.
Whether you’re a doughnut devotee or a fudge fanatic, you’ll find a variety of places to satisfy your cravings. Georgetown is a good neighborhood in which to start. Here, in 2008, sisters Katherine Kallinis Berman and Sophie Kallinis LaMontagne opened Georgetown Cupcake. The queue started almost immediately and hasn’t let up since, partly due to the success of their reality TV show on TLC, “DC Cupcakes.”
Martell prefers the cupcakes at Baked and Wired nearby. “They’re more substantial and inventive,” he says. “Plus the place has a super funky vibe. Not the kind of place you expect to find in Georgetown.”
Ladurée, on the other hand, is exactly the type of place you’d expect to find in the tony neighborhood. An offshoot of the fancy French patisserie chain, this elegant tea room sells macarons in a rainbow of flavors, including pistachio, rose petal and coffee, illuminated by the soft light from crystal chandeliers.
Downtown at CityCenterDC, Christina Tosi has opened a branch of Milk Bar, her popular New York bakery that introduced the addictive Crack Pie to the world. But Tosi grew up in the D.C. area, which has inspired her latest line of goodies.
“My fondest memories of eating out were weekly family splurges at Baskin Robbins or Dairy Queen if my older sister and I were on our best behavior,” Tosi tells me. “Recently we rolled out our MilkQuakes, a soft-serve ice cream mash-up with Milk Bar mix-ins—think cookies, pies and cake—my homage to the frozen treats of my childhood!”
With seven shops, including one in CityCenterDC, Dolcezza has made creamy gelato pretty much ubiquitous throughout Washington. Even visiting celebrities can’t miss it. “When Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving sat in our Dupont Circle shop eating gelato and drinking coffee, I was waiting for Frodo to come walking through the door!” says co-founder Violeta Edelman.
Tiffany would be award-winning pastry chef Tiffany MacIsaac, whose shop in the Shaw neighborhood serves scones, (almost) too-beautiful-to-eat cakes and her original takes on s’mores and Ho Hos.
For fried treats, I head to Astro Doughnuts & Fried Chicken near Metro Center, which has the former in flavors like PB&J and crème brûlée. And near the White House, contemporary French-American restaurant Mirabelle boasts pastry chef Aggie Chin and her exquisite creations, such as a black forest cake with Kirsch panna cotta and cherry lambic sorbet.
Don’t worry if you need to head outside district lines: It’s hardly a dessert desert. In Alexandria, Virginia, Fleurir creates gem-like chocolates, and Sugar Shack sells delightful doughnuts, including the Girl Scout–worthy Tastes Like a Samoa. In Pentagon City, Sugar Factory is home to the Kardashian-approved Couture Pops. Bellagio Patisserie, at MGM National Harbor resort, features a 12-foot-tall chocolate fountain.
Having a diverse population also means that D.C. enjoys international indulgences, from Chinese egg custard tarts to Filipino halo-halo (shaved ice layered with fruit and ice cream) and Portuguese malasadas. This makes it difficult to pin down a quintessential Washington sweet.
But Victoria Lai, founder of Ice Cream Jubilee, does note that “one of our very popular flavors is Marionberry. We always get asked if this is named after Marion Barry, the former mayor. It’s actually made with marionberries from Oregon. But I love that it makes people laugh, and we can share a bit of D.C. history through an ice cream moment!”
I end my treat-fueled tour near where I started. Next door to Ice Cream Jubilee lies a hip little Cuban café called Colada Shop. I pick up a tres leches cake and an iced café con leche. The barista asks if I would like the drink “Miami sweet” or half sweet.
I’m confused by the question. Why would anyone want it half sweet? “Most people order it [that way],” she confides. Apparently, even for Washingtonians, there’s occasionally such a thing as too sweet.