Destination Omaha: City breathes new life into old neighborhoods

August 4, 2014

The River City Star takes weekend visitors on a one-hour riverboat excursion past downtown in Omaha, Neb.

OMAHA. Neb. — Admit it. The last time — only time? — you thought about Nebraska’s biggest city was when Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning yelled "Omaha!" about 40 times in a playoff game last January.

That was fun, sort of. Imagewise, pro sports haven’t been very good to Omaha.

More than a few larger metropolitan areas have trafficked in an ominous possibility: Without their major league teams, the warning goes, they would be Omaha. In Kansas City, Royals fans know that one gets "sent down" to Omaha. It’s the wrong direction.

And yet lately, Omaha is acting confident. Frisky, even.

Up here on a soaring, curvy pedestrian bridge over the Missouri River, folks are jogging, biking and walking their dogs on a summer morning, enjoying the waterfront and the views of downtown.

A mammoth fountain in nearby Heartland of America Park shoots its center plume 300 feet into the air. Next to the park, the brick-paved streets of Old Market are filling up. The dense collection of hulking industrial buildings is a well-established restaurant and entertainment district, now further fed by surrounding condos and lofts.

Add a visit to the renowned Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and a few other attractions, such as the Joslyn Art Museum, and that’s a fine trip.

The riverfront remake of late is part of Omaha’s new confidence, but there’s something else: A refocus and rediscovery is taking place in some of Omaha’s downtown and close-in neighborhoods that’s not only good for the city but also turning into a bonanza for visitors.

FOLLOW THE FOOD AND DRINK

"We did our first tour in December. It was freezing cold, and the wind was howling, but we were so anxious to get started."

That’s Jen Valandra of Omaha Culinary Tours, a new enterprise that specializes in food-tasting tours — some walking, some by bus — featuring Omaha originals. Yes, that’s right. Food tours in Omaha.

Valandra and two partners knew that eating out in Omaha had evolved in only a few years, directed by an insurgence of young chefs who showcase local fare in urban settings. And they wanted the tours to highlight noteworthy longtimers, too.

I chose the midtown walking tour, which began in the tasting room of a store, Chef2 Oils, Vinegars and More. It opened a year ago and offers not wine but about 40 varieties of extra virgin olive oils, and balsamic and wine vinegars.

Co-owner Ben Trebbien leads us past rows of stainless steel fustis to a table with dipping bread and bowls of flavor-infused oil-and-vinegar combinations. He advocates all manner of uses besides vinaigrettes, including meat grilling and, reduced, as ice cream topping. Hmm.

I confess to Trebbien that the chipotle olive oil and chocolate balsamic pairing has too much bite for me, but I go back for seconds on the blood orange-pear champagne combo.

Soon we’re headed across the street to Brix, a bistro with regular wine and drink service but also a series of wine-dispensing machines, modules that allow patrons to buy pours of 1, 2.5 and 5 ounces of more than 60 wines, self-served.

Want to taste several wines, even an incredibly pricey one? One ounce is doable.

"This gives you an opportunity to try a variety," says the restaurant’s Zach Ferguson. "One of our biggest things is helping people explore."

These first few stops are at Midtown Crossing, a $325 million condo-retail-restaurant district developed by Mutual of Omaha, one of Omaha’s five Fortune 500 companies. It opened in 2010.

Brix’s patio benefits from the development’s semicircle design above and around Turner Park. The park slopes to a bandstand, perfect for music shows such as the summer’s "Jazz on the Green."

Midtown Crossing is a do-over, not an example of historic preservation, with several existing buildings removed. And its offerings aren’t all local.

But it’s a busy, inviting destination less than two miles from downtown. I stayed at the Element hotel there, between downtown and the neighborhoods I planned to visit.

Another Midtown Crossing stop is a must: The Grey Plume, recognized as one of the country’s "greenest" restaurants. It’s chef-driven by Omaha native Clayton Chapman, who’s 28 and a multiple James Beard Award nominee.

While general manager Rachel Patel offers a charcuterie platter featuring in-house cured meats and sausages, she notes that the menu represents "approachable" fine dining, concentrated on locally sourced food within 80 miles of the restaurant. On one wall is a photo of an old barn, source of the restaurant’s interior wood.

Approachable? Well, there are the "duck fat fries." Deep-fried, yes, but in duck fat, with a farm fresh egg on top. And a doughnut, also deep-fried in duck fat, made with brioche batter.

"It’s hard not to smile when you describe it, because it makes you so happy," Patel says.

The tour digs deeper into midtown Omaha with a stop at Marrakech Gourmet, the Moroccan and Mediterranean restaurant of chef and co-owner Moussa Drissi, who came to the city in 1999. And then to Crescent Moon, which is on many a hometowners’ list of most-revered bars, in midtown since the mid-1990s.

We squeeze in with the lunch crowd, and the kitchen dishes up its popular Reuben sandwich. The Reuben, as the legend goes, originated circa the 1920s across the street at the imposing Blackstone Hotel, which now houses offices.

The corned beef and sauerkraut sandwich was concocted at a weekly poker game at the hotel, which then put it on the lunch menu. The Reuben’s popularity exploded from there.

"The East Coast tries to claim the Reuben," Valandra says, "but we know better. Here (at Crescent Moon) they chop the corned beef and, mixed with the cheese and dressing, it’s got a great goo factor."

TURNING BLIGHT INTO RIGHT

For those who want to reimagine blighted, forgotten pockets of older neighborhoods, Omaha, a metro area of about 900,000, has had plenty to choose from.

The food tour over, I continue toward the blocks just west of Crescent Moon and the Blackstone Hotel on Farnam Street. Things begin to look a little sketchy.

"The inside of the building was all tagged up and just destroyed," says Brad Iwen, owner of Iwen Exposures photography studio. "Storefronts were boarded up. Next door was the most dangerous bar in Omaha — brawls, stabbings, murders."

OK, it didn’t look that sketchy. Iwen is talking about conditions five years ago when he bought his building.

Iwen grew up in Omaha and moved back after 10 years of living out West. He was intrigued by what the 40th and Farnam district had once been, a vibrant hub that began at the turn of the last century and stretched into the 1940s.

Across the street from Iwen is Drew Davies and his Oxide Design Co., here for about a dozen years. They agreed that Job No. 1 was to get the violent bar shut down, and Job No. 1 ½ was to get Farnam Street converted from one-way to two-way.

For years the city’s priority was to shoot traffic out of downtown toward new neighborhoods to the west as efficiently as possible. It worked.

"Starting at about 4 o’clock, it’s like a freeway, people screaming through here to get out of downtown," Davies says.

The troublesome bar did get shut down, and Sullivan’s Bar, an Omaha stalwart since 1954, moved from its location across the street into the bad bar’s space.

The street conversion became a bigger grass-roots project: Iwen started the Farnam Festival, a block party with local bands and a beer garden, to raise funds. The cost to make Farnam two-way for several blocks would run into the hundreds of thousands, but eventually the city and some bigger donors got on board, too.

"It’s finally happening this fall," Iwen says. "I couldn’t be happier. It’s awesome."

Even Omahans might not know, but the now burgeoning neighborhood business district has a name, Blackstone, after the landmark a few blocks away.

Mula, a Mexican restaurant and tequila bar, opened in June. Archetype Coffee opened in May. Farnam House Brewing Co. opened a few weeks ago. There’s talk of a wine bar next to Iwen’s.

"There’s a lot of ‘vision’ going on right now," Davies says, "and with preservation in mind. You could do all of this brand new, but you wouldn’t end up with what we’re going to have here."

DESTINATIONS: 60TH AND MAPLE, 50TH AND UNDERWOOD

"Benson."

That’s the word I kept hearing when I asked Omahans for a fun spot to explore. The first stop, of course, is downtown’s Old Market area, which offers great dining and drinking, strolling and people-watching-as-they-eat-outside — not to mention browsing the funky vintage stuff at the wacky Fairmont Antiques and Mercantile ("Omaha’s Ultimate Store").

By Benson they meant the neighborhood, and they meant at night, when the Waiting Room Lounge, a top-notch live music venue, is hopping on Maple Street. That’s the main drag, home to an array of locally owned bars, brew pubs, a combo arcade-craft beer enterprise, a cigar store and coffee shops.

About six miles from downtown, the neighborhood has ebbed and flowed since Erastus Benson bought acreage in the late 1800s and imagined a town, which took root. In 1907 there were 1,500 residents and paved streets, and Omaha annexed the town 10 years later.

Now, Benson’s nightlife is on fire. But I arrive on a Saturday morning to check out the neighborhood’s farmers market, and it turns out I’m early even for that.

Organizers pushed the start time back from 8 to 9 a.m. because, c’mon, it’s Saturday morning. And in general it’s a laid-back farmers market. They made a conscious decision not to ring an opening bell.

Ryan Cook is here, setting out his Benson Soap Mill soaps. He and a business partner are securing space in a nearby building for their soap factory.

As he points to the location behind him, he spies John Larkin, whom he calls the "mayor" of Benson. So I introduce myself and learn that Larkin is in a bit of a hurry — it’s his wedding day.

When I catch up with him by phone later, Larkin laughs at the honorary title, but he admits being a shameless booster. He owns several businesses in Benson.

"The neighborhood is 125 years old," Larkin says, "and the beautiful thing about what’s happening is that we’re all owner-operators. We came here for the character of the buildings. And figuring out how to reuse all the old elements here is one of the most fun things to do."

Just a few weeks ago Larkin opened a new place, St. Andrews Pub. Two years ago he debuted Beercade, which features pinball and vintage arcade games.

"A case of looking for a concept people don’t know they want," he says.

Before the boom, Benson was dotted with old-style, working-class bars. Larkin has been on Maple Street since 2006, when he launched Jake’s Cigars and Spirits. The Waiting Room Lounge opened soon after, but it was 2010 before Benson really took off, Larkin says.

There’s nothing particularly prettified about Benson, no streetscaping gone cute, just mostly a long stretch of one- and two-story brick storefronts. Maple is a main arterial, which has had limited improvements, but new sidewalks are coming next year.

"We’ve been wanting to make it more walkable," Larkin says.

And it could use more restaurant destinations like Lot 2, a recent and hip addition to Benson by Omahans Brad and Johanna Marr, where I enjoyed a fine braised pork shoulder sandwich.

"They catered my wedding and got a standing ovation," Larkin says.

A couple miles away, the charm factor is notched up a bit in the Dundee neighborhood, where the crossroads district at 50th and Underwood is surrounded by early 20th century homes.

Famous sons from Dundee include gazillionaire Warren Buffett and Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne ("Nebraska"), both of whom still call Omaha home.

Dundee hasn’t needed saving, but it continues to evolve.

I’m sure I heard a recommendation for just about every establishment there, including Blue Line Coffee, a shop where everyone seems to know everyone, a corner ice cream and gelato shop called eCreamery, and Mark’s Bistro, which boasts a darn quaint patio.

In 2012, the Omaha natives who own a popular falafel house called Amsterdam in Dundee opened the French Bulldog restaurant, which features locally sourced, handcrafted meats. It’s worth the stop just to see how the space, a former Subway store, became a rustic charcuterie.

A BOAT TO CATCH

Besides old and reawakening neighborhoods — and I missed a few on this trip, including South 24th Street and Aksarben Village — I’m also drawn to big rivers. So I plan a couple stops on the way back to the muddy Missouri.

I zip through the Joslyn Art Museum, an eye-catching 1931 art deco masterpiece, just west of downtown. Admission is free. Among the great exhibits is the recent display of the museum’s "Portrait of Dirck van Os" by Rembrandt, just back from Holland where it received extensive conservation work.

Earlier in the trip I had visited the Durham Museum, the city’s former art deco Union Station, a short walk up 10th Street from the Old Market area. It highlights the history of the region and — note to self — is the jumping off point for River City History Tours by trolley. Next time.

I meet up with Rachel Jacobson in a "neighborhood" called North Downtown, just north of Old Market, a place dominated by big-event venues. CenturyLink Center, a convention center and arena, is here. So is T.D. Ameritrade Park, opened in 2011 and home of the wildly popular College World Series and the Creighton University baseball team. Creighton’s soccer stadium is on the district’s west side.

Yet smack in the middle of all this sports vibe and surface parking is an oasis of arts and music. Jacobson grew up in Omaha and returned in 2005 with an idea to develop a nonprofit cinema.

Meanwhile, the founders of Saddle Creek Records, Omaha’s critically acclaimed independent record label, and Slowdown, a popular live-music venue, asked Jacobson about partnering in a new development in North Downtown.

She agreed, and Slowdown and Jacobson’s dream, Film Streams, opened in 2007. Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater is an impressive two-screen venue, open every day and focused on Omaha premieres of independent, foreign and documentary films.

The day I drop by, Jacobson had just hosted a "Louder Than a Bomb" screening for 150 high school students. Film Streams also offers film series and discussion programs.

"We’re not dictated by the commercial market," Jacobson says. "We can be more challenging. Some films do really, really well, but we book a lot of films that aren’t going to have a huge audience. Our mission is to celebrate film as an art form."

The new building allowed Film Streams to configure the space exactly how it wanted. And although the location might seem unlikely, Jacobson says it’s been gratifying to be a part of the resurgence — in all its forms — in some of Omaha’s older neighborhoods.

"I’ve been back for nine years, and Omaha has changed significantly," Jacobson says. "It’s pretty exciting, actually."

Soon I’m making the short drive past the 3,000-foot, cable-stayed Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which opened in 2008, to the dock of the River City Star. The riverboat offers one-hour Missouri River cruises on weekends.

As the boat floats past downtown, I meet Amy and Paul Timblin of Lane, Kan., near Osawatomie. They had hit a few Omaha highlights, including the zoo and the Strategic Air and Space Museum, and were making plans to return.

I also meet Bill Ideker from nearby Pacific Junction, Iowa, who is acting as tour guide for his sister Anita Ideker and her husband, Bob MacKenzie, visiting from Washington state. It was MacKenzie who spots a bald eagle swooping across the river.

Well into their trip, the couple was high on Omaha.

"What’s not to like?" asks Anita Ideker. "Lots to see, friendly people, varied architecture, easy to get around."

"You can tell people are proud to live here," MacKenzie says, "and they should be."

———

IF YOU GO ...

———

ATTRACTIONS

Downtown riverfront: Stroll the promenade along the Missouri River and definitely walk to Iowa on the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Nearby to the south is Heartland of America Park, home of the 300-foot-tall fountain. And nearby to the north is the River City Star, which offers weekend riverboat excursions.

Old Market, several blocks around 12th and Jackson streets. The quintessential, cobblestoned warehouse district of 19th century buildings, now home to several dozen restaurants, from casual to fine dining, art galleries, antiques, ice cream, candy, etc. Carriage rides, street performers and people-watching? Oh yeah. oldmarket.com.

Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. In the city’s 1931 art deco Union Station, the history of the region plus traveling exhibits affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution. 402-444-5071. durhammuseum.org.

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St. Galleries and studios of an artist-in-residence program inside an enormous warehouse in the Old Market area. Mary Mattingly’s Flock House Project: Omaha is worth a stop. 402-341-7130. bemiscenter.org.

Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater, 1340 Mike Fahey St. Nonprofit cinema that premieres independent, documentary and foreign films for Omaha, plus offers classic film series and discussion. 402-933-0259, filmstreams.org.

Slowdown, 729 N. 14th St. Next door to Film Streams, a live-music venue extraordinaire plus home to independent record label Saddle Creek Records which, yes, has a shop. 402-345-7569, theslowdown.com, saddlecreekshop.com.

The Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St. Another great live-music venue, this one in the Benson neighborhood. 402-884-5353, waitingroomlounge.com

Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge St. Lots of American and European art in the original and fantastic art deco building, opened in 1931, and in the Scott Pavilion addition, plus a sculpture garden. Free admission. 402-342-3300, joslyn.org.

Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St., and the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St. Mostly symphony and musical performances at the slick, modern Holland, and Broadway productions and such at the Orpheum, an ornate 1927 former vaudeville house. omahaperformingarts.org.

Lauritzen Gardens, 100 Bancroft St. Omaha’s botanical center with 20 garden spaces, including a Victorian garden and model railroad garden, on 100 acres, south of downtown and near the river. 402-346-4002, lauritzengardens.org.

Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, 3701 S. 10th St. Gets top rankings all the time. So many cool exhibits: indoor desert, indoor rainforest, gorilla valley, bear canyon, shark tunnel, to name a few. 402-733-8401, omahazoo.com.

Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari, 16404 N. 292nd St., Ashland, Neb. Drive-through wildlife park, operated by the Omaha zoo, currently spotlighting its elk calves and wolf pups. 402-944-9453, wildlifesafaripark.com.

Strategic Air and Space Museum, 28210 West Park Highway, Ashland, Neb. Filled with aircraft from the Cold War-era Strategic Air Command, plus some spacecraft. 402-944-3100, sasmuseum.com

Omaha Storm Chasers at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way, Papillion, Neb. Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals since the beginning, 1969. omahastormchasers.com.

———

EAT AND DRINK

Omaha Culinary Tours offers a variety of walking and bus food tours, food included. Prices range from $45 to $75. 800-979-3370, omahaculinarytours.com.

Boiler Room, 1110 Jones St. in Old Market. Chef Paul Kulik’s artisanal fine dining in the boiler room of an old produce-bag maker, with an interior in a "romantic state of decay" and an extensive wine cellar. 402-916-9274, boilerroomomaha.com.

La Buvette, 511 S. 11th St. in Old Market. European wine bar and cafe with a changing menu and house-baked bread. Lingering OK. 402-344-8627, labuvetteomaha.com.

The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave. at Midtown Crossing. Contemporary, seasonal and local fine-dining offerings by Chef Clayton Chapman. 402-763-4447, thegreyplume.com.

Crescent Moon, 3578 Farnam St. in midtown area. Craft beer alehouse anchoring several establishments that together offer more than 60 beers on draft — and famous for its Reuben. 402-345-1708, beercornerusa.com.

Lisa’s Radial Cafe, 817 N. 40th St. in midtown area. Breakfast and lunch, but definitely beloved for breakfast: omelettes, skillets, pancakes and more. 402-551-2176.

French Bulldog, 5003 Underwood Ave. in the Dundee neighborhood. Opened in 2012, already a charcuterie award winner. 402-505-4633, frenchbulldogomaha.com.

Mark’s Bistro, 4916 Underwood Ave. in Dundee. Varied and casual sandwiches and entrees in a 1900-era house. 402-502-2203, marksindundee.com.

Blue Line Coffee, 4924 Underwood Ave. in Dundee and 749 N. 14th St. in North Downtown. Fair trade, fresh roasted. NoDo location has bigger menu and alcohol. bluelinecoffee.com.

Benson Brewery, 6059 Maple St. in the Benson neighborhood. Brew pub in an old movie theater, circa 1910, with a vegan/vegetarian section on the menu. 402-934-8668, bensonbrewery.com.

Lot 2, 6207 Maple St. in Benson. Try Chef Joel Mahr’s meat-and-cheese boards, although it could be hard to stay away from the crab cake BLT sandwich or an entree simply called "pork belly." 402-504-4200, lot2benson.com.

———

WHERE TO STAY

Element, 3253 Dodge St. Sleek and uber-green at Midtown Crossing. 402-614-8080, elementomahamidtowncrossing.com.

Hotel Deco XV, 1504 Harney St. Downtown landmark building, boutique with a four-diamond rating by AAA. 402-991-4981. hoteldecoomaha.com.

Hyatt Place, 540 S. 12th St. In the middle of Old Market. 402-513-5500, omahadowntownoldmarket.place.hyatt.com/

 

 





 


McClatchy Tribune Information Services