Spring's thaw encourages an exploration of this North Idaho town's diverse food scene

click to enlarge More than meets the culinary eye in Priest River, Idaho. - CARRIE SCOZZARO PHOTOS
Carrie Scozzaro photos
More than meets the culinary eye in Priest River, Idaho.

We can know a place through its food. In Priest River, it's a mish-mash of longtime favorites and relative newcomers, many of whom embody the pioneer spirit that founded this North Idaho timber town in the late 1800s. Next time you're passing through on the way to the lake, or looking for a short day trip, keep this Gem State jewel in mind.

For THE SETTLEMENT KITCHEN + CRAFT TAVERN'S (5634 Highway 2) owners David and Dana Rivera, opening a business in Priest River was at the nexus of necessity and serendipity. The couple was looking to trade their fast-paced life in the Phoenix area for something more sustainable where they could be debt-free, raise their children and still feel like part of a community, says David. They purchased property across the state line near Newport, eventually resettled there and looked for a way to parlay David's love of wine and 20 years in the food industry.

In 2018, the Rivera's transformed a shuttered Priest River restaurant into the Settlement, which pays tribute to the influence of Italian immigrants working for the railroad — there's still a neighborhood in town called the Italian Settlement. The food honors the Riveras' traditions, with dishes like their coffee and ancho-rubbed flat iron steak with sweet potato ribbons and Southwestern black bean, corn and quinoa salad ($18).

"I really like this dish," says David. "I believe that it highlights our Southwestern roots."

The menu overall is an eclectic mix of American fare, from several taco varieties, to fresh organic salads and mac and cheese to burgers, including the plant-based Impossible Burger.

Southwestern and Tex-Mex fare is also available at MI PUEBLO (5436 Highway 2), with dishes like chicken mole enchiladas ($9.75). Owner Yoni Solis, formerly of El Salvador, has three additional locations in Bonners Ferry and Spirit Lake, Idaho, and neighboring Newport.

Another local favorite is AJ'S CAFE (536 High St.), which Wendy Malnar and her husband Rick opened in 2008. The place highlights the town's railroad, logging and rural roots in its decor with horse tack and vintage signs, while the menu is downhome diner all the way, serving up hearty breakfast (try the chicken fried steak), lunch and old-fashioned pie.

Like many of the mining and timber towns in North Idaho, Priest River was built on the backs of people whose dreams were large enough to carry them through hard times. Early settler Charles Beardmore built one of the town's first commercial buildings in 1922, housing a theater and apartments. The place eventually fell into disrepair, but was revived in 2009 by Beardmore's great-grandson Brian Runberg, a Seattle-based architect.

Runberg's renovations of the Beardmore block, as it's known, included adding the BEARDMORE BISTRO WINE BAR & TAPHOUSE (119 Main St). In addition to small plates and craft beverages in a restored 1920s barroom, the bistro does a popular two-for-$20 dinner special on Tuesdays ranging from puff pastry chicken to spaghetti and meatballs.

Another family name as integral to the town's history as Beardmore is Henry Keyser, whose late-1890s home was relocated from its original rural site to downtown Priest River and now serves as both the Chamber of Commerce offices and a historical museum. In 1978, Keyser's descendants opened the VILLAGE KITCHEN (at 911 Highway 2, formerly called Keyser's Village Kitchen). All-day breakfast is its claim to fame, as is their large, screened-in outdoor seating area.

Like the Village Kitchen, the RUSTY ROOSTER (45 S. McKinley St.) covers the gamut, from breakfast and lunch to weekend dinners. Its specialty is Southern-inspired dishes, so look for items like fried okra ($5) and house-smoked meats — try the brisket ($11.50) or Cuban with house-smoked pork and capicola ham, salami and Swiss cheese ($9.75) — as well as south-of-the-border accents like the Southern pizza with chorizo and jalapeno ($9.95).

Pizza was on Shawna Prummer's mind when she opened one of Priest River's newest establishments last spring, RIVER CITY TAP HOUSE (6151 Highway 2). Its logo, a Boston terrier, is a nod to Prummer's dog Bubba.

"We do a sourdough crust with flour I bring in from Italy," says Prummer, who sources most ingredients from Sandpoint's Winter Ridge Natural Foods, which she owns with husband Gregg. Try the Fun-Gi pizza ($15), topped with seasonal mushrooms, garlic alfredo sauce, artichoke, mozzarella, caramelized onions and fresh rosemary.

River City Tap House's menu leans toward health-conscious pub fare, with grass-fed beef, organic veggies and all made-from-scratch items. Gluten-free dishes are no problem. The Prummers opened Winter Ridge in 1997 when their son was diagnosed with celiac disease, offering gluten-free beer and items like their popular fish and chips ($15) prepared in a dedicated gluten-free fryer.

The new pub is located in the former home of King's Bar and Grill, near the junction of Highway 57 and Highway 2, which sends travelers north towards Priest Lake, west to Newport or east to Sandpoint. Painted orange in a nod to Priest River's Lamanna High School with an otherwise uninviting exterior, the Tap House serves as a reward for travelers with an adventurous culinary spirit. ♦

food@inlander.com

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