BOISE – Small signs sometimes signal big changes.
Such is the case with the 8-by-11-inch “Open to the Public” sign outside the Legislative Dining Room on the Garden Level of the Capitol.
When the 76-seat restaurant opened a year ago, it was exclusively for the 105 lawmakers and invited guests. Legislative staff could order take-out. Six weeks into the 2010 session the rule was relaxed, and the public was admitted from 7 to 11:30 a.m.
That prohibition slipped, too.
“The last couple weeks they said, ‘Don’t sweat it. Don’t discourage anybody,’ ” said Ronda DiGiorgio, who operates the cafe.
When lawmakers convened this year, all limits were lifted and hours extended to 3 p.m. “We’re up 40 percent over last year,” DiGiorgio said.
“We felt like we needed a vendor that was profitable,” said Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls. “This helps.”
“We didn’t have a big long list of people that wanted the contract,” added House Assistant GOP Leader Scott Bedke, of Oakley.
Was there a list at all?
“Let’s just say Ronda was the clear choice.”
DiGiorgio had a one-year contract last year but has since inked a two-year deal. She offers full breakfasts (eggs, hash browns and toast, $3.99), deli sandwiches ($6.49), salad bar ($4.79 all-you-can-eat) and daily specials (varies). Prices are about 10 percent lower than DiGiorgio’s Rooster’s Eatery. “We want it affordable,” she said.
Feeding time has been among the toughest adjustments for lawmakers after the $120 million Statehouse renovation.
“There was a cultural change,” said House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who enjoys the dining room as a place to meet Senate colleagues he otherwise wouldn’t see very often.
Lawmakers lost the intimate lounges adjacent to the House and Senate chambers. At about 400 square feet, they had a handful of tables and good cheap eats. Legislators paid an annual fee of about $75 and $3 per lunch. Only lawmakers and family were allowed.
The small kitchens sometimes helped leaders speed overlong late-morning debates. The aroma of meat loaf, fresh bread or soup could lure the most loquacious lawmakers to the trough.
Privacy also was a plus.
“It was a place where you could spitball legislative ideas in a stream of consciousness,” Davis said. “And you could quickly get the pulse of the Senate. There are other tools to do that, but this dining room makes that harder.”
The open lunchroom is an antidote to other changes after the remodel. The bigger space, private offices, key-coded doors, back hallways and elevators all make it harder to informally find lawmakers for a chat. But in here, everybody mixes.
Recently, Davis lunched with Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Reps. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, and Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. He had an unexpected visit from Mindy Solomon, an interior decorator from Idaho Falls.
Solomon is part of IDEAL, a group advocating legislation to license her profession. “Occasionally, you get your arm twisted, but that happens in this building,” Davis said.
Solomon was visiting the Capitol for the first time.
“Sen. Davis was very warm, very gracious,” she said. “He was excited to hear I was from Idaho Falls. He asked about my family and what neighborhood I grew up in.”
DiGiorgio said the atmosphere in the Statehouse dining room “seems a little lighter” with all comers. “Not that it wasn’t friendly before, but they’re good-spirited and talk to everybody. It’s light and easy with a lot of conversation.”