There’s more to Boise, Idaho than meets the eye. Beneath the city’s “famous potato” stigma and blue turf fame lies a thriving downtown scene boasting a variety of (constantly improving) bars and restaurants. Whether you’re a native Boisean or just passing through on your way to better-known places, don’t discard the downtown bar scene. With over 50 watering holes packed into six blocks, there’s always a good time to be had lurking just below the surface of this seemingly sleepy town. If you’re looking for somewhere to wet your whistle, below are my suggestions on some of the best bars in downtown Boise:
To anyone reading this, I hope some random Wednesday you might find yourself in need of a drink in Boise, Idaho. If/when that day comes, I hope you wander into Pengilly’s Saloon and have a chance to see Boise “nightlife” as it’s meant to be experienced. Here, modernity and history combine to create the quintessential Idaho bar experience. From the antique light fixtures and 115-year-old Brunswick Bar to the decrepit photos adorning the walls and turn of the century cash register, this place is a historic gem in which many generations of Idahoans have imbibed libations and live music. The rustic decor is augmented by a cowboy hat and boot wearing band singing honky-tonk country music and playing an assortment of instruments. The band is Tyler and the Train Robbers, and their music is the kind that should be played on radios across the country. Yet, lucky for me, and other Wednesday night drinkers, and you – should you find yourself in need of a drink in Boise on a random Wednesday – their current audience is Pengilly’s patrons.
Unlike a Friday or Saturday night (which are still a good time), Wednesday is slightly slower but no less vibrant. On a recent Wednesday, sixty-year-old couples danced to the band alongside thirty-year-old couples, and the wooden booths filled up with visitors in various stages of dating (including a couple of out-of-towners seated next to me who committed the minor misdemeanor of asking for a cocktail menu). Also, just between you and I, when the pizza place across the street closes for the night, all leftover slices go to the bar. With, free pizza, cold beer, live music, and no hipsters, I think every town needs a Pengilly’s. Unfortunately (or fortunately if you’re a local), Boise has the only one.
10th Street Station
Since its opening on the first day of the 20th century (Jan 1. 1901), The Idanha Hotel was a lodging spot for presidential hopefuls, railroad tycoons, and corporate magnates – making it the center of Boise’s elite and sophisticated social gatherings. Today, 100+ years later, the building’s basement bar is quite the opposite (save for the group of politician wannabes who occupied the table next to me on a recent Thursday afternoon).
10th Street Station has been the (self-described) “home of the heavy pour” since 1989. Hidden in the basement of the historic Idanha Hotel, this subterranean bar is the perfect place to “go underground” (both physically and metaphorically). Dimly lit, yet vibrantly decorated this downtown dive is one of my new favorites in Boise. Every inch of wall space is decorated with a variety of mementos, and there’s a presiding sense that what goes up on the walls never comes down. Cheap drinks ($2 PBR on draft), free popcorn and an atmosphere that resembles a combination of Cheers and your great uncle’s basement make for a low-key, good time. Plus, you don’t have to fight to get in, or be heard.
Upon entering this bawdy bar you’ll find, as the name suggests, a nightclub surging with sexual tension. The women’s undergarments that garland the ceiling demonstrate Hannah’s festive state of dishabille, while the debauchery filled dance floor is invariably packed with drunk and dry humping rapscallions. That being said, If you’re a yuppie, stay away – you won’t like this place. However, if you can roll with it, relax your inhibitions, and channel the woman whose bra hangs above your head, I guarantee a loud, swinging, bad taste, good time. Drinks, though cheap enough, are besides the point. Just order something strong, drink it quickly and let your new found liquid courage and flashing neon lights seduce you onto the dance floor. The house band, Rocci Johnson will do the rest.
The Reef is downtown Boise’s only rooftop bar, and is a happy hour hit among everyone from college students to businessmen. This Tiki-themed establishment evokes a piratical mood that – when combined with a sunny day and island music – will seduce you into channeling your inner Jack Sparrow and consuming copious amounts of rum disguised as innocent, brightly colored cocktails. Inside the bar itself, booths are occupied with bachelorette and birthday party goers sipping flaming rum fishbowls and sharing pupu platters. Staying true to theme, drinks come adorned with mini umbrellas, festive straws and fruit garnishes. Sitting around the tiki bar on the outdoor patio, surrounded by tiki torches and sipping cocktails out of tiki head mugs you may find yourself embracing, a little too enthusiastically, the infectious spirit of the tiki.
Previously the Main Street Bistro (where some of my best albeit blurry Boise memories occurred), this popular downtown bar underwent a much needed facelift and rebranded as Amsterdam. Walking into the new lounge, it’s as if the Bistro put on slacks and a tie, and – like so many who used to frequent it – finally grew up. The dance floor and stripper pole have been replaced by white leather couches and coffee tables, the back bar has been converted into a coffee bar, and stylish fire pits and lounge chairs fill the outdoor patio. Martinis and mochas replace the previously prevalent purple viking and blow job shots, while the lounge’s mature look and menu attract a crowd that’s no longer comprised of drunk and debaucherous college kids (golf clap). While there’s just enough Bistro features remaining to evoke a sense of nostalgia, Amsterdam propagates no iniquity other than serving coffee cocktails to Gen-X patrons who pretend they have never spent a Saturday night puking in the lounge’s nearby restroom. We have both come a long way.
Depending on the day and time of your visit, Whiskey Bar adopts two completely different personas. Should you visit on a Friday or Saturday night, you will find loud music, flannelled college students, fake black rimmed glasses, and more man buns than one thought existed in the entire state. However, if you visit on a weekday or early weekend evening, the experience is quite different and one that’s definitely worth a try. As the name suggests, Whiskey Bar is a whiskey wonderland. The bar boasts an impressive selection of brown-liquor (150-200 whiskeys to be exact) including elusive, top-shelf brands like Pappy Van Winkle. Cozy leather couches and restored barnwood coffee tables provide a comfortable atmosphere, while a single bartender serves whiskey to lawyers and bankers. Visit during happy hour for boozy bargains and no threat of man buns.
PreFunk is, undoubtedly, the friendliest watering hole in town. Upon entering this beer bar I was immediately greeted by Jack – who was naked from the waist down. Stifling a smile, I complimented Jack on his flamboyant sweater while nonchalantly scanning the room for an open table. In doing so, I locked eyes with Waylon who walked over to join Jack in making my acquaintance. Luckily for me, and like many other patrons, Jack and Waylon were of the four legged variety. Wagging tales and wet noses augmented the bar’s cool interior, and every once in a while nearby conversations would be muffled by a playful bark. Boise only has a handful of dog-friendly bars, and PreFunk is amongst the most popular.
In addition to puppies, the bar also boasts 20+ rotating craft beers on tap as well as a selection of ciders, wines and local handmade craft root beer. The beer they carry is thoughtfully curated and features a variety of styles. The bartenders are always open to letting you sample a beer before committing, and they are helpful and knowledgeable when it comes to making recommendations. Complementing the casual interior, the corner-wrapped patio and roll-up doors make PreFunk the perfect place to relax with a cold beer on a warm day.
30+ years ago a man walked into a bar and ordered a martini. The bartender, Pat Carden, was mid-martini when the man had to run out and instructed him not to finish making the cocktail until he returned. Unsure what to do with the unstirred martini, bartender Pat buried it in the ice well until the man returned 10 minutes later. “Wow! You’ve got to try this,” the man exclaimed after taking the first sip of his long-awaited martini. When bartender Pat agreed to sip the drink he was met with the smoothest martini he’d ever tasted. And so (by pure accident) the 10-Minute Martini was born. Today, the 10-Minute Martini is still Chandler’s claim to fame (save for the steaks and seafood), and patient patrons swarm the steakhouse’s newly remodeled lounge for a delightful martini that’s definitely worth the wait.
Beyond its martinis, thirsty guests flock to Chandler’s lounge like a moth to the flame of fine food and wine (650 selections of wine to choose from). A limited “social hour” and “bar food menu” tempt guest’s tastebuds enough to evoke envy on those enjoying meals in the nearby restaurant side, while the newly introduced late night menu features some of Chandler’s famed dishes. Just in case you’re not convinced, the lounge also serves up live music seven nights a week during happy hour and live jazz during the late night hours. Whether you’re in the mood for a martini or a four-course meal, Chandler’s is the place.
Boasting the largest libations list in downtown Boise, Red Feather has something to satisfy any appetite. A reassuringly dependable list of craft beer and wine is augmented by some left-field concoctions like the Mary’s Fizz. Cocktails are inventive and made with fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. Here, the food is as much of a draw as the creative cocktails, and their dedication to fresh and ethical ingredients is evident throughout the seasonal menus. While the dimly lit atmosphere is swanky and posh, its decor doesn’t go overboard. And, though the lounge holds numerous bragging rights (like being the first restaurant in the U.S. to vermicompost, or its dedication to ethical food), their mission includes never overstating what they actually do, but rather encouraging patrons with an interest to inquire.
Though known for its amazing Italian food, Alavita also boasts a beautiful bar with some deliciously creative, hand-crafted cocktails. The cocktail list alternates seasonally, and features some of the best cocktails I’ve had in Boise. Each cocktail has its own unique twist, and features a good balance of house-infused syrups, liquors and juices. Although it is a crime to visit Alavita and not try the food, the cocktails are equally as impressive and should not be overlooked.
Press & Pony
I remember my first real craft cocktail. It was called the White Rose and it was from Raven & Rose in Portland, Oregon. The mixologist, Estanislano Oron (to call him a bartender would be a great injustice) had to discontinue the cocktail because the local farmer from whom he got one of the main ingredients could no longer sell that ingredient due to his rabbits escaping into the garden and eating his supply of said ingredient. Therefore, when I think “craft cocktail” this is what comes to mind.
Press & Pony is certainly channeling this theme, but (like many others) falls just a bit short of this high caliber. That said, I do enjoy their classic cocktails. Their Old Fashioned is amongst the best in Boise, and locals rave about their house made sodas. So if a quality cocktail is what you seek, Press & Pony is certainly worth your time.
Located in the middle of Boise’s bustling 8th St., Juniper’s bar nods to the neighborhood’s past while its menu pays homage to the region’s bounty. As the name suggests, Gin is the MVP. However, if you’re not a fan of the Juniper-flavored liquor there are numerous other cocktails (like the beet margarita) that are deliciously gin-free. The wine and beer list are comprised mainly of local libations, making Juniper a great place for introduction to Idaho breweries/wineries.