In recent years, Omaha has repeatedly been named in the top ten, five,
and eventually top two foodie cities in the United States. The road to
recognition, however, was long and winding. While it wasn’t until the late
Eighties and Nineties that nationally recognized restaurants would set
up shop in our neck of the woods, Omaha has been home-growing
talent since just about the very beginning. This month, The Reader has
taken a virtual tour through Omaha’s culinary history.
1854 – Breaking Ground
As aptly stated by local historian and author of “Wicked Omaha,” Ryan
Roenfeld, there is difficulty in deciding what counts as the first
restaurant in Omaha. “I guess the question we have to answer first is,
what are we calling a restaurant?”
It turns out that the answer was fairly easy for Roenfeld to come by. The
first dining establishment in Omaha was also the first hotel, and home to
the first regular church services. In fact, it was the first building to have
been built in the city. Construction began and ended on The St.
Nicholas Claim House (eventually referred to as “hotel”) in 1854. Built
by the Council Bluffs and Nebraska Ferry Co. to encourage settler use of the company’s ferry, the claim house was taking guests by summer of the same year.
“Omaha’s first newspaper, The Arrow, printed an ad that simply stated: ‘Venison, foul, bird, or fish. Cooked in any manner you please,’”
Roenfeld said. “It was hard to open a restaurant at that time, because
saloons offered free lunches to entice customers to drink. Why would
you go to a restaurant and pay for food when you could just sit down
with a drink and get a free meal? But The St. Nicholas would prepare
any meats a hunter or fisher would bring in. Eventually, places started
buying meat from hunters to serve to diners.”
Roenfeld’s other observation on the period was a little on the fishy side.
“Oysters,” he said. “Oysters were everywhere in the 1850s and 1860s.
Without refrigeration and in a landlocked state in the center of the
country, everyone was eating and serving oysters.”
Today we have Shucks and Absolutely Fresh, and fresh oysters are
easy enough to come by. If your relatives were eating oysters in Omaha
in the 1850s, however, they’re possibly who you have to thank for the
immune system that saw you to this side of the pandemic.
1880s – Growing
This was the first time Omaha is named among the fastest-growing
cities in the United States, largely due to local packing plants and their
willingness to hire immigrants. The Union Stockyards (which closed in
1999) was a boon not only for Omaha’s economic status, but also its population. Omaha became the top livestock market and meat-
processing authority of the time, surpassing the previous title holder, Chicago.
1917 – Omaha Steaks
J.J. (Shames) Simon and his son B.A had butchery in their bones. J.J.’s
father, Lazar, founded a packinghouse and meat market in his home of
Riga, Latvia, before the family came to the United States fleeing
religious persecution in 1898. Today, the Simon family is still active in
Omaha Steaks’ operation, and the company has grown from a railcar
luxury to an internationally renowned retailer.
1922 – Johnny’s Café
Located at 4702 S 27th St., Johnny’s Café has served Omaha for more
than a century. Legendary not only for its longevity, but for the nostalgic
touches that remain the focal point of the establishment’s décor.
1929 – Blackstone
Beautiful architecture and exorbitant prices made Blackstone one of
Omaha’s most beautiful places to live. But the stock market crash of
1929 stopped the westward expansion of Omaha’s elite in their tracks.
The ornate homes soon proved impossible to maintain during the
financial crisis and were converted into boarding houses. By the ’40s,
many of the structures had been repurposed as funeral homes. Recent
efforts to revitalize the stretch of Farnam have resulted in the reopening
of The Blackstone Hotel alongside many of Omaha’s most notable
restaurants and nightlife attractions.
1947 – El Charro
While South 24th Street, and Omaha in general, is increasingly well-known
for its authentic Latin fare, Antonio Espejo’s El Charro was the
first Mexican establishment to grace the city’s restaurant roster.
Originally opened at 5407 S 24th St. in 1947, El Charro served tamales,
tacos, and arroz con pollo before moving into a larger establishment.
The new location offered a full cocktail bar, and El Charro would
eventually become known as the first Mexican steakhouse. The Espejo
family moved locations twice more before opting for closure in 1977.
The establishment’s third move was to 3802 Leavenworth.
1954 – Fair Deal Café
Known locally as “Black City Hall,” the North Omaha eatery was home
to some of the city’s major political and social discourse of its time. A
meeting place for leaders and change-makers such as Ernie Chambers,
Jesse Jackson, and Brenda Council met over traditional soul food. The
name and recipes have changed hands a few times since the early
Fifties, but Jackson’s Fair Deal Café is still proudly serving at 2118 N 24th St.
1957 – Todd’s Diner
Steve Urosevich’s father was a Serbian immigrant who came to Omaha
to work in a packinghouse, hoping to provide a better life for his family.
Just one generation later, Steve bought Wishbone Steakhouse and
converted it into Todd’s Diner, a drive-in that soon became the go-to
spot for Omaha’s teens. The establishment closed in 1969, but not
before gaining some national attention and being spotlighted in Esquire
1974 – Spaghetti Works
You might not think of the all-you-can-eat pasta spot as one of Omaha’s
shiniest of gems, but as the Old Market nears its 50th birthday, you have
to admit there is something to the staying power of bottomless Bolognese.
1994 – The Reader
Born of a desire to hear from truly local voices, The Reader has spent
30 years serving the Omaha community, and being served by it. The
monthly publication has been delivering arts, music, culture, and dining
news from citizen reporters you have come to know and trust, and will
continue to do so until the final issue is printed in September.
“The thing I loved most about (reporting on) the Omaha food scene is
that it never let me down,” said Tamsen Butler, former Dish contributing
editor and local author. “I knew I could confidently suggest spots to eat
to anyone visiting from out of town and they would get a great meal. I
also loved how nearly every restaurant I profiled was eager to tell me
about their efforts to source locally, and oftentimes would add a story or
two about how they work closely or cooperate with another local
restaurant. It’s like the Omaha food scene is a close-knit group of
people all working together for the betterment of the Metro as a whole.”
2009 – MCC Institute for Culinary Arts
While the college was founded in 1971, it wasn’t until 2009 that
Omaha’s home-grown talent was given a local place to cut their culinary
teeth. A culinary degree isn’t required to become a successful chef, but
the school has turned out some of Omaha’s most accomplished
Associate Dean Brian O’Malley had this to say about Omaha’s culinary
“The speed at which we strengthen our food culture is directly related to
a strong public discourse on the topic. One that has been enhanced
greatly over the years by the presence and impact of the Omaha
Reader and its many contributors related to food and drink. They have
given voice, vision, accolades, and marketplace for all.”
The dean and former chef/instructor of the institute wildly understates
his role as teacher and mentor to many of Omaha’s culinary elite.
Graduates of O’Malley’s methods have helmed some of Omaha’s most
lauded kitchens, with new recruits enrolling every semester. The school
has also leaned heavily into sustainability culture, and has become a
leader in ethical and local sourcing.
2014 – Modern Love
While the establishment could be notable for any of its mouth-watering
dishes, 2014 was notable as Modern Love became Omaha’s first
entirely vegan dining establishment. Before Post Punk Kitchen’s (2003-
2005) host and vegan cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s
opening of Modern Love, plant-based diners were stuck with a dry side
salad or dining at home. Moskowitz’s written works include “Vegan with
a Vengeance,” “Veganomicon,” “Isa Does it: Amazingly Easy, Wildly
Delicious Vegan Recipes for Every Day of the Week,” “Appetite for
Reduction” and “Fake Meat: Real Food for Vegan Appetites.” She
opened a second Modern Love location in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016.
We have seen huge growth in the last decade, with local chefs being
recognized by the James Beard Foundation, featuring on Food
Network, and leading the way in sustainability and creativity. The dignity
and agility Omaha showed in response to the pandemic proved that the
minds behind the menus are ready for any obstacle. The Reader has
been proud to be here supporting and reporting on Omaha’s thrilling
and thriving culinary culture, and we can’t wait to see what the next
decade has in store.