It was back in 1902 that Joe Welch went to work for his friends Frank Blackinger and Tim Reagan at the old Capitol Hotel. He started out as a bellboy, but bartending seemed more suited to his talents. What he really wanted to do was run his own saloon, a place where people could just stop in for a cold beer and meet with friends. That was a common sort of bar back then, and popular too. So in ’06 Joe Welch and Tom Clark pooled their money, bought the beautiful back bar from the Overland Buffet, and opened for business at 711 Main Street.
"The Bouquet Bar Wines & Liquors Domestic & Imported Cigars"
Back in 1910, Boise was a thriving capital city. They even had a telephones. You could call the Bouquet at 20J until 1914 when the phone company had to add more digits. People were flocking into the area to take advantage of its growing pains, and the people were thirsty. Business couldn’t have been better at the Bouquet.
By the time prohibition came in, Tom Clark had moved on and Joe Welch was going it alone. But the old saloon keeper couldn’t handle the thought of tending bar at a soda fountain so he sold out to Earl Hutchings, who promptly moved the bar down the street to 821 Main. He changed the name to the Bouquet Fountain and opened a radio supply house with a man named Bulkly. The bouquet became "Headquarters for Atwater-Kent Receiver Sets Supplies & Repair" as well as a good place to get an ice cream soda.
Five years before prohibition ended, a man named Bob King bought the Bouquet and decided to expand. He built the Havana Club upstairs, where a good game of Pan or Barboot could be found day or night. That part of Main Street had become the pool hall and gambling district of Boise, not to mention the red light district, and the Bouquet was right tin the heart of it. In ’33, when the liquor started flowing legally again, people were just as packed in as they had ever been. The stories that came out of backroom poker games were wild ones, telling of thousands of dollars changing hands in a single roll of the dice, businesses lost and won at a turn of the cards.
One article in a 1947 Idaho weekly called "Statewide" refers to the area as Boise’s "Skid Road." "It is," says the anonymous author, "the half-world, inhabited by people between the truly respectable and the truly disreputable." It attracted everyone from high state officials to down-and-out bums with its beer and pretzel parlors that stayed open just as late as the law would allow. Through it all, the Bouquet remained a mellow, respectable place. It’s said that the Bouquet was known to Morrison-Knudsen officials from all over the world from their visits to the company’s world headquarters in Boise. To loggers, cattlemen, miners, and working men from all trades, it was a place of relaxation.
It takes a certain breed of man to run a saloon, the kind of man who likes to be his own boss. Joe Welch, Tom Clark, Earl Hutchings—all were products of a boomtown Boise, of a boisterous, brawling era in Idaho when a pair of fists was often the only way to settle an argument, short of a gun. Bob King, too had to be tough—tough enough to take a business, even a social establishment like the Bouquet, through a national depression and survive.
Over in Jordan Valley, the local pool hall was run by Jose Berrojalbiz. His son Al grew up in that environment and when he left home to see the world, his upbringing stayed with him. He was good with his fists, but for the most part he put them to use in the boxing ring instead of bar brawls. He traveled quite a bit, and worked more jobs than you’d care to count. The war found him welding in a Portland shipyard, and afterwards he cut hair in a downtown Boise barber ship. Whether his move to 711 Main Street and his own "Modern Barber Shop" was an omen of things to come remains a part of the Bouquet mystique. Maybe some of the spirits from the original Bouquet were still hanging around the building, or maybe he was just destined to get into the business; but in 1955, when Bob King was ready to retire, Al Berro became the next owner of the now-famous Bouquet.
Those were years of relative calm for the USA, and Boise was no exception. But no matter, people were still thirsty, and business was good. The customers took to tossing gaming tokens up behind the back bar. The opening was none too wide, and it was aid to be good luck if you could make one.
Then there’s the story of the city dude from back east somewhere. He took one look at the gothic work of art behind the bar and offered Al $50,000 for it. Al’s reply can be learned by simply stepping into the Bouquet today. He knew that a man can’t put a price on a work of art like that, especially when it’s been a trademark of the Bouquet since it first began.
During all this there was another Berro son growing up. Jim was initiated into his dad’s business, as is the case with most sons, as soon as he could empty a garbage can, sweep a floor, or carry a case of beer up from the store-room. This son was also good with his fists, and like Al he put them to good use in the boxing ring—for the most part. Perhaps it was another omen tying him to the long line of men who have worked the Bouquet.
Boise had begun to boom again after several decades of nearly no growth. Another group of people began to play an important role in the happenings of downtown Boise. They began by tearing down blocks of old buildings wholesale, with plans for a shiny new downtown still vague. "Urban Renewal" they called it, and their motto seemed to be "all for one, and none for all." When they told Al Berro he would have to make way for this new era of progress, he balked. Why should a landmark such as the Bouquet not be preserved?
By this time, Jim was becoming a part of the business, and after several futile attempts at overcoming Urban Renewal, he and Al were forced to begin the effort involved in moving the Bouquet once again. Al had bought a piece of land out on Orchard Avenue, and for a while it looked as though their downtown institution would be moving out of downtown.
They needed a builder to put their new place together. Ed Basta had been a fraternity brother of Jim’s in college, and was one hell of a cabinet maker. In the winter of 1972-73 he was forsaking his talents for the ski slopes of Lake Tahoe. But a chance to do his own job, from first sketches to finished product, awakened a dormant enthusiasm. A letter to Greece brought John Pace back as the prospective restaurant operator, and with some rough sketches Basta and Pace came to Boise for a look at the situation.
In the meantime, the situation had changed. Al had bought the old Avery Hotel Building at 1010 Main, just a block and a half from the old Bouquet. They could maintain their downtown tradition, and in a building almost as old as the original one. Work was begun.
They spent uncountable hours wandering through the old building, talking about design concepts, floor plans, the flow of people and the like. Within a month, the overall concept was set. Everything would be designed off the back bar. Ed began to draw up the plans. Money was a problem, so a search was begun for a loan and, in the seven months it took to get one, the downstairs was stripped clean. The old brick found under the plaster walls was the first of many discoveries that inspired them toward the saloon you see today.
With a copy of the first blueprints for the building, they set out to restore it, as much as possible, to its original condition. Back in 1906, when it was first finished, it housed a hotel, a cigar store, a jewelry store and the Boz movie theatre. (That changed to the Strand after some years, and later still to the Granada.) The hotel upstairs did time during World War II as a house of ill-repute.
The canopy out front was one of those cast iron creations with prism glass and gas lanterns lighting the names of starts from Valentino to Pickford to Gable and Lombard. The original lobby floor tiles are still there in the entrance to the new Bouquet.
According to Jim, "The idea was to keep the saloon atmosphere, but to give it class." Ed’s precise plans gives it just that touch, and the polished finish work by Al Falzitto gives it even more; art, if you will.
But the efforts of Bouquet patrons, and some who had never even seen the place before, are what give it that unique touch that prompts the feeling of stepping backward in time when you walk in. Like the retired Army Colonel who stopped in one day. "Bouquet……That French? Where’s the restaurant manager?" He ushered John out to his car. "I want you to take a look at some old pictures I have. I don’t want ‘em." Several of those discarded classics now adorn the walls. You’ll notice an interesting fish hanging under the clock on the back wall. And what saloon would be complete without a painting of a naked lady? She lies against a smoldering background of black, wearing nothing but her knee-high boots and a silver arm band, casting her sultry stare on all who enter, a gift from Cumer Green, "the lawyer." Dan Riley’s prize hide from Bogota, Columbia hands on the brick. The moose and elk heads were donated by friends, and there’s even the skin of a bobcat, shot in Idaho by Ernest Hemingway, that yet has to find a place on the walls.
In spite of all this class, though, the Bouquet is still what it always was, a saloon. And you sort of feel like that’s the way it should be. You might say that, in taking a step forward, they took a step backward at the same time. From a plain, old-time saloon to a polished, new old-time saloon that would have graced almost any era in Boise’s history and made Joe Welch, Tom Clark, and any of the men whose spirits still haunt the Bouquet proud to be a part of it.
A common phrase heard escaping the mouths of those seeing the new Bouquet for the first time is, "Incredible!" But to hear Ed Basta tell it, "The incredible thing was trying to get it done. A lot of hands . . . that’s what it took."