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Food for Thought in Canyon County

2C food scene offers growing options


Quick, where can you find lamb crespelle served in a French country ambiance, sustainably sourced sushi amid hip, modern decor and a cozy, open eatery offering microbrews and pizzas with names like The Chuck Norris, Red Velvet Nun and Drunken Goat? If your gut reaction is downtown Boise, you're so far off the mark, you're not even in the same county--literally.

While Boise has the reputation as the home of the Treasure Valley's most cutting-edge and adventurous eateries, several restaurateurs have foregone the safe confines of the area's foodie core to rebrand Canyon County's food reputation.

While meat-and-potato cafes and all-American diners still rule the scene, several restaurants are pushing the culinary envelope, bringing new tastes and experiences to the 2C. It's not the easy or obvious choice, but for those who have chosen to set up their kitchens outside of Ada County, there is one common reason: The area needed it.

"We have some great places here, but we just needed some place [like this]," said Cathy O'Connell, owner of Nampa French restaurant La Belle Vie.

O'Connell has spent nearly two decades in Nampa, and she's seen the restaurant scene go from nearly nonexistent to one that supports the likes of award-winning chef Dustan Bristol's Brick 29, a sustainable sushi eatery, and her own chef-driven restaurant.

"There's still a diversity of diner out there, but it's coming around," O'Connell said of customers willing to take a chance on something new. "Sometimes people are afraid of it--the dress code, portions, type--but they come, and they're pleasantly surprised."

For O'Connell, Nampa presented a stepping stone to opening her dream restaurant before tackling the more saturated Boise market, although she has left the door open to expanding in the future.

It's also allowed La Belle Vie to build its reputation.

"We know that when we have people traveling from Boise or outside of the area, and they come just for us, we must be doing something right," she said.

O'Connell admits that her location has made it more difficult to get the word out, but growth has still been steady each month since the restaurant opened two years ago.

The owners of Messenger Pizza and Brewery have also enjoyed growing acceptance since opening roughly a year ago in their hometown. It's this connection that brought the artisan pizza joint to Nampa in the first place.

"We live in Nampa, that's one main reason," said Cassidy McKinley, who owns Messenger with her husband, Shawn. "But also, since the Flying M [Coffeegarage] opened in downtown--we would always drive to Boise before--but it was a pretty exciting thing for Nampa. The space that we're in had been a cafe for 33 years. We saw it as a great spot and location for what we had envisioned for a pizzeria--something that we could reconstruct into strengthening Nampa."

McKinley added that it seems easier to take the chance in Nampa.

"The community of people seem to really pull together and look out for each other," she said. "It's opened more doors for local businesses and local people to open up. ... There's a lot of independence in Nampa; people seem to be able to take a risk."

McKinley admitted that it took a little while for customers to get used to a pizza place that didn't serve Coors Light and only offered natural sodas instead of fountain drinks, but once people learned what the restaurant was about, they came around.

"People are happy with what we're producing," she said. "They know that we're different. We make everything by hand, we're doing it out of a passion and out of our hearts."

The sense of community was also behind Tracy and Clif Volpi's decision to open Simple Sushi in their hometown of Nampa, although Tracy admits she sees the novelty of a sustainable sushi restaurant in Canyon County. In fact, Simple Sushi was the seventh of only nine sustainable sushi restaurants in the country.

"We feel like there was more options for eating and retail," she said of opening in Nampa. "[There are] more mom-and-pop places popping up who really want to give it all they have so people can stay in Canyon County."

Tracy said the concept of using only sustainable options in their sushi is one that has drawn diners not only from Boise, but from across the region, yet their hometown crowd can be a little more hesitant.

"People are less likely to try something new," she said. "They're so used to their normal routine of where they eat out. They'll go to Boise for special destinations."

Still local diners are coming.

"The culture is changing," Tracy said. "People are adapting to more culture and variety. People are willing to try."

For those who chose Canyon County, it's about building something in their home.

"When you work and live and produce food in your community, that's what you do," McKinley said.

"I'm excited about where we are," O'Connell added. "There are a lot of owner-operated, single people taking the initiative to open a business. It's kind of exciting to see all this going on."