Idaho — I think it was a Garrison Keillor line: No
matter how smug a Boise tech millionaire might feel as he
drives around in his fancy Mercedes, his license plate
still says "Famous Potatoes."
there, the potato joke is out of the way. Now for the real
I visited Boise recently, I found the capital of this
state with a reputation for root vegetables to be a hip
and happening place, easily dashing many people’s
notions about Idaho.
progressive, Basque-heritage mayor set out 12 years ago to
make this America’s most livable city, and it shows, in
the prospering downtown, beautiful parks, and a lively
arts and cultural environment. How many cities this size
(pop. 216,000) have their own arts office?
plenty to attract a young and energetic populace: miles of
bike trails, a hometown ski hill (Bogus Basin), a
burgeoning craft-brewery scene, even — yes — a surf
park, where a diversion structure on the Boise River can
be adjusted to make white water for surfers, kayakers and
so on. Go ahead and say it: Surf Boise.
is awesome — the nightlife is amazing and all you need
is a bicycle to get around," 28-year-old Robert
Ordonez, visiting from Alaska, said as he paused to check
a tire at a public bike-repair station (they have public
bike-repair stations!) on the Boise Greenbelt.
flat, paved, 25-mile riverfront path is complemented by
190 miles of off-road trails and tracks that compose the
Ridge-to-Rivers system in the Boise Foothills, at the town’s
lodging, a 121-year-old home renovated and converted to
the trendy Boise Guest House, provided cruiser bikes for
an extra $10 a night, so I didn’t bother to rent a car.
we might joke about, and certainly some of Boise’s
fortunes were built on spuds, starting with local potato
magnate Jack Simplot’s long-standing contract to supply
McDonald’s with frozen French fries. (Simplot died in
2008 at age 99, America’s oldest billionaire.)
days, the new money is on the guilty-pleasure Boise Fry
Co., which serves up seven foodie-pleasing choices of
potatoes fried in GMO-free sunflower oil, with locally
sourced bison burgers as a "side." Its flagship
restaurant is in the turreted, 110-year-old Adelmann
Building, at Idaho Street and Capitol Boulevard (boisefrycompany.com).
the record: Purple potato fries go fine with blueberry
ketchup, one of a bunch of special sauces to try.
the fortune built on the Golden Arches is adding whimsy
and a modern spin to downtown with December’s soft
opening of the Simplot-financed JUMP ("Jack’s Urban
Meeting Place"), 1000 W. Myrtle St., a nonprofit
"interactive creative center" somewhat
reminiscent of Seattle’s EMP Museum (jacksurbanmeetingplace.org).
sprawling, slightly Seussian complex — a five-floor
tubular slide spirals from a rooftop — next to the
construction site of the Simplot Company’s new
headquarters, JUMP houses a music-and-film studio, an
inventor’s studio (with 3-D printer coming soon), a
dance studio, cooking-class quarters — and Jack Simplot’s
collection of 52 antique tractors (it is Idaho).
the most devout Boise promoters aren’t quite sure what
to make of it yet.
a $70 million creation that’s still being created,"
said Lynn Hightower, director of the Downtown Boise
Association. "But I’ve been to yoga there, and I
already dragged my husband to a country swing dance."
are coming soon. A grand opening is expected in late 2016.
Boise is cool without trying too hard," Hightower
thing: You know how every traffic signal has a big metal
box housing the controls? Sitting on sidewalks, they’re
a target of taggers. Not here, where the arts office
solicited artwork, scanned it to vinyl and wrapped more
than 100 downtown traffic boxes. They’re works of
street-corner art that taggers leave alone.
determined street artists, there’s Freak Alley, managed
independently of city pooh-bahs.
started in 2002 when street artist Colby Akers decided to
decorate the back door of a cafe between Eighth and Ninth
streets. Someone who worked there liked his work and asked
him to sign it. Akers now "manages" Freak Alley,
a full city block of mural art that is regularly refreshed
through a juried selection process (freakalleygallery.org).
to Boise’s vibe since 2012 is the annual indie rock
festival called Treefort (treefortmusicfest.com), what’s
been called the West’s best alternative to South By
Southwest (and timed in late March in part to catch
performers on their way home from Austin).
the historic district and be glad that sensible minds put
a halt to 1970s efforts to raze the whole downtown and
build a shopping mall. When bulldozers reached the
Egyptian Theatre, Boise businessman Earl Hardy stepped in,
said "You can’t have it," and bought the 1927
movie palace (Capitol Boulevard and Main Street;
restored in 1999, it’s one of the most superb surviving
theaters of its era, full of Egyptian-style art and gilded
statuary. It even has a ghost.
had a guy who was a projectionist pass away here in the
1950s, and sometimes the lights will flicker or bathrooms
will flush by themselves," said Alex Ravella, who
works the box office for the theater, now a nonprofit that
shows classic movies and hosts special events. (Rocker
Jack White played an acoustic gig in 2015; tickets were
153-year-old city has a treasury of Victorian buildings of
Idaho sandstone and those trademark turrets (an early-day
local architect loved them). One of my favorite
structures, the French-chateau-style Idanha (originally a
hotel), hosted a fleet of politicians and lawyers during
the so-called "Trial of the Century" in 1907
when labor leader "Big Bill" Haywood was accused
of plotting to murder a former Idaho governor. Famed
defense attorney Clarence Darrow got him off, calling
Boise "the Athens of the sagebrush."
plenty of new construction downtown, too, including three
new hotels, a 36,000-square-foot addition to the
convention center, and a neighboring building to house
Clearwater Analytics and the Boise State University
computer-science program — bringing more sharp young
historical treasures, don’t miss the Basque Block, with
a museum and cultural center dedicated to the local Basque
population that is one of the largest outside Basque
Country, on the border of Spain and France. They came to
Idaho to herd sheep.
at noon on a Wednesday or Friday (or Thursday for dinner)
and the Basque Market dishes up gorgeous paella from a
giant caldron over a propane burner on the sidewalk
($8.99, and delectable; thebasquemarket.com).
grandfather came over at age 16 from the Basque Country to
get rich and go back, and neither of those things
happened," market owner Antonio Eiguren told me as he
added shellfish and lemon wedges to the steaming dish.
"Here, they gave him 2,000 sheep, a donkey and a dog
and said, ‘(Nevada) is that way, take them there and be
back by the end of summer.’ "
downtown on weekends, a corner vendor sells chorizo.
Locals steered me to other spots, ranging from a
breakfast-lunch bistro called Bacon (where bacon flavor
choices include chocolate and tempeh) to a bustling
sandwich bar called Bleubird, where co-owner David Kelly
will mix you up one of his famous soft drinks, such as the
weirdly wonderful slice-of-grapefruit and
sprig-of-rosemary concoction I slurped down with my
sandwich of salty lox and boursin cheese (bleubirdboise.com).
lunch was at Dave Krick’s Bittercreek Alehouse (bcrfl.com),
where sustainability extends to the basement worm bin,
composting the restaurant’s organic wastes. Free
worm-bin tours are offered monthly on First Thursday, a
downtown food-and-music fair.
Seattle, restaurants have to compost, but they don’t
have to in Boise," said server Chelsea Bunn, 26, who
grew up in Boise but has waitressed in Seattle. "Bittercreek
just decided to, which I think is pretty cool."
afternoon snack stop, within view of the soaring Capitol
dome, was Guru Donuts, the homegrown effort of Boisean
Angel Moran, who comes up with goodies such as the Irish
Cream Bismarck, filled with Jameson’s and Bailey’s
pastry cream and glazed with dark-stout frosting (gurudonuts.com).
behind me as I ordered, turquoise-haired Morgan Mesias, a
23-year-old art student, urged me to try a lemon
raved about Boise’s evolution.
changed dramatically since I was little, with tiny
businesses popping up all over, and they’re doing well.
They’re bringing in a lot of young people and that kind
of energy. And the art scene is exploding, with shops like
this encouraging artists to put up their work, and they
talked up another place to eat: Fifth Street’s High Note
Cafe, which I had biked past.
make the best tacos, and you’re in luck because it’s
Taco Tuesday, with street tacos for a buck."
how easily you make friends in laid-back Boise. And find a
good, cheap dinner, too — with no spuds in sight.
liked the feel and location of Boise Guest House, 614 N.
Fifth St., top-rated on TripAdvisor and within view of the
state Capitol. Starting at $109 on May weekends:
a bike, or rent one at Idaho Mountain Touring, 1310 W.
Main St.; idahomountaintouring.com.