The city that cut its teeth on USDA prime cuts of cattle has developed a range of dining options as broad as the shoulders and as expansive as the view of the lonely cow that tops Anthony’s Steakhouse. An impressive breadth of new restaurant expressions have entered Omaha’s ever-expanding culinary orbit into emerging food precincts like the Blackstone District and other budding neighborhoods, but the downtown dining scene remains at the center of this bountiful food universe.
A Big Bite
While it’s far from a large area, Omaha’s Old Market and its surrounding streets can present casual diners with overwhelming options. More than 30 well-established restaurants rule the cobblestone roadways. They astound cosmopolitan travelers who come with low expectations and board flights home with cravings that linger from last night’s dinner. In a town often characterized by “Midwestern modesty,” local restaurants have provided more prideful Omahans with a reason to thump the chest.
Choosing where to begin a downtown food tour is a difficult proposition, but in this case, selecting by the longest — or shortest-running restaurant leads to the same place — M’s Pub on 11th between Harney and Howard. Established in 1972, M’s became the elder statesman with the closing of the French Café. It reopened in November 2017 after a fire devastated one of the Old Market’s most iconic streetscapes, indiscriminately taking out one of downtown diners’ most-cherished places while also burning down one of the top-rated new restaurants in America at the time, Market House. And it’s from the scorched bricks of the same building that two very different Old Market regeneration stories begin.
Two Dreams, the Same Nightmare
M’s Pub was first opened by world traveler Mary Vogel who had an affinity for English pubs and restaurants in Washington, D.C., said its current owner, Ann Mellen. Vogel merged the concepts and Mellen has strived to stay true to its original pub atmosphere vision.
It still offers its “black menu” of all-day, made-from-scratch offerings. And then at 5, the dinner menu is rolled out with entrees that change every two weeks pushed by the creations chef Bobby Mekiney and other kitchen chefs. The restaurant’s interior has high ceilings, simple yet artful white walls and mirrors that give it a bigger feel than the space affords.
“It’s a very welcoming restaurant. It makes me happy every time I go there,” said Mellen, who said she doesn’t dwell about the fire as the resolution waits to be decided in the court system. Mellen said she didn’t want to wait for a decision as it would have no bearing on reopening.
“It was so ugly down here for a year and a half at least that a lot of other places suffered, so by bringing us back, it’s a very lively place again,” Mellen said. “People are very happy that it’s back, and not just for M’s, but for the whole Old Market. Myself included. I missed it terribly.”
Bartholomew still waits to reopen Market House with no date on the horizon, “held hostage” by remediation proceedings with insurance companies and the building’s landlord, he said. Bartholomew said one of the greatest difficulties to overcome was the restaurant’s buzz and all the hard work that went into creating it being extinguished by external factors.
“It was kind of like being at the one-yard line and fumbling the football, only we didn’t fumble it. The lights went out before we could call the play,” Bartholomew said. “We’re just waiting for the lights to come back on.”
And when that time comes, Bartholomew said he’ll need a completely new playbook. The three chefs he recruited to develop Market House have since moved on to open three successful restaurants outside of downtown – Matt Moser’s Stirnella in Blackstone, Benjamin Maides’ Au Courant Regional Kitchen in Benson and Chase Thomsen’s Saddle Creek Breakfast Club near 50th and North Saddle Creek Rd.
“I’ll have to create something from scratch again because as far as I’m concerned, all-in-all Market House is dead as it was,” Bartholomew said. “We’ll have to resurrect it in a new design, in a new way, and in a new style.”
The lack of a storefront hasn’t stopped Bartholomew from making a contribution in the food community. In the absence of Market House, the Dandelion Pop-Up has sprouted. As Creative Director of the outdoor food counter, one Friday at a time, he’s bringing top culinary talent from all reaches of the city to the northwest corner of 13th and Howard to cook street food.
Bartholomew said one of his favorite aspects about the rotating chef concept is that it unchains cooks from the menus of their restaurants to tap into the menus of their minds. Paul Kulik, who established The Boiler Room as executive chef before becoming the owner of Le Bouillon, has experimented on this sidewalk. And on the opening weekend of the College World Series, Monarch Prime & Bar chef Patrick Micheels’ spicy wagyu Philly sold out in half the time it was allotted to be served.
“Dandelion allows them to do whatever they want, so a classically trained French chef can come in and do German food, or hot dogs,” Bartholomew said. “We don’t put a limit on them, so it’s just their creative output, and the city has really embraced that.”
Spaghetti Works has enjoyed a 44-year embrace on “one of Omaha’s most photographed corners,” said president Shelly Stokes, who is helping the Omaha tradition prepare for its biggest rush of the year courtesy of one of the biggest Little League baseball tournaments in the country that overlaps the CWS.
Spaghetti Works opened in 1974 and has seen a statistically significant amount of Omaha’s prom dates and family celebrations since creating its postcard view on the southwest corner of 11th and Howard. Several reinventions have ushered it through decades of industry changes and local challenges like when the casinos brought their low-priced buffets across the river.
Stokes said the key to keeping the affordability for families it is known for is done by managing costs, which can be a challenge with an all-you-can-eat salad bar and boundless bowl of spaghetti “served all day, every day.”
“You would think with 35 restaurants, we would all start to chew at each other for business, but we all have our little quirks,” Stokes said, who has been with the restaurant for 30 years. “I can’t speak for everyone, but we all seem to be relatively successful to have restaurants that have lasted. Anything that lasts for over five years in the restaurant business — you’ve pretty well nailed it.”
Restaurant dreamers who weren’t able to get in on the ground floor of the Old Market, or underground floor in the case of V Mertz in the Passageway, have had to carve out their own space. In 2010, food renegades Paul and Jessica Urban gained entry downtown, ending a seven-year search for an affordable lease. They ditched dreams of opening a fine dining gastropub in favor of Block 16, which brought highly creative, farm-to-table, street food to a sliver of downtown that lacked options before it opened.
Their successful fast-casual transformation of the space formerly occupied by New York Chicken and Gyro encouraged similar pursuits along on the Old Market’s outer edge. Just east on Farnam, Kitchen Table was opened by Colin and Jessica Duggan, which features a locally sourced, constantly changing lineup of moderately priced specials.
“When we first moved into that neighborhood, we were the only restaurant, so I’d say we added a level of comfort into that area because a lot of really cool places have opened since we’ve been there,” he said. “It wasn’t always a desirable location for people to come down and eat. It’s been a dream come true to even get our foot in the door down here, and then to help shape a neighborhood — it’s been great.”
A highly rated fine dining option is also available nearby on the ground floor of Hotel Deco on 15th and Harney. Monarch Prime & Bar has broadened Omaha’s already vast steak experience with the introduction of high-end, dry-aged wagyu beef. The restaurant opened in October last year in a partnership between restauranteur Ethan Bondelid and the Aparium Hotel Group. It provides a modern dining experience (music included) in the setting of a historic hotel.
Out of the Blue
In 2002, two Texans and three locals helped sushi establish a foothold in Omaha with Blue Sushi Sake Grill. Blue now operates as part of Flagship Restaurant Group, with corporate chef Tony Gentile providing menu engineering for casual genres that also include Roja Mexican Grill and Plank Seafood Provisions. The restaurant group also was one of the pioneers for north downtown dining. Blatt Beer and Table, which peeks into TD Ameritrade Park, introduced the rooftop beer garden experience to the city in 2015. The location has matured from CWS Central into a popular event space for rehearsal dinners and graduation parties.
Anthony Hitchcock, who is responsible for the restaurant group’s management and operations, and also convinced Gentile to come with him to Omaha to run Blue’s kitchen, said he’s seen a lot of new concepts succeed in the time they’ve been here.
“Omaha has really evolved and become a food city and developed its food scene. I’d like to humbly think that we’ve been a part of that, but I think there’s really been a really nice influx of culinary talent,” Hitchcock said. “Paul Kulik has done a tremendous job, Nick Stawhecker has done fabulous things, Ben Maides, too. There’s just a lot of good local produce and meat to work with that these chefs have taken into their kitchens, and they’ve really taken off with it. ”