Pengilly's Saloon 

Boise institution maintains its mojo

On a Friday afternoon, Pengilly's is quiet. The only sounds in the bar come from a wall-mounted TV, the "thwick" of limes being quartered, a guy on a barstool crunching snack mix and the muffled thrum of traffic going by on Main Street. By 10 p.m., the hush will become a din with clacking pool balls, high-volume conversations and live music.

Pengilly's is a popular place--even on a national scale. Esquire Magazine called it "the one true classic in Boise," adding "only the right bottles reside behind a stunner of a 110-year-old Brunswick bar." Locally, however, it's a simple formula of excellent customer service, plus equally excellent live music that keeps people coming back.

In his five years at Pengilly's, bartender Chris Peterson has poured many drink from those bottles. He said some people walk in the door for the first time to see the "stunner of a bar" they read about. But he sees plenty of repeat business, too.

"For a lot of people who come in from out of town, this is the one bar they have to come back to because they've been here before and it hasn't changed," Peterson said. "A lot of people don't like change. And the bar, which opened in 1976, looks older than it is. Even the expansion looks like it has always been there. I've had people walk in who haven't been in for a year and say, 'Something looks different.' Yeah, it's twice as big now. We even have the best bathrooms in town."

Peterson's pride in Pengilly's is matched by his attention to both details and customers. He's quick to fill an order, pick up empties and offer suggestions for the indecisive.

Some of the credit for keeping customers happy goes to Pengilly's owner Allen Ireland.

"[Ireland] trusts his staff to come down here and put money in the till, which is what we want to do," Peterson said. "He has a hands-off approach, which lets us concentrate on customer service."

Add in live music every night of the week, and Pengilly's is exactly the kind of bar that draws a diverse demographic. Musician Jonah Shue does guitar and vocal duties for Frim Fram 4, a longtime Boise group that takes the Pengilly's stage every Thursday. The variety of the people he performs for is one of the things Shue likes best about the place.

"For the most part, [there is] always a nice mix of people--generations, class, etc. On Thursdays, we've had a nice return of swing dancing and old Jimmy Mahoney ... at 82 years young, is often seen dancing with gals celebrating their 21st birthday. Sometimes two at once," he said.

Asked why Pengilly's is an important part of Boise's music scene, Shue--who has performed at Pengilly's for the past 10 years--said it's a place where local musicians could be heard.

"Lots of places have had live music for as many years, but somehow, Pengilly's had a reputation already for being a 'music venue.' I think it partly was due to the homegrown talent that played there through the '80s and '90s. At that point, it was smaller and more of a 'listening' room by virtue of its size. I think it is still a generally encouraging place to play, and it's not impossible to get a gig there, even though there are many people probably waiting for their turn. Now, after the expansion, it feels a little rowdier and less 'listen-y' on the weekends .... It did lose a little of its old-town charm, but Allen did manage to do an amazing job keeping the antique vibe."

After a decade of performing at Pengilly's, Shue added that a better question might be: "Why do musicians like to drink there, too?"

"I think there probably is a residual/historic connection to the fact that there was a guitar store [Old Boise Music] next door for so many years. All of the Pinto Bennett/Nashville guys used to sort of congregate around there (the store and the bar) when they were in town. ... All of the rooms upstairs are still in use by musicians for teaching, so the whole building has sort of been a music hub for a long time."

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