River City Star takes weekend visitors on a one-hour
riverboat excursion past downtown in Omaha, Neb.
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
was fun, sort of. Imagewise, pro sports haven’t been
very good to Omaha.
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.
yet lately, Omaha is acting confident. Frisky, even.
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.
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.
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.
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.
THE FOOD AND DRINK
did our first tour in December. It was freezing cold, and
the wind was howling, but we were so anxious to get
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
to taste several wines, even an incredibly pricey one? One
ounce is doable.
gives you an opportunity to try a variety," says the
restaurant’s Zach Ferguson. "One of our biggest
things is helping people explore."
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.
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."
Crossing is a do-over, not an example of historic
preservation, with several existing buildings removed. And
its offerings aren’t all local.
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.
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
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.
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.
hard not to smile when you describe it, because it makes
you so happy," Patel says.
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.
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.
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.
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."
BLIGHT INTO RIGHT
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.
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.
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,
it didn’t look that sketchy. Iwen is talking about
conditions five years ago when he bought his building.
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.
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
years the city’s priority was to shoot traffic out of
downtown toward new neighborhoods to the west as
efficiently as possible. It worked.
at about 4 o’clock, it’s like a freeway, people
screaming through here to get out of downtown,"
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.
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.
finally happening this fall," Iwen says. "I
couldn’t be happier. It’s awesome."
Omahans might not know, but the now burgeoning
neighborhood business district has a name, Blackstone,
after the landmark a few blocks away.
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
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."
60TH AND MAPLE, 50TH AND UNDERWOOD
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
case of looking for a concept people don’t know they
want," he says.
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.
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.
been wanting to make it more walkable," Larkin says.
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
catered my wedding and got a standing ovation,"
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
sons from Dundee include gazillionaire Warren Buffett and
Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne
("Nebraska"), both of whom still call Omaha
hasn’t needed saving, but it continues to evolve.
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.
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.
BOAT TO CATCH
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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."
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.
been back for nine years, and Omaha has changed
significantly," Jacobson says. "It’s pretty
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.
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.
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.
into their trip, the couple was high on Omaha.
not to like?" asks Anita Ideker. "Lots to see,
friendly people, varied architecture, easy to get
can tell people are proud to live here," MacKenzie
says, "and they should be."
YOU GO ...
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Waiting Room Lounge, 6212 Maple St. Another great
live-music venue, this one in the Benson neighborhood.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Storm Chasers at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way,
Papillion, Neb. Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City
Royals since the beginning, 1969. omahastormchasers.com.
Culinary Tours offers a variety of walking and bus food
tours, food included. Prices range from $45 to $75.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bulldog, 5003 Underwood Ave. in the Dundee neighborhood.
Opened in 2012, already a charcuterie award winner.
Bistro, 4916 Underwood Ave. in Dundee. Varied and casual
sandwiches and entrees in a 1900-era house. 402-502-2203,
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.
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.
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,
3253 Dodge St. Sleek and uber-green at Midtown Crossing.
Deco XV, 1504 Harney St. Downtown landmark building,
boutique with a four-diamond rating by AAA. 402-991-4981.
Place, 540 S. 12th St. In the middle of Old Market.