Back in 2010, between 10th and 12th on Capitol Street existed a very useful parking lot. And besides Omaha Fashion Week being held there once, its main purpose was to help with overflow parking since it was right next to what was then known as the Qwest Center…RIP. (Now Century Link. Oh, sorry, CHI Health Center.)
Fast forward to 2019, and the flat-surface parking lot has given rise to a new set of buildings called The Capitol District. While the name may have a familiar ring to Hunger Games fans, it has been dubbed Omaha’s first entertainment district.
But what is an entertainment district? Part of Omaha’s ongoing urban renewal that has been in the works for several years, the new entertainment district’s goal is to link the Old Market to the convention center and ballpark. Add in a scattering of bars and restaurants, sprinkle in a little retail and a plaza filled with congregating Omahans, and BOOM! You have yourself Omaha’s first entertainment district. Kansas City has one, and so do a bunch of other major cities, so why not Omaha? (Lincoln even had one before us.)
What sets entertainment districts apart from other areas that have bars and restaurants is the ability for people to carry an open container of alcohol from bar to bar. The Capitol District first opened in March 2018, but because it is still not complete, there’s some grey area with the open container rule for patrons. Don’t get me wrong — it has gotten better since its inception; and as it nears completion, now hoped for mid-2020, the open container rules might be down to a science.
Playing to its strengths, Capitol District has made use of its open air plaza for special events: St. Patrick’s Day, The Young Professionals Summit, the holiday ice rink and a variety of tailgate-like sporting events, which are facilitated by a Jumbotron screen at one end of the plaza.
I have visited The Railyard, Lincoln’s version of Capitol District on Husker game day, and never been disappointed. But because my idea of building a high-speed rail system from Omaha to Lincoln has yet to be implemented (you heard it first here), I was excited to see and experience a Husker game day a la Capitol District.
For this particular field trip, I decided to bring one of my good friends, who is an expert in game-day festivities.
While Capitol District is home to several restaurants and bars, I think four bars stand out and add to the district’s ‘party’ atmosphere: Annie’s Irish Pub, Epoca Cantina, Beer Can Alley and The Exchange. Because Annie’s is the closest bar to the main entrance, people usually wander in there first to grab a drink. It’s also a nice bar. With a cozy pub sort of feel but bigger and more open, Annie’s usually draws in a larger crowd; the dance floor helps. The Irish pub does offer some drink specials, but guests will spend roughly $7-$10 on average per drink.
Annie’s also has a covered patio that leads into the plaza. But before we could get there, we were required to pour our drinks into a Capitol District plastic glass. We did this so we could watch the Nebraska game, which was being shown on the plaza’s big screen, but I found this to be somewhat tacky and inconvenient. At past events, The Capitol District has had ID stations around each entrance so guests could easily walk in and out of bars to the plaza, but these sorts of logistics will hopefully be ironed out once the district is completed.
There was a decent number of people in the plaza — in fact, it was hard to find a place to sit. But the atmosphere lacked the game-day excitement I was hoping for. That, however, may have had more to do with the blow-out on the scoreboard than the crowd. But it just didn’t have that Lincoln GBR thrill.
So, we moved on to the next bar: Epoca Cantina, which is located right off the plaza and next to Annie’s. Epoca not only serves drinks, but it has a full-service kitchen dishing up street-style tacos and several appetizers and entrees. To our dismay, the kitchen had just closed, so tequila shots with lime and salt had to make do as our appetizer (Nebraska was winning after all).
Epoca has beautiful, Mexican-style art and a lot of weekly drink specials. I highly recommend checking out their margarita cocktail menu because Epoca offers a variety of spiced-up, unique flavors. Who knew you could make a matcha margarita?
Before The Capitol District opened, when the tenants were announced, I had a completely different idea of what Beer Can Alley was going to be. I pictured a bowling alley with beer cans. But Beer Can Alley is nothing short of a country fan’s dream. I’m reminded of Kesha’s song “Timber” every time I walk in there. (Beer Can Alley and The Exchange are on the second level in Capitol District, so you might want to limit those tequila shots and margaritas at Epoca before you attempt the stairs.)
BCA has a lot of room with a huge dance floor, stage and bar. The bar has moderately priced drinks and gets the gold medal for quickest service. The hallway that connects Beer Can Alley to The Exchange is useful and convenient. It allows you to walk back and forth easily without dumping your drink into a plastic glass. And our $10 cover to get into Beer Can Alley got us into The Exchange, too.
The Exchange is a Wall Street-themed bar with booths and tables and a large dance floor giving it more of a “club” atmosphere. What sets The Exchange apart in Capitol District is its unique ticker tape marquee. Drink prices fluctuate based on demand. For example: If Jameson shots are being requested a lot, the price goes up, and the new price is displayed on the ticker tape. If demand sinks, you might score a deal. I thoroughly enjoyed this concept, not only for the cheaper drinks, but because it’s so fun and different from any bar in Omaha.
Bottoms Up: My game-day experience a la Capitol District was not what I expected. I think you have to actually be in Lincoln to feel that GBR camaraderie, but what Omaha’s entertainment district provides is a diverse set of bars and restaurants showcasing our city’s fun and experimental side. We are a burgeoning city after all, and our soon-to-be-completed entertainment district will help put us on the map.
Remember to have fun, drink responsibly and tip your bartenders.
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