Boise Finds Its Groove
Reprinted from December 2016
by Andrew Chalk
The Grove Hotel, where I stayed when visiting the capital of Idaho, is situated on one side of Boise's compact downtown area, two blocks from Main Street. It is a great location for business and pleasure. The hotel is very much in the 'Grand Dame' mould, being constructed from bricks and showing off its architectural bones throughout the interior. Nonetheless, the WiFi worked well and in-room electronics had a good selection of channels on the TV. I particularly liked the health club, which had a long lap pool, as well as dozens of machines and well-appointed changing facilities. There is also a full service spa.
It was only when I woke that I came face-to-face with the dramatic natural beauty in which Boise is nestled. The city faces a backdrop of mountains that form a dramatic vista to life in downtown. In the winter, skiing is only about 15 minutes away.
A short two block walk away from the hotel is Goldy's Breakfast Bistro, a fixture since 1999 that is so popular that the 9 a.m. line on a Friday is already 30 minutes long. The menu has all the expected American breakfast staples. On this occasion, I head to Guru Donuts, four blocks away on the northwest side of downtown. This is, I kid you not, an artisanal doughnut shop. They take as much care in sourcing and making their innovative doughnuts as high-end farm-to-table restaurants do with their menus. Where else can you get an apple cider doughnut, or a sea salted chocolate bar doughnut? It is enough to make any carb-conscious eaters suspend their diets.
It is not widely known, but Boise is the location of one of the largest settlements of Basque people outside the Basque homeland of northwest Spain and southwest France. The Basque Quarter forms the most distinctively ethnic part of downtown. It was just our luck that every Friday in the heart of the quarter, The Basque Market cooks paella outside on the sidewalk in a massive pan for lunchtime. It is a popular fixture and when it's gone, it's gone. There are several restaurants, shops, a museum and cultural center, and a social club in the quarter.
The Basque Museum is also the departure point for walking tours by Preservation Idaho. The tours highlight the fascinating history of the town and try to raise historical awareness. In the 1960s there was a craze for tearing down old buildings and replacing them with new ones. About 60 buildings were destroyed. The tours hope to make people aware of what such architectural clearcutting destroys. Also in the area is a variation on the familiar brewpub — Bardenay, a restaurant distillery which makes its own vodka, gin, and rum. Two blocks away, Jordan Krema mixes some mean cocktails at Press & Pony. The diminutive, speakeasy-type bar only fits about 25 customers but they pack the place for creative cocktails. Happy Hour is 4 to 6 p.m., and the reverse happy hour is 10 p.m. to close. If it gets too crowded, you can take your drinks to Boise Fry Co. or Waffle Me Up, both in the same building.
The craft beer resurgence is very much in evidence, as you might expect from the region that grows a third of the world's hop supply. There are more than 50 breweries in Idaho, more than a dozen of which are in Boise. The easiest to visit is Boise Brewing, just two blocks from The Grove Hotel. It is open for tastings every day; I recommend the Hip Check IPA.
Across the street from Boise Brewing is a rack of bikes of BoiseGreenBike. I rented one at $4 an hour and cycled the two and a half miles to visit Coiled Wines and Telaya Wine Company via the Boise River Greenbelt. This urban artery is a popular route that runs alongside the dramatic Boise River, bringing it into the city and right past the wineries.
At the Telaya winery, far from being just a tasting room, the winemaking team was hard at work sorting grapes. In fact they could not even pause while I interviewed winemaker Carrie Sullivan. Idaho wine is not better known because there is so little of it. Telaya, for example, makes wine from Idaho and Washington grapes. However, the quality is there, comparable with Washington. The grapes that do best are similar, too: red Rhône varieties syrah and mourvèdre, and Bordeaux varieties cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and malbec. A good example is their blended wine, Turas.
Just as Austin has its Sixth Street and Nashville has its Broadway, Boise has its Eighth Street: a busy weekend destination full of restaurants and bars. During my visit, it was closed to traffic at night for Oktoberfest and for the multi-block Capital City Public Market during the mornings. For the latter, this city of just more than 210,000 people seems to be invaded by everyone else in Idaho, creating a huge, festival-like atmosphere. For dinner, I checked out Juniper, a cool New American restaurant with a good Idaho wine list. The seared Idaho sturgeon on a bed of squash purée, beluga lentil cake, seasonal vegetable (Brussels sprouts on our visit), and bacon marmalade was fish done right. It just sang with the Idaho viognier.
Another Eighth Street find was Wild Root Café and Market. Totally different from buzzy Juniper, Wild Root is into natural food with a big salad and vegetarian focus. That said, the ornate vegetable preparations can also be a side to a meat or fish protein. Thus, the prosaic name on the menu "lamb" is actually smoked leg cooked in a tagine with citrus, dried fruit, garlic hummus, cucumber olive relish, and flatbread. Octopus is served with pancetta, Padrón peppers, haricot vert, pistachio nuts, grilled rustic bread, radish, and citrus vinaigrette. Be aware they close early (8 p.m. on weekends), being run by husband and wife team Michael and Anne-Marie Trebbi.
Two other good breakfast and brunch joints are Bacon and Red Feather Lounge. Note, the sign above the door at Bacon rotates (around mid-afternoon) as the location changes to Berryhill — a New American dining experience with a strong suite in Idaho wines and local produce. You'll observe that all the tables are different. Each has some historical or personal significance, which owner John Berryhill will be pleased to expound upon.
Red Feather Lounge doesn't do breakfast, but they do brunch on weekends from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. The brunch menu is heavyweight Benedict's of every description, plus big meat and egg combos. For something light, check out the quiche. For something more carnal, try one of the cocktails.
Checking out the sites is a study in contrasts. The magnificent State Capitol was inspired by classical examples and situated so that there was a clear view from the railroad station two miles away down Capital Boulevard. It is open to visitors daily. At the other end of the spectrum, Freak Alley Gallery is a venue for public art in the form of murals and graffiti located in a service alley. It began in 2002 and has grown to be the largest outdoor gallery in the Northwest. Most curious maybe is JUMP (Jack's Urban Meeting Place), a kind of mashup of art center and meeting space being built three blocks west of The Grove Hotel. "Jack" is Jack Simplot, founder of the largest potato supplier to McDonald's. The place is due to open at the end of 2016 after several years of gestation. Among the curiosities is a five-story slide to get from the top of the parking lot to ground level. That is going to be fun!
To investigate the mechanics of living here, I stopped in a Tiger Prop office, a local real estate chain, on an unfrequented Saturday afternoon. A bored agent explained that in-town living is coming back and pointed to multiple new builds. Prices have risen in the last five years and may now be above the national average. Most downtown condos list for between $300 and $400 per square foot. Out in the suburbs, prices can be a lot lower. The same trend is evident with rentals.
What if you wanted to live here and start a business? Well, there is lots of opportunity as the food scene is still being built out. There is no homemade ice cream maker downtown (there is one in Hyde Park). No barbecue from any of the major genres, except Kansas City. And there seems to be a demand for interesting entrepreneurial concepts, to judge by the vitality of Eighth Street.
Boise has food, wine, bar and kitchen talent, skiing, and natural beauty in spades. Put a visit here on your list for winter sports or next spring.