Written by Jim Duncan
Omaha and Des Moines have battled for decades over pari-mutuel gamblers, low-fare airlines, touring musical acts and sports events. A restaurant rivalry was probably inevitable. In Des Moines, the movers of the food renaissance often talk about the changes that have occurred in the last dozen years. Most of their counterparts in Omaha speak in terms of the last five years. With that head start, Des Moines has garnered considerably more James Beard Awards honors the last decade, but Omaha has responded magnificently.
Restaurants are the main reason I go just about anywhere, and I have been visiting Omaha for more than six decades. In late winter, I spent six days in the city, exploring neighborhoods where restaurants have played a major part in their revival. During my visit, I dined at 11 restaurants, eight for the first time, and enjoyed everything from seared rabbit liver and whole roasted quail to homemade bangers and coal-fired pizzas. It’s easy to understand why Iowa food travelers are now passing on the longer drives to Minneapolis and Chicago to enjoy the fruits of Omaha’s food vision.
The Old Market
Omaha’s first café scene was guided by one unlikely fellow. In 1963, the late Sam Mercer owned a law firm in Paris when he inherited his father’s property management company. Its portfolio included several old warehouses in what is now Omaha’s biggest tourist attraction. Mercer quietly began acquiring other properties in the Old Market area with a vision of creating a cultural district. In 1969, The French Café opened in one of those properties and became the area’s guiding light for 43 years.
“In the winter of ’65, this building was one day away from being torn down for a parking lot,” says Paul Kulik, the owner-chef of Le Bouillon, which opened in that same building last fall with no noticeable changes to the décor.
Kulik calls his venue the most important restoration in Nebraska history. Today, more than 40 restaurants inhabit Old Market, including two all prime steakhouses (801 Chophouse and Spencer’s) and several others (V. Mertz, The Boiler Room, La Buvette) owned by Mercer family descendants. All have long-standing reputations with Des Moines visitors.
Le Bouillon’s opening, though, revived an old spirit in the area. Kulik, 39, hopes to make French food more accessible. During my visit, his one-page menu included a number of divine $4 items served with toast points: sautéed squid with olives, pickled fennel in apple butter, rabbit rillettes in marrow with currant jam.
Other plates included large whole sardines in olive oil and a bread crumb concoction; whole roast quail expertly paired with roasted radishes; garlic sausage cassoulet; crisply fried sweetbreads on melted chevre and honey; and a daily crudo that brought large pieces of fluke. All those dishes ranged between $10 and $20.
Another real estate vision also helped inspire the latest food scene in Omaha. After watching the neighborhood around its corporate headquarters deteriorate for decades, Mutual of Omaha broke ground late in 2007 on a million-square-foot commercial and residential project in seven buildings around a revitalized Turner Park, with parking for more than 3,000 vehicles. Five years ago, culinary prodigy Clayton Chapman, now 28, opened The Grey Plume in the area.
Advertising itself as “contemporary cooking with root ingredients,” The Grey Plume focuses on using whole plants and animals and making everything from scratch. That’s a niche in which the Dayton family’s Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis garnered international praise and publicity last year, but in my experiences, The Grey Plume does it better. On recent visits, Chapman introduced me to finger limes, a fruit that bursts on the tongue like caviar, which he splattered over day boat scallops and seaweed on a plate with a fennel fan and tangerine puree; truffle-infused egg yolks, served with clams, butternut squash puree, truffles and cheese; smoked trout roe, served with yuzu and guava reductions; seared rabbit livers, served with a rabbit roulade, wild mushrooms, spaghetti squash and potato gnocchi; and coconut crumb meringue, finished with a verbena Pavlova. And compared with similar places in Chicago, The Grey Plume is a bargain.
Also among a score of restaurants in Midtown Crossing is Brix, the brainchild of Napa Valley wine veteran Dan Matuszek. That restaurant features eight machines that dispense eight different wines in three sizes. Customers use a debit card to sample pours, all also available retail.
Brix’s kitchen leans to modern preparations of old Midwest favorites like surf and turf and lavish desserts. Matuszek also plans a spring opening of a unique whiskey concept café in the area.
“I am a child of this bar. My parents met here, and I might even have been conceived here,” Mary Kelley, Dundee Dell’s chef and manager, told me. The bar and restaurant has been around since 1934, but has remade its image as the keeper of America’s largest collection of Scotch whiskies: 700 brands. Kelley’s kitchen specializes in hand-breaded cod and chips, house-cured corned beef and house-smoked pastrami. It’s open as late as 1 a.m.
Despite The Dell’s longevity, the historic Dundee neighborhood, located in central Omaha, was endangered until recently. Then Omaha’s most famous food personality, Godfather’s Pizza founder Willy Theisen (a University of Northern Iowa and Clinton High School graduate), stepped in. Bored with retirement, he launched Pitch Pizzeria, a new—and very different—pizza concept. Pitch features coal-fired pizza ovens that reach 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, plus open, mesquite-fired grills (its grilled Brussels sprouts are legendary). Theisen told me he plans to open four more Pitch restaurants this year, in Las Vegas, Madison, Wis., Austin, Texas, and Denver. “I had 800 stores once. I don’t want that again,” he said.
Also new on the same block as Pitch and Dundee Dell is The French Bulldog, a cheese and charcuterie specialist that cures its own meats.
Benson in north-central Omaha was probably closer to death than Dundee. Then cheap rents for artists, galleries and cafés sparked a revival that resembles that of Old Market 50 years ago. Breweries were also a key component in Benson’s recovery, including Infusion Tap Room and Brew Pub, which Crescent Moon owner Bill Baburek opened in the old Olson Butcher Shop. Infusion Tap brews seven barrel batches and usually offers seven on tap. Benson Brewery, on the same block, is a smaller brewery but offers pub classics like fish and chips, chicken pot pies, bangers and mash, and steak frites, plus six drafts and signature cocktails made with Nebraska spirits.
More serious foodies prefer Lot 2, a fresh and local café owned by Brad and Johanna Marr. On the day I was there, the blackboard announced which farms (including three in Iowa) contributed to the daily fare. Pub foods like steak frites and homemade bangers and mash are featured. So are pork cheeks with rillettes croquettes, apple-onion puree, lentils and cabbage. Lot 2 devotes a large part of its small menu to vegan and vegetarian dishes, too.
“We have a younger clientele here,” Brad Marr said. “Benson attracts that. Beer drinkers are younger but no less adventurous. It’s an exciting time here.”
The Old Guard
Omaha‘s food scene is filled with traditions. Friends and relatives often encourage me to dine in the city’s long-standing restaurants, some of which are older than any eatery in Des Moines.
Gorat’s is internationally famous because Warren Buffett frequents the steakhouse, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. New owners recently refurbished the kitchen, bar and dining room, but the iconic neon signs still beckon diners to try the “best steaks in the world.” Buffett reportedly favors the restaurant because of its low prices; Gorat’s offers lunches for as low as $5, and nearly all are under $10.
Joe Tess Place opened in the midst of the Great Depression as a tavern specializing in the humble carp. It eventually expanded into a market and restaurant, but that fish is still the star of a populist menu. I love Joe Tess because I love carp, and who sells carp these days?
Additional old-line spots:
The Bohemian Café has been serving Czech specialties and large draft beers since 1924.
Runza, around Nebraska since 1949, would be the Tasty Tacos of Omaha. Both places feature an immigrant flour product stuffed with seasoned loose meat.
Cascio’s is a 68-year-old Italian steakhouse that evolved out of another Depression era bar, The Rinky Dink. It boasts of hosting stars such as Mickey Mantle and Tina Turner.
Crescent Moon, though not even a decade old, claims to be the keeper of the secret recipe to the original Reuben. New Yorkers dispute this, but locals believe that sandwich was invented at the Blackstone Hotel, which once sat across the street from where Crescent Moon is now.
All of these restaurants have fans, even from Des Moines. In my view, their longevity alone makes them endearing.
If you go
1017 Howard St.
Includes Turner Park, about two miles west of downtown.
The Grey Plume
220 S. 31st Ave., No. 3101
220 S. 31st Ave., No. 3103
Central Omaha, about four miles west of downtown.
5007 Underwood Ave.
5021 Underwood Ave.
The French Bulldog
5003 Underwood Ave.
North-central Omaha, about five miles northwest of downtown.
Infusion Tap Room and Brew Pub
6115 Maple St
6059 Maple St.
6207 Maple St.
WHERE TO STAY
Ramada Plaza Omaha Hotel and Convention Center has completed a marvelous renovation of rooms, suites, lobbies and the restaurant.
3321 S. 72nd St.