In a town saturated with bars, bar and restaurant Wilson and Washburn is brimming with potential. The decor of the bar is dark and warm with a hint of sexy, as images of burlesque dancers are framed on the brick walls. A large wooden apothecary holds shelves of spirits, 24 taps of local and international beers, and two large flat screen televisions. A staircase angles up the back of bar near the kitchen, leading to a lounge area upstairs with a capacity for 50 people, perfect for parties or work functions. Located a block from the Orpheum Theater, Wilson and Washburn is barely on the outskirts of the Old Market, with better bets for parking and avoiding the overspill from the core of downtown.
Owner Jeff Luby and former partner Eric Hochstein opened Wilson and Washburn in late July of 2013. Prior to this venture, Luby tended bar in New York for 15 years. Currently, he is the sole owner. “(Hochstein) is still a founding partner and a great friend,” he said. “We’ve had a few changes and are still evolving. No matter what, we are still a neighborhood bar serving excellent drinks.”
There have been some recent changes in the kitchen as well. Former Chef Hiomara Van Den Boogaart moved on to open a new establishment in 2013, and has been replaced with Bradley Ruesch, the former sous chef with a polite demeanor and plenty of enthusiasm. “I’ve been here since January of this year,” he said. “I was the former chef at Omaha Tap House, and decided to expand my knowledge of the industry, and I was intrigued by the potential of this menu.”
Omaha history is rich in this place. Wilson and Washburn is named after Anna Wilson, an influential madam, and Josie Washburn, a member of her staff. Luby dubbed this bar “a serious comfort station,” a term formerly used to sugarcoat the word “brothel.” Luby, well-read and eager to share his knowledge on the subject, was glad to give us an overview of Omaha’s outlaw history. Back alley sewer entrances to brothels hid some of Omaha’s most prominent businessmen from prying eyes through the 1800s. In the 19th century, Wilson donated her fortune to the City of Omaha (her 25 room brother was turned into a hospital), under the pretense that she be buried under 9 feet of concrete next to her husband, Dan Allen, so that her corpse could rest in peace without the threat of being…resurfaced.
I was more than ready for a drink after that story.
I asked the bartender to make me a drink of his choice with whisky as the main act. Artfully, he measured Bulleit, simple syrup, bitters, chilled coffee and ice together, with the pleasant sound of ice chipping in the shaker as the alcohol forced its way through the cracks. Garnished with an orange peel, the Dirty Wicked ($8.50) is a signature drink of the bar, and a tasty one at that. The chilled coffee marries nicely with the bourbon, though it did get a bit watery towards the end.
Curious about the menu, I asked Ruesch to bring me two items of note, one vegetarian, and one meat. In no time, he brought out two sandwiches; the House Smoked Pulled Pork ($8), and the Beet Burger ($8). “I am so proud of this burger,” said Ruesch. “People who may not like beets get this burger and love it. We also feature beet chips, which are very popular. It’s one of the ways we stay original with a fantastic menu.”
I was surprised to not receive any of the beet chips. Instead, we had regular potato chips served alongside our sandwiches. The beet burger was tasty. It held together very nicely, thick and chewy just like an actual burger, the red inside reminiscent of a rare patty. This hefty sphere sat atop a pool of house made smoked peanut butter, topped with pickled jalapenos. The flavors blended beautifully, however, the burger itself was a bit dry. Regardless, this dish is an excellent option for vegans who want to enjoy some top notch bar food.
The pulled pork was quite spicy. Smothered in a house made barbecue sauce, the meat was tender and flaky, a delicious combination. This pork was complemented by a layer of fresh coleslaw, giving it an extra crunch.
My only complaint was the potato chips. Stale and anticlimactic, they were the homely companion to otherwise beautiful dishes. The beet chips would have been a much better compliment.
One thing for sure is the staff of Wilson and Washburn are aiming for stellar service, and they are delivering. The brand story is fantastic, and the atmosphere appropriate for fans of craft beer and cocktails. The kitchen is an eclectic mix of past staples and new dishes, a pairing that will take a bit of time to develop. With the enthusiasm from both owner and chef, this place is sure to continue its growth in the Omaha bar scene.
Wilson and Washburn: A Serious Comfort Station
11:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m., kitchen open till midnight
1407 Harney St.