In the early Cenozoic Tertiary Period, between 65 million and 5 million years ago, tectonic movements caused massive flooding of what we now call the Snake River. Water piled up to as high as 4,000 feet in the Snake River Valley, including in the Boise Basin. What we see as the humble Boise River was, at some point in the misty past, a raging torrent with its shoreline carving out the Boise Bench, which today rests about 60 feet higher than downtown.
Skipping ahead a few million years, during Westward expansion the Bench was a landmark for travelers on the Oregon Trail and, as recently as 80 years ago, the shelf overlooking the Boise River was a sparsely populated collection of farms and two-track roads, small homes and neighborhoods, many clustered around the Union Pacific Railroad depot--which marked its 91st birthday in 2016.
A lot has happened on the Bench since then.
As of 2010, the Central Bench--broadly defined as the area west of Federal Way, east of Cole Road and south of Garden City--was home to an estimated 38,600 people accounting for 18 percent of Boise's households. Bench residents are younger than other Boiseans, with an average age of 33.6 years old, and city of Boise figures show almost half of them live in single-family homes.
It is, simply, one of Idaho's biggest neighborhoods, complete with its own mini-downtowns and plenty of bars. We drank at a bunch of them. Here's what we discovered.
The tagline for this full-service pub located in the Vista Plaza strip mall (574 S. Vista Ave.) is "welcome to our world." It is definitely a world unto itself.
There is almost always a food and/or drink special--including Janet's legendary prime rib on Friday nights--as well as Last Call Feud every Tuesday and Last Call Trivia every Wednesday. Busy pool tables dominate one end of the spacious bar, plus darts and the obligatory grip of televisions--though the latter are unobtrusive, leaving the bulk of the entertainment to actually hanging out with people.
Despite its large space, Jumpin' Janet's fills its role as a cozy neighborhood gathering place with soft, warm light and plenty of wood paneling. Seating is ample, which is important considering you're almost sure to order at least enough food to fill a table.
What really sets Janet's apart from most Bench watering holes is the size and quality of its menu. We're talking about oyster shooters, BLT croissants, muffaletta sandwiches, cajun shrimp salad, gyros, a full slate of inventive (dare we say "gourmet"?) burgers and, of course, the previously mentioned prime rib, which really does deserve its vaunted reputation.
To wash all that down, check the Janet's calendar for Sunday mimosa and Bloody Mary deals, $3 micro night on Thursdays and $4 bartender's choice night on Saturdays. There are about 20 beers on tap, plus a full liquor selection. Cozied up at the bar? Try your hand at flicking quarters into the back-bar pitcher to win a free tipple.
Situated as it is at the gateway to Vista, Jumpin' Janet's might not be the best place to start a neighborhood pub crawl. Chances are you won't want to leave.
Once a drive-in on the sleepy farm-to-market road called Vista Avenue, the aptly named Vista Bar is unmissable with its A-frame design.
Once regarded by some as rough-and-tumble, under the ownership of Shirley "Sam" McMurtrey it has not only regained its neighborhood feel but reveled in it.
"If Vista lacks the feel of a neighborhood, the one thing it has is the Vista Bar," said regular Cal, who serves as unofficial historian of all things V-Bar. "It's a true neighborhood bar."
With 16 taps, full liquor shelves, two pool tables, darts, electronic golf, lotto machines, a well-stocked jukebox and semi-regular live music, the Vista is a clean, cozy drinkery that has in many ways outgrown its "dive bar" reputation.
Of course, that's not to say the place is in any way hoity-toity. True to Cal's description, the Vista Bar welcomes all comers. Members of the beard-and-banjo set mingle among old time Benchers and a collection of well-intentioned riff raff.
Smokers are given plastic cups to sip off on the newly renovated patio, which offers welcome, shady relief from the bustle on Vista, and the place is devotedly dog-friendly.
Inside, the bartenders make a point of learning repeat customers' names and the laid-back atmosphere is such that a patron wouldn't feel ill at ease cracking a book as well as a tall boy. Sit at the bar and you'll notice a trio of signs containing a string of letters. Good luck guessing what they stand for.
As to the name of the place, which varies by the speaker between Vista Bar, The Vista, V-Bar or The V, Cal said "it's debatable," though he likes to refer to frequent fliers as "Vebes."
What's not debatable is The Vista is a true Bench landmark, and that "V" might as well stand for "Victory."