Politics and love don’t always go hand in hand. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite. However, if you head to Capitol Cellars for a Valentine’s Day dinner, you’ll get a heavy dose of both.
“We really do put a lot of effort into decorating for the various holidays,” Owner Skip Smyser said.
Capitol Cellars’ Valentines Day offerings are a condensed version of its regular offerings, but that menu hasn’t been finalized just yet. Guests will receive a free rose and sparkling wine with each entree for the Valentine’s Day celebration, Director of Operations Logan Smyser-Griffin said.
Whether it’s a romantic night out for the politically minded or just a couple looking for dinner, Capitol Cellars offers an unusual experience in Boise. The restaurant sits in the cellar of one of downtown Boise’s older buildings on the corner of Fifth and Main streets. Journey down the stairs and through the doorway, and one will find a cozy, dimly lit dining room. Stone arches loom over the restaurant, giving it a distinctly European ambiance.
Idaho politics is a throughline to the restaurant’s overall feeling. It’s not so much a “stars and stripes” theme as a much subtler political motif. Placards with labels such as “mayor,” “pro-tem” and “lobbyist” adorn the tables, and while they are purely decorative most of the time, they do try to place them on tables if someone with one of those titles happens to be dining there.
“It’s a gathering place for people involved in politics,” Smyser said.
Everything in the restaurant is named for Idaho politicians, all of whom are deceased with the exception of one, Max Black—from whom the “Max Black Coffee” gets its name on the menu. Black received the honor after helping pick the Idaho Code Book cover to the wine list.
Peruse through the menu and you’ll find a range of names from the more generic Congressional Cheese Platter to Baldridge’s Burrata, named for Idaho’s 14th governor, H.C. Baldridge.
Quality ingredients are crucial to Smyser, who reportedly dines out with his wife Melinda quite often. He sources the food from local Idaho growers, then meshes that with the overall political tones of the restaurant.
“We integrated the political with Idaho with the farm to table,” Smyser said. “[It would] be hard to find an evening where you wouldn’t have a lot of legislators in.”
Venture toward the back of the restaurant and one will find the “Caucus Room,” a wine cave with wall-to-wall coverage of carefully selected wines. Continuing with the political theme, there are also a number of pictures of Idaho and national Republican politicians. From a signed head shot of Sen. Jim Risch—who dines at Capitol Cellars from time to time—to a photo of Richard Nixon bowling, politics covers every inch of the restaurant.
Outside of a notably peculiar theme in the Boise dining scene, the restaurant is largely a family enterprise. Smyser said at one time or another, all of his children have worked in the restaurant, though currently, Smyser-Griffin is the only one with a full-time position in the restaurant. Years ago, Smyser-Griffin worked in the wine industry in Napa Valley, California, but came home to help open Capitol Cellars.
“We got to talking and it moved as a good opportunity for her to come home,” Smyser said.
While Smyser-Griffin’s rural Idaho roots and Napa Valley experience helped shape the restaurant’s menu and offerings to what they are, Skip and Melinda Smyser are rooted deep in Idaho politics. Skip previously held seats on both the Idaho State House and Senate. He is also the founder of Lobby Idaho and co-founder of law firm Connolly-Smyser. Melinda, on the other hand, served 13 years on the Parma School Board of Trustees, two terms as an Idaho State Senator and presently serves as director of the Idaho Office of Drug Policy.
Together, the family has weathered the five-year storm together. In doing so, a lot has changed. In that time, Capitol Cellars obtained a liquor license, and now serves cocktails as well as wine along with food. Smyser-Griffin said initially the plan was to make it to three years and assess their position.
“I can’t believe we’re going on our five-year anniversary,” she said. “I’m really just grateful for the clientele we have.”