The warmth of June is different from the slow heat of August, when we dream up reasons to stay indoors. Right now, we want to be outside - constantly.
For restaurants, this is patio season. And nowhere in the Treasure Valley is more alive with outdoor dining than 8th Street in Downtown Boise. The corridor from Bannock to Main Street feels like one long patio, with more than a dozen restaurants clustered together, most locally owned.
Recently, I set out to take in a sampling of the setting - as courses in a meal. In some cities, the appetizers-as-a-meal idea is built into the culture of dining out: You grab a bite in one place and then move on. It can make for an exciting clash of a meal, drawn out over an evening. In Boise, the variety and proximity of everything on 8th Street makes a progressive dinner like this possible - a chance to revisit old favorites or try something as new as the season.
At the corner of 8th and Main, the L-shaped second-story patio of the Piper Pub & Grill wraps around the building. For a generation, this overlooked the empty pit across the street, but now it is abreast with the construction on the new tower. There can be a musical quality to construction, but sometimes parts of that orchestra - a tile cutter, perhaps, or the beeping of a truck in reverse - can drown out conversation.
In full sun in the late afternoon, the Piper Pub features happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, with a selection of two-for-one drinks and a discounted appetizer menu with interesting choices like Irish sausage rolls and black mussels. The house-made bacon-and-cheddar Pub tots ($4.99) are a little more like croquettas, nubs of mashed potatoes fried crisp; good with fry sauce.
One of my favorite old-school indulgences is a Scotch egg: a whole hard-boiled egg, wrapped in sausage, rolled in breadcrumbs and fried. This version was served with the requisite grainy mustard and a dill cream sauce, an exorbitant but apt addition. There's nothing better with a beer, and there are a good range of microbrews like Payette's North Fork included in the two-for-one deal. (One thing, though: Why is the happy hour Scotch egg five bucks for one, but the regular menu version is $7.50 for two? Our server, who was a little new, was stumped, too.)
Moving up the block to Idaho Street, Grape Escape's patio is an intentionally intimate space, with wine-colored linens on the tables and pillows and blankets on the benches. From this den, you have an angle on the street, where you can hear music from the Balcony Club and from a saxophonist on the corner. By 5 p.m., the umbrellas and building shade the space from all but a single blade of light.
The wine, of course, stands on its own. A friend and I asked for recommendations from the well-versed staff, and the glasses of pinot noir ($10) and Riesling ($7) were well-chosen, immediately drinkable and made us ease into our seats. But the food here is about comfort, too - big, rich flavors to pair with wine. The pine-nut-and-panko-crusted brie ($9) oozed out when cut open, delicious with airy baguette, but could have used something to cut through - perhaps the few currants could have been saucier or in a chutney. The "Smokey Sampler" ($10) has shards of smoked salmon and trout, with candied walnuts, dried fruit and sliced white sharp cheddar.
After closing for a recent remodel, the shared patio of Bittercreek Alehouse and Red Feather Lounge is largely unchanged, save for a new central service doorway to the restaurant right between the twin front entrances. We dined on different days at each restaurant. Bittercreek and Red Feather have separate menus for food but a single, shared one for beer and wine; the furniture and plates are the same. If you had just walked up to this patio for the first time, there is little to distinguish that these are theoretically separate entities. Seeing servers from both restaurants enter and exit through the same staff entrance blurs that line further.
On both sides, it's a narrow fit of tables and bodies, but not unpleasant, and sunny here until early evening. The hyper-local focus of the menus keeps the list of offerings small, and neither restaurant had shifted into more summery offerings. At Red Feather, a friend and I felt that the fried gnocchi ($10) seemed like a dish for winter, with butter and sage, topped with cheese. The haloumi ($8) is griddled cheese on a few knobs of soft bread with housemade jam. The rotating charcuterie plate ($9) showed the most promise, but on this occasion, the salami was thick and cutting it shook the table. The house-cured meat had good flavor, served with fresh greens and wheaty, rippling wide crackers that are quite delicious - but the dish could have soared if the salami was shaved paper-thin.
Though there was no cocktail menu, our server ably guided us to a couple of winning options. A Rye Knot ($7.50) was a terrific rye whisky drink with lime and cayenne. Meanwhile, a fine, fizzy glass of Fizzhottie ($7.50) was something like raspberry lemonade.
At Bittercreek, service continues to be more casual, the food more straightforward. A sliced chicken breast in Frank's red hot sauce ($10) is the current version of a boneless wing - a little dry, with celery and good, from-scratch blue cheese dressing. My wife and I enjoyed the popular polenta fries ($6) - long slabs of firm polenta, fried to a deep brown exterior while the center turns creamy, served with a cumin-tinged mayo.
Across 8th Street, the dining room of The Matador spills out into the patio to make one integrated space when the front windows are pulled back. This gives it an airy, urban feel, and on a nice early summer day recently, as many guests were sitting inside the restaurant as were on the shady patio. The black-clad service staff breezes in and out, as little brown birds dart between guests' legs.
The happy hour runs from 4 to 6 p.m. and then again from 10 p.m. until the kitchen closes - 1 a.m. on most nights. Drinks are regular price (such as pint-sized house margaritas for $7 or flavored versions, like mango, for $8), but there is a pretty killer menu of $5 appetizers. If you share three or four, it easily makes a meal, and I prefer eating American-style Mexican food this way, free of the requisite rice and beans. We liked the almost-spicy chipotle wings and a big bowl of chicken-tortilla soup. A pair of street-style tacos is also $5, with a good slate of choices like blackened fish, chorizo or shredded pork. My only quibble: a "large" side of guacamole, about four tablespoons, is also five bucks.
Right next to Matador, surrounded by tall, black ironwork, is the secluded-feeling patio of Cazba and the Opa Lounge. Completely covered by a canopy of umbrellas, this was the tidiest and tightest-fitting dining space in the corridor.
The best way to cover all the bases is with the sampler platter ($14.95): hummus, tzatziki and baba ghanouj to spread on griddled pita, with a few pieces of calamari, golf-ball-sized falafel, mixed olives, cucumber, tomato and feta. The falafel were especially good, but for 15 bucks (plus $2.95 to add on two slices of gyro meat), the portions of the spreads seemed a little skimpy.
Opa's drink menu drives toward a late-night crowd, and the $8 "Opanator" was a Kool-aidy pint that reminded my wife and me of a touristy cocktail on a patio in Greece. A $4 Greek Asta was a better fit to the food.
Last is Fork, also in the thrall of the construction, but whose bustling but composed, red-umbrellaed patio is a little quieter, in the evening shade of the old Boise City National Bank building. Of anywhere on the tour, my wife and I found Fork to have the most impressive array of options for the start of a meal - or in our case, the end.
A long plate of house-cured salmon carpaccio ($10.50) arrives something more like a salad big enough to share, with peppery baby arugula, sliced egg, and goat cheese, just a touch strong on the shallots. The New Orleans shrimp ($9.95) were plump and nicely seasoned, with good crusty bread for getting at the sweet, smoky butter sauce. A not-quite-in-season grilled artichoke ($8.95) was nonetheless delicious, with just the right amount of herb aioli. Cocktails were great: A strawberry-basil margarita ($7.95) was pulpy with fresh fruit, and a blackberry moonshine julep ($7.95) stayed so cold in its metal cup that I could blow frosted fumes across it at the end of the meal.
Our astute server was honest in giving us a warning about the artichoke, and was sharp with recommendations and understanding of the menu. The service and food made Fork our best dining experience, and brought the entire appetizer-patio tour of 8th Street to a triumphant close.
Email Alex Kiesig: firstname.lastname@example.org