To paraphrase a favorite quote: When you find yourself in abundance, don’t build a wall. Build a bigger table. In 2019, this sentiment isn’t lost on our abundant community that sees value in every contribution made, whether the idea was gestated, incubated, or hatched locally or not. And building a bigger proverbial table is exactly what Omaha has done, creating space for family traditions, eclectic inventions, and feats of gastronomical proportions. You’ll still find small, family owned establishments being embraced, chains finding their place, and wild ideas being given space.
There was a time, truly not that long ago, when choices for dining out in Omaha were extremely limited. My modest childhood had me believing there were only two restaurants in Omaha. First, The Choice, and by choice, they definitely mean you intended to get food poisoning from the sneeze-guard-less buffet. The all-you-can-eat offer was treated as more of a challenge, and yet I viewed the endless dessert options and pounds of room-temperature crab legs with the wonder and reverence only a child raised on bologna sandwiches and sauerkraut with hot dogs can really demonstrate.The other choice was Red Lobster, which was open only on my birthday every year, and only if it didn’t snow. And my birthday is in January, so basically, I went twice.
Omaha was, of course, better served than that, but I am not the minority in having been under the impression that we were the land of chains and fast food. Learning about the storied history of Omaha’s oldest establishments has brought out even more of that 5-year old’s respect.
Up With the Old
It may or may not surprise you to learn that many of Omaha’s oldest establishments are not only surviving but thriving in our relatively new “elevated” culinary culture. The reason is simply because traditions matter in Omaha, and these places got it right the first time, or learned to roll with the tide.
Orsi’s – 621 Pacific
The only time it’s hip to be square – Since 1919 the Orsi family has been serving slices of pie, first to families freshly emigrated from Italy, and soon to anyone who caught the scent of the fresh crust, or sight of the generous portions and rich toppings. For generations, Orsi’s has been an Omaha tradition.
Johnny’s Café – 4702 S 27th
Opened in 1922, Johnny’s remains one of Omaha’s favorite steakhouses. Accessible yet elegant, the restaurant hosts business lunches, corporate events, and family reunions daily, and is as much a part of Omaha’s signature look as any skyline in the Old Market.
Gorat’s Steakhouse – 4917 Center Street
While ownership has changed in recent years, the Gorat’s name still belongs firmly on this classic Omaha staple. The restaurant was opened in 1944 by Louis and Nettie Gorat, and new owner Gene Dunn knew it would be criminal to change the things that made Gorat’s home. Slight modernizations included removing layers (10, actually) of wallpaper, adding a few fresh options to the menu, and including live entertainment. Dunn also made small efforts to cater more to families with small children and those looking for a hearty but convenient lunch. The efforts are intended to make Gorat’s more than your special occasion location, and to keep the establishment part of your family’s traditions, no matter how your family grows.
Jack and Mary’s – 655 N 114th
Since 1975, Jack and Mary’s has been the unassuming contender, winning “Best Chicken in Omaha” countless times. While Jack and Mary themselves have retired, Jack can still be seen frequenting the establishment to get his chicken fix. The new owners have maintained the sacred recipes and warm vibe but modernized by including themselves on lists of local restaurants offering delivery through convenient services such as Fast Guys.
The Drover – 2121 S 73rd
Opened in 1969, The Drover has made every “Best of” list in Omaha, has been featured in national magazines, and cited by numerous Food Network stars. A fire on Christmas Eve was enough to take this icon out for a while, but owners anticipate reopening in April.
Omaha’s new generation of chefs and restaurateurs have shown respect for the established names that gave them their first taste and would never bite the hand that literally fed them. The descendants have one advantage over their forefathers, however …
Accredited since 1975, Metropolitan Community College has been the alternative choice for students seeking to get their college degree locally, learn a trade, or simply take a few classes. It’s a fine school, but it has set itself apart by developing and expanding its culinary program.
In 2009 the Institute for the Culinary Arts Center was opened. A state-of-the-art facility, the center offers both Culinary Arts Management and Hospitality and Restaurant Leadership degree programs. Students have received a hands-on learning experience offered by renowned educators, namely chef instructors Bryan O’Malley and Kevin Newlin.
This education takes students deeper into food production than simply applying heat to ingredients. It starts at the root of the meal, as the horticulture program tends the very soil that will grow the student’s food. It’s more than gastronomy, it’s science.
Moving beyond the greenhouse, students are taught to respect the culture behind each dish they serve. They learn that French cooking is far more than butter sauces, and Italian food is slow for a reason.
They are taught to respect the dish, and to honor the history while forging into the future. You won’t be surprised to learn that many of your favorite local chefs are graduates of the grueling program. The coursework is heavy, but for those with enough passion to survive the unforgiving atmosphere of a kitchen, the burden is one they carry with pride.
Whatever Pops Up
These days, everyone from Omaha’s Chef Elite to your weekend grill jockey is afforded an opportunity to share his or her culinary cunning and unique vision with the curious community. The vehicle for this equal foodie playing field? The Pop-Up event.
Restaurants are opening their kitchens to anyone with something to say (metaphorically or otherwise) and offering the space to constantly expand how we think of food.
Via Farina, Kitchen Table, Block 16, and Nite Owl have hosted restaurant and menu expansion ideas for numerous entrée-preneurs, and countless more bars and restaurants have allowed chefs to guest host events at their establishments.
In 2016, Nick Bartholomew decided to offer a free space and a staff to anyone who wanted to launch a restaurant idea, expand a menu, or create a new experience for diners when he launched Dandelion. With a small stand in the Chamber Courtyard, he hosted the “Omaha Famous” names that have put us on the map as the up-and-coming foodie city in America. From J. CoCo to Dario Schicke, Clayton Chapman to Mortel Crawford, Dandelion was the place to see and for your menu to be seen. Shortly before the end of the 2018 season, Dandelion was unceremoniously evicted from the spot when the grounds were sold.
Bartholomew insists that Dandelion is not dead, only hibernating. I can’t wait to see what blooms this spring.
A Not-So-Sad Goodbye
The dining option that has been gently nudged off the table is factory farming and Frankenfood. Omaha may be home to Hormel, and Tyson still mechanically separates chicken just down the street, but the outcry has been for farm-fresh, ethical sourcing, and sustainable practices.
Applebee’s, arguably the Walmart of restaurants, has found itself losing its fevered grip on the Midwest, its historic base. An expensive attempt to woo millennials in the last few years resulted in the establishment taking huge losses after rebranding, adding sriracha to everything, and essentially alienating the families that were comforted by the affordable kid’s menu and the general feeling of stickiness and non-judgment they had relied on for years.
What’s Good in the ’Hood?
Say the name of any of Omaha’s neighborhoods and people walking by will stop what they are doing to tell you where you should dine. “You’re heading to Blackstone? Go to Noli’s! Did you know the owner adjusted the PH of the water to make New York crust? Get the DiManzo! Head to Coneflower after. Did you know the owner Brian Langbehn sources everything locally?”“If you’re going to be in South Omaha, hit 24th Street. Any of the small family owned taquerias. But if you’re going to Jacobo’s, you have to bring me back some salsa. And a taquito! I haven’t had one in ages!”“Dundee? You’re going to The Dell, right? Man, I could sure go for a Rueben right now …”No matter where you are in the city, there is a best place to eat, and strong opinions about where that best place might be.
Whether an established restaurant or a new venue, Omaha owners have the recipe for doing it right. In a city where you can be adventurous, flip a coin and end up someplace new, or rely on the standards that have made us your home. You’re going to have an experience worth savoring.Thank you for allowing The Reader to be your alternative news source for the last 25 years. We look forward to bringing you to the furthest reaches of our incredible city for years to come.