It has been a thrilling decade to watch Omaha’s culinary culture grow and thrive in new and exciting ways. As each newcomer stakes its claim on a little slice of the American dream, we watch as older establishments close to make way for the new. Statistics show that 50% of restaurant and food-service businesses have closed after five years, while 70% have shuttered by the 10-year mark.
In spite of statistics, these five area icons have proven that some things were built to last.
Johnny’s Café – 100 Years
4702 S. 27th
Celebrating a century of serving Omaha this year, Johnny’s Café was opened in 1922 by Frank Kawa. The establishment took its name from a sign on the property, and Kawa quickly turned Johnny’s into a South Omaha staple. The ubiquitous steakhouse has become an Omaha landmark and has been featured on screens both big (Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt) and small (Steak Out with Kix Brooks).
The Kawa family can still be found manning the steakhouse, which is steeped in rich history and old-world charm. While some would call the atmosphere “dated,” most recognize comfort in the classic, and in not fixing what isn’t broken.
Come fame, fortune, or the turn of a century, Johnny’s remains a family owned Omaha establishment that believes in excellent service, from-scratch recipes, and treating loyal customers like family.
Orsi’s – 103 Years
Located in the heart of Little Italy, Orsi’s Italian Bakery & Pizzeria was founded by Alfonso Orsi in 1919 and is showing no interest in slowing. The scratch bakery has remained an Omaha favorite for over a century by sticking with its time-honored traditions, foods prepared fresh daily, and classic family recipes.
The years have seen cosmetic changes and items added to the establishment’s offerings. A fire in the late ’90s resulted in a complete loss, but Bob Orsi rebuilt on the same ground where his grandfather Alfonso had founded the business. Soon, Bob’s son Bob Jr. and his business partner Jim Hall added a deli to the bakery, and in 2010 Orsi’s was sold to Hall and his wife Kathy.
The pair reverently preserved not only the recipes, but the family feel Orsi’s offered its customers.
In addition to the establishment’s famous full-sheet pizza and goudarooni, you can find authentic Italian kitchen staples and sundries on the shelves. Look for imported oils, cheeses, pastas, and spiced meats from the deli to create your own authentic dishes at home.
Gorat’s – 78 Years
While many of the spots on this list have embraced their old-school charm, Gorat’s sits solo in its much more modern atmosphere. That goes neither on my pro nor con list but is simply something to be aware of as you are choosing your evening out and your apparel.
While you can enjoy much of the standard Italian steakhouse fare that finds itself on each of the menus listed herein, you’ll also have the option of private dining for special events, and a relaxed lounge area that attracts live music on weekends and features a happy hour Monday through Friday.
Possibly best known as a favorite haunt of billionaire Warren Buffett, Gorat’s brought the Oracle of Omaha back year after year because of its family atmosphere and Buffett’s friendship with the recently passed Louis “Pal” Gorat. Founded in 1944, Gorat’s remained family owned until 2012. Since then, the new owners have respected the legacy and loyal regulars who’ve made and maintained Gorat’s status as an Omaha icon.
Nite Hawkes Cafe – 80 Years
4825 N. 16th St.
Nite Hawkes Cafe opened in 1942, and the Hawkes family has been serving its signature breakfast, lunch, and brunch for four generations.
You’ll love the blast-from-the-past prices on portion sizes that will humble you. The menu consists mostly of classic greasy-spoon fare, and rich gravy can be poured onto absolutely any dish and your life will be better (maybe shorter, but better).
The establishment isn’t just hanging in there, but recently closed for a week to redesign its entryway. The new, modern design is still warm, but more inviting than ever.
Cascio’s – 76 Years
1620 S. 10th St.
Opened in 1946 by brothers Al and Joe Cascio, the restaurant still stands because it stands on firm principles. Family first, customer-focused, and the same all-day recipes that made Cascio’s Omaha’s go-to.
While you can now score a bottle of Cascio’s sauce for home consumption, it’s still simmered daily for seven hours in the same 60-gallon kettle in which the Cascio family makes all of its signature sauce.
The spot has become an Omaha touchstone for both celebrities and locals looking to turn a meal into a memory, and a Saturday night into a celebration.
Most of the family still works on site, and the non-Cascio members of the staff have been there long enough to be common-law cousins to the family. The loyalty isn’t just among those returning to dine, but those who show up to make this labor-intensive love known as home-style Italian cuisine.
We are grateful to these establishments, the families who made them possible, and the Omaha diners who have kept coming back for generations. In a time when it often seems that little can last, it’s gratifying to see these legacies live on.