Walking into The Pioneer minutes after opening, it’s clear this place is a town favorite. The bar is practically full already, the cubbies of seats next to it quickly filling up. We are picking up our order, and glad to have come inside for a drink while we wait.
We take a seat in one of the red leather banquettes and take it all in: the taxidermized trophies (many of which have storied pasts, including the seventh largest deer killed in Idaho); framed collections of Penobscot Indian arrowheads lining the bar; a birch bark canoe from the Catskills that hangs just above our heads.
The Pioneer, or “Pio,” is known for its steak, its kitch and its $9 margs, which we’ve gotten as a two-for-one special in our to-go order. So we go with Hemingway’s margarita (grapefruit instead of lime), and a Pio Man’s Manhattan. Speaking of Hemingway: It’s rumored he stumbled into Sun Valley in September 1939, making Wood River Valley his final home and resting place. His 1953 12-gauge shotgun was gifted down a line of grateful recipients until it found its way into the hands of current Pio owner Duffy Witmer. It’s now proudly displayed at the bar, where mask-clad drink-slingers welcome patrons with strong drinks and lively conversation.
The food is hearty, as you’d expect in a mountain town where earlier that day everyone’s been biking, hiking, fishing, skiing, hunting or all of the above. We start with the seasonal California artichoke, which is served with both plain mayonnaise and melted better. We combine the two.
Next, the “Jim Spud,” which is the order we’re here for, at our friends’ behest. It’s a huge Idaho potato baked to perfection, then layered with an irresistible mix of toppings. There’s salted butter, of course. And creamy sour cream followed by soft sautéed red onions, cheddar cheese, chunks of beef, and a sprinkling of green onions. The beef is marinated in George Matsumoto’s famous teriyaki sauce and cooked to your preference (medium rare). It’s true comfort food… except when you’ve eaten so much of it you can’t move.
Nevertheless, we continue onto our “main” course of shrimp and teriyaki beef kebab, served with some kind of deliciously salty rice, a warm mini French baguette, and simple salad. The beef, again, is cooked to order. The shrimp are huge and tender. We get the gratis sides of blue cheese butter and bourbon peppercorn sauce and are not disappointed. The peppercorn sauce is creamy and a tad spicy, especially good with the steak. For the salad, honey mustard dressing is a close friend’s favorite, and it’s easy to see why with its creamy consistency and touch of sweetness.
Originally opened by Otis Hobbs as a gambling casino known as the Commercial Club in the 1940s, the Pio reinvented itself as a dry goods store, a bar, and an antique store before it became a restaurant in 1972. Since 1986, Duffy and Sheila Witmer have been its owners, running the local mainstay with their three children, Alyson, Chloe and Dillon.
The Pio does not take reservations, and it is not unheard of to wait three hours for a table. But even very hungry guests will enjoy margaritas and excellent people watching. It’s worth the wait. The food is excellent, the drinks are generous, and the storied history that covers the walls is a testament to the Pio’s Sun Valley legacy.