Part dessert, part beverage, the milkshake was conceived in the 19th century and originally featured whiskey, though it’s since become a sweet, frosty, alcohol-free treat for Americans of all ages. Yes, love for the milkshake has persisted throughout the decades and these days, you can get it in any number of places—from diners to ice cream shops to fancy eateries. So where in the Emerald City can you find the best vanilla shake? I was determined to find an answer with help from former professional eating hopeful Eva Walker, and expert home cook Rani Weatherby.
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While all the places we visited offered milkshakes in different varieties (from Oreo to peanut butter to hibiscus), we sampled only the vanilla. Our assumption was that if they couldn’t get the basics right, how could we trust their more extravagant offerings? And, besides, sometimes it’s okay to be a BASIC milkshake drinker!
Together, the three of us tried out nine different shakes in eight different locales, from Issaquah to Wallingford. We rated them based on five parameters—flavor, thickness (it’s gotta be drinkable through a straw!), quality of ingredients, value, and the vibe of the place serving it—and scored each on a scale of 1-10, with a possible high score of 150. Without further ado, here are the scores.
Winner: Triple XXX Rootbeer Drive-in (128.25 points)
An amusement park for your mouth and eyes, this Issaquah destination makes you say “Wow!” at every turn. From giant bacon cheeseburgers topped with onion rings to kitschy, decades-old license plates, photos, model cars and drivers’ licenses hanging from the ceilings to the booming jukeboxes, this restaurant is just exciting. If Buddy Holly was resurrected, he would hang out here. And Triple XXX Rootbeer Drive-in just so happens to have the best (and most HUMONGOUS) $8.25 vanilla milkshake in all the land. Tall, frosty, drinkable through the straw they offer, delicious in vanilla flavor, and topped with sprinkles, it checked every one of our boxes, scoring eight 9’s and earning the top spot.
Second: Skillet Capitol Hill (120.5)
With its classic Americana decor, the first thing you notice at Skillet are the pale green seats at the counter. Then the exposed pipes in the ceiling. Then it’s the friendly service and the expansive, comfort food menu; we ordered a giant plate of poutine and a hefty serving of bacon hushpuppies. Skillet has a lot to offer, including a fantastic $6 vanilla milkshake, which features ice cream from Snoqualmie Farms, comes in a chilled metal cup, and is both sippable and spoonable, depending on your preference. A timeless and tasty shake all around.
Third: Otter Bar (119.25)
Many don’t know about this relatively new Eastlake gem—yet. The spot serves excellent diner food, from parmesan garlic fries, to a Nashville hot chicken sandwich, to hefty burgers. And if you’re looking for a quintessential neighborhood diner experience outside of Capitol Hill, this is your spot. Otter Bar’s $5.25 vanilla bean version had the perfect balance of sippable and spoonable ice cream, and the flavor hit the spot. And while Triple-XXX and Skillet outscored Otter Bar by a thin margin (hey, they have years more of experience!), you won’t be disappointed in the slightest by their shake.
Fourth: Molly Moon’s, Columbia City (117.25)
Whether you’re judging it by flavors like strawberry balsamic ice cream or the record label created for its musically inclined employees, Molly Moon’s is excellent. But when we walked into the Columbia City location, the wonderfully vibrant woman behind the counter informed us the shop was out of vanilla ice cream. Something about a tsunami and a vanilla supplier that was unable to supply it. So, we got the next best thing: a sweet cream shake for $7.50. Inside the welcoming shop, we sipped on the rich, creamy shake—but something about the sweet cream just didn’t satisfy. It was missing any sort of recognizable flavor outside the thickened frozen cream. While this won’t deter us from any future Molly Moon’s trips, we couldn’t rank their shake any higher as a result.
Fifth: Full Tilt Ice Cream, Columbia City (116)
Another super inviting place, Full Tilt in Columbia City would be the premier spot for a birthday party if you were 8 years old. With a plethora of ice cream flavors, classic comic books for sale (including Ren and Stimpy and The Fantastic Four), original arcade games (Ms. Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros.), and a shelf of gummy candy, the place is a dream for those young at heart, too. But their $6 milkshake, while perfectly drinkable, wasn’t imbued with enough vanilla, and it came off as rather uninspired.
Sixth: Old School Frozen Custard (110)
A different beat on the path to milkshakes, this frozen treat shop only serves custard, which means their ice cream is made with egg yolks and thus, theoretically richer and creamier. Their $6 vanilla custard milkshake went down easy, but the flavor left us wanting more. It was too bland for our tastes, and the texture wasn’t as smooth as we would have liked. The smell of freshly baked cookies and warm smiles from the staff could only partially make up for it.
Seventh: Hot Cakes Molten Chocolate Cakery, Capitol Hill (Vegan) (95)
When Rani pointed out that inside, Hot Cakes looked like an Abercrombie store, we couldn’t unsee it. The part tropical, part dark wood aesthetics are welcoming, but also reminiscent of that ’90s favorite clothing store. But we were thankful for the person at the counter willing to indulge our experiment. We saw, walking up to the register, that Hot Cakes served vegan ice cream made with cashew milk (from Frankie & Jo's). So, we asked if we could get it as a cashew milkshake, to which he obliged, and said we were the first to ask for such a thing. The $9 shake, however, came out super thick and it felt like it would be something of a chore to finish it, which we didn’t. And while we were thankful the dessert shop made us their first-ever vegan vanilla shake, we enjoyed it more as a novelty. Maybe vegans will adore it?
Eighth: Hot Cakes, Capitol Hill (Dairy) (85.75)
Hot Cakes’ more traditional vanilla shake, also about $9, was nothing spectacular. While their molten chocolate cake desserts are fantastic, we likely wouldn’t return for a milkshake, which we couldn’t drink through our straw unless it melted all the way down to liquid.
Ninth: Dick’s Drive-In, Wallingford (81.75)
Dick’s hamburgers are worth all the accolades they receive. I could eat a Deluxe or two every day of the week. But it’s no secret their fries are subpar, as are, sadly, their milkshakes. Of course, you get what you pay for, and a Dick’s shake clocks in at a terrifically low $2.70. The aftertaste, as my compatriots pointed out, came off a bit unnatural (perhaps a function of their malting sweetener?), and it’s practically impossible to drink through the straws provided. Nevertheless, long live Dick’s and their glorious burgers!
We discovered that tasty vanilla milkshakes are served best at diners, and that ice cream shops and fancy eateries surprisingly only do them satisfactorily—at least at the ones we visited, anyway. We also found that too many places offering shakes don’t consider the straws. If a straw bends or breaks or implodes as you attempt to get a sip, something is wrong. And while there is an art to letting your shake melt a bit before taking that first sip, some of us don’t want to wait 10 minutes to enjoy it. Nevertheless, there are plenty of great places to get a basic vanilla milkshake in and around Seattle, some that even feel like you’ve traveled back in time to an era when the masters were perfecting them—without booze.