When friends and readers ask me which destination of all I’ve visited in the Sates has struck me the most, most recently my no-flinch response is “Boise, Idaho.” The super-flinch reaction is always a puppy’s duster-tail speed, double-take “did you say Boise?” Indeed, I did. I still catch myself wondering if I’m exaggerating for the sake of that reaction or is it really a sincere striking interest in a place I’ve always and only associated with potatoes. That is until last year when I spent 5 days on my own, exploring what is an abyss of culinary and beverage delights you — nor anyone with an affinity for exploring food cultures — would ever think existed. But it is. And here I am writing about it with the intention of motivating you to look beyond French fries and perhaps consider the copious amounts of craft doughnuts and drinks that city offers.
If you’ve never been to Boise, I suspect you really wouldn’t know where to start. And you might ask while reading this, what in the world would a globetrotter find appealing about a small town in the middle of nowhere. Surely, I don’t know three people in my tight and fat circle that have ever been. But, an old colleague convinced me that I might delight in the burgeoning food scene. And so two weeks before Thanksgiving, right smack in the middle of developing recipes for my cookbook, I took off to Boise. To eat. A lot. All by myself. But it was their cocktails that have me talking. I’m not even into cocktails like that but those there…
Since you may end up there much like I did — vis-à-vis a recommendation — book your stay at The Modern. No, it’s not a super luxe, 5 star hotel with the decadent amenities I like to snatch; rather, a 39-room, old fashioned motel turned into a “modern”-esque chic boutique with the perfect amenities: a finely stocked bar and a small enough kitchen to dish out well-thought out small plates. Elizabeth, the owner, shared with me over drinks, her acquisition of the hotel: it was a Travel Lodge when her grandmother owned it, which she thought would be cool enough to gut out completely and give it a mod facelift. No thrills or frills. Just a good quality hotel with a quirky history and eclectic enough ambiance and vibe to boast fave local bar. When locals like to hang out in a small hotel, to see or be seen, you know it’s a spot worth talking about. And that’s what you get. All of the rooms are styled with mid-century furniture, very much à la Eames and Cherner. Some even have kitchenettes, I imagine for the extended-stay traveler that needs to make espresso in order to even flip lights.
Staying at The Modern is cool and off the beaten path, no doubt, but your stay there is more about the casual food and bar program, which is what most traveling foodies are after, anyway. The kitchen is lead by James Beard chef Nate Whitely, whose fare is to be expected from such an accolade and definitely a score for the small spot. The menu is more or less something to keep you in good form while you take on drinks from the bar. You can get full and enjoy a full dinner, but the options are limited to that of a great pop up concept. The offerings, however, are suitable for a stand alone NY brasserie or even Washington’s latest uptrend in fusion cuisine. Get the Idaho Smoked Trout, but for sure the ravioli, if they still have it. You can’t ever go wrong with a well-made squash soup; theirs being perfumed and colored with yellow curry.
Collage: The Modern Hotel & Bar restaurant and bar area and The Layover cocktail (collage images c/o Kendra Elise Photography); Food Collage: Small plate at The Modern, Cocktail, Wine Vitrine and Beignets at Red Feather Lounge; The Final Say; The Layover.
After a few days mingling around the lobby and getting to know the head mixologist, what I deduced is that their bar’s commitment to creating true cocktails – you know, original Manhattans, etc., — was the catalyst to the booming craft cocktail scene Boise blew my mind with. Though most options stay true to integrity, even their modern or trendy creations live within the frame of pre-prohibition recipes. My fave was the Final Say, using Fernet, a spirit entirely too strong for my immature palate, but sexy enough to order it every day there. Check it out here.
If my standard for good cocktails was established by a few amazing concoctions from a 15-seater bar, then everywhere I visited during those 5 days were going to have to exceed what I had. Especially when my entire experience in drinking cocktails has remained existent only with moderately sweet libations. The Modern’s bar altered my palate to where I now prefer bourbon or whisky-based cocktails. Grown and sexy kinda drinks. Yeah, they did that with their winter special drink: The Layover, with a dashing topping of toasted pecans. Glorious.
My storytelling obligations were upheld, fortunately, with every other restaurant and bar I enjoyed meandering into. These other spots probably got the memo and have to keep up their program in order to compete. There’s no catch, tho. They just do.
Even if you’re not into co-mingling with inquisitive out-of-towners, you have a guaranteed chance of sipping cocktails from bartenders that know their craft. If you go to Press & Pony, you’ll be entertained by at least two bearded fellas, rocking suspenders and high-quality denim shirts that love to spend extra time indulging your lack of knowledge. This speakeasy of sorts is conveniently seeded in Old Boise, or downtown, with the special appeal of being right across the street from the Egyptian theater. That crowd is typified by younger locals wanting to catch up and okay with being crammed into a relatively small space — I’m too old for that shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy — or the older folks simply wanting a break from the daily obligations of responsibility. Because when you go there, hidden behind velour curtains and able to maintain your anonymity, you drink well and eat – irresponsibly — hoards of French fries from the adjacent Boise Fry Company. Trust that you’ll need them while you sip on the Denim Blazer — a sexy and flaming cocktail — and more chic drinks like the Manzana, or the apple, both of which I enjoyed.
A small(er) town like Boise surprises with big city capability while keeping the quaint charm. No one’s in a big hurry; no one’s giving you the pretentious vibe because you can afford a $15 cocktail; and certainly, no one’s peddling potatoes. Though, do order them when you can. It’s not myth. Their fries are legit.
Other spots for cocktail-ing
Red Feather Lounge
Sit at the ambient bar and enjoy the smell of fresh herbs and house-made bitters used in their libations. Order their made-to-order beignets. They are ridiculously good. Also ask to go to the basement and learn all about their impressive worm-composting program. And before all of that, make your way up to the upstairs dining room while staring at their massive wine collection, stored in a high glass vitrine. See pics above. This spot is swanky.
The bar is solid but their wine list changed my understanding of all Idaho has to offer in food and wine. Ask for a glass of Cinder Tempranillo. Best Tempranillo I’ve ever had.
Take a tour of the State’s first distillery, which is open and visible to the restaurant.
*Images of The Modern in collages are c/o of Kendra Elise Photography.