Omaha’s vibrant culinary scene rivals that of almost any major city around the United States. From old-fashioned, hand-made comfort food like Grandma used to make to farm-to-table original concepts, chefs across the city work hard to create unique, delicious entrees that melt in your mouth or create an addiction that you makes you crave their dishes whenever you think of dining out. You can find delicious plates at Au Courant in Benson, impressive creations at the Grey Plume in Midtown, or enjoy handmade pasta at Malara’s near South Omaha and Little Italy. The dining options often seem unlimited in Omaha and its suburbs.
Then, one day, a virus was detected in Asia. Some believe it’s traced to someone, seeking a delicacy, becoming infected by unknowingly dining on an infected bat. This is a far stretch, in my mind, from trying Rocky Mountain oysters at Round the Bend Steakhouse near Ashland to oxtail at Block 16. Then, little did we know, the virus – Covid-19 – would spread across Asia, then Europe, eventually finding its way to the western hemisphere before leaders banned international travel.
Quickly becoming a pandemic, civic, education and business leaders sought to minimize Covid-19’s impact by closing government offices and restricting access to buildings, having employees work from home, and closing school buildings, switching to remote learning. Governors and mayors around the country took the extraordinary steps of closing restaurants and bars from in-person dining. Nearly crippling Omaha’s dining scene, restaurants struggled to stay in business, searching for alternatives to remain viable. Several switched to takeout and curbside delivery. Others remained closed until cleared to reopen at 50 percent capacity, then 100 percent in-person dining.
The Omaha metro area has always done a great job of supporting the restaurant industry. Some of us have worked in the industry, waiting tables, cooking, even working fast food. It’s impressive to see the groups and individuals who devote time and energy in sharing the stories, successes and challenges involved with the Omaha culinary scene.
Unique Eats and Eateries of Omaha
Two years ago, Lisa and I had the opportunity to tell the stories behind Omaha’s restaurants in the book Unique Eats and Eateries of Omaha. The book told the stories behind the eateries and restaurant-related businesses in the Omaha area. From Jacobo’s Hispanic market in South Omaha to Dante’s in west Omaha, Unique Eats and Eateries of Omaha focused on how the business came to be and grow through the years. In focusing on classic restaurants, such as Orsi’s Italian Bakery and Pizzeria in Little Italy and Farmer Brown’s steakhouse in Waterloo, we told the tales of longstanding restaurants.
As I interviewed people in the industry, it became apparent that a career in the restaurant industry is seemingly in a person’s blood. Far from a regular job, owning a restaurant is more than an 8-5 job with holidays off. You’re lucky to enjoy a single day off, with scheduling issues, delivery quandaries or plumbing problems. It was fun to learn how La Casa developed its special pizza sauce and why they decided on square pizzas. Or the second-guessing Nick Strawhecker had in deciding to open Dante’s in the middle of the Great Recession. Or the impact that childhood memories had on helping to create the menu at Over Easy.
While we focused on older restaurants, with the cut-off being five years to be considered for the book. This was the average time I learned in which a restaurant seems likely to stay in business or close. Unfortunately, as with any industry, some of the restaurants we included in the book decided to close. However, with classic restaurants such as B&G Tasty, Petrow’s and Leo’s Diner deciding to close, I believe their inclusion actually serves as a tribute to them because without being included in Unique Eats, perhaps they’d fade in people’s memories. They remain alive, at least in print.
Dan Hoppen could be considered the “boy genius” of Omaha’s culinary scene. The self-described foodie went from writing about Nebraska sports to penning his blog Restaurant Hoppen in 2014. Adding a podcast with the same name last year, Hoppen has interviewed more than 40 people, including Lisa and me. His podcasts are a must to listen to, and then quickly run out to the restaurant involved to enjoy the food you end up craving by the end of the interview. Embracing local restaurants over the past few years, Hoppen credits his interest growing after meeting chefs and restaurateurs.
Hoppen’s love for food can be traced to the family kitchen. “My mom was a great cook,” he said. “So, I think she developed that love in me growing up.”
Omaha Food Lovers
The Omaha Food Lovers Facebook group has quickly grown to over 37,000 members in a little more than a year. Seeking a group of like-minded foodies, Omaha Food Lovers seeks to provide an inviting place where people can feel free to express their views, mostly positive, on restaurants and food, as well as ask for suggestions on where to eat for special occasions.
Basing it on foodie groups they’ve seen around the country, co-founders Stacy Winters and Heather Ulrey Lake sought a place where people could share experiences, but it has evolved into something more, with members seeking to help out local eateries impacted by the pandemic, to help them remain in business.
“The group is for all lovers of food,” said Stacy Winter, one of the co-founders. “We have tried really hard to create a welcoming environment so that no one feels intimidated participating. Everyone is on a different foodie spectrum and this group allows people to find out about new food experience they may have otherwise overlooked or never even heard about.”
Omaha Foodie Club
Choosing a place to meet up and sample its menu and drinks, all while socializing with others who share a love of food is the impetus behind the Omaha Foodie Club. Focusing on local establishments, such as Vis Major Brewing Company or The Banh Mi Shop, the Omaha Foodie Club attracts about 20 people for each outing since starting in 2018, said Vera Lynn Petersen. The club hasn’t been able to meet because of the pandemic, but Petersen continues to see members and others supporting restaurants.
“It has been sad to put The Omaha Foodie Club meet-ups on hold while in this pandemic,” Petersen said. “However, it has been encouraging seeing all the take-out food everyone has been posting about while supporting our local restaurants and chefs. Dandelion Pop-up just started again for Friday lunchtime downtown, which is one of my favorite ways to support our chefs. It’s all served outside which I appreciate while trying to stay safe.”
Sarah Baker Hansen
The initials say it all. SBH. Most foodies know exactly who you’re talking about when you mention Sarah Baker Hansen. A true foodie, Baker Hansen covered the restaurant scene for eight years as the main food critic and reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. Branching out on her own, she’s created her own website, sarahbakerhansen.com, on which she shares features and reviews similar to her newspaper days. Known for leading food prowls, she has set out to find the best food in the Omaha area, from burgers to fries. I’m a big fan of her writing, so I’m glad she’s continued to write about food following her newspaper career.
What started as Small Guy Promotions, designed to promote Omaha-area businesses, grew into Omaha Fattie. Enjoying Omaha’s culinary scene has been big with Danell Taylor, the brains behind Omaha Fattie. What basically began with a visit to Golden Bowl Chinese, when he used his daughter’s hand for scale to photograph a “mountain of fried rice,” has grown into a popular foodie blog, with more than 1,600 followers. Taylor seeks to continue shining the spotlight on Omaha’s restaurant scene.
“There are so many great local spots that deserve to be celebrated,” he said. “There is a great food community here and I am glad to be a small part of it.”
How you can support restaurants
While we and other foodies and bloggers enjoy writing about Omaha’s culinary scene, here are a few ways we can all support the restaurants:
- Takeout/Curbside pick-up: While several restaurants reopened for in-person dining, they understand that some of us aren’t ready to venture out for dining. So, they continue to offer their menus for takeout or curbside pick-up. If you desire a meal out, but not comfortable with indoor dining, check out a restaurant’s patio dining options.
- Gift cards: Gift cards a great way to support your favorite eatery. You can buy the gift card now, adding to an establishment’s cash flow now, for use at a later time. Gift cards always make fun gifts to friends and family.
- Tip well: With some restaurants using limited staffing for a variety of reasons, servers and other staff members may not be earning as much money as they did before the pandemic. It helps everyone if we tip a little more than we usually do.
- Leave a positive review: If you enjoyed your dining experience, let the restaurant and fellow diners know via Yelp, Google, or even the Omaha Food Lovers Facebook group. If your experience didn’t go quite as anticipated, a restaurant’s management would appreciate the immediate feedback, best when done during your visit. This helps the team address issues going forward.
Fundraiser for the Food Bank of the Heartland
Lisa and I discussed ways to give back to the community and help people in the restaurant business, which, again, has been hit hard by the pandemic. In trying to find the right place to help, we decided that the best way to help the entire Omaha metro community is through the Food Bank of the Heartland.
Serving a 93-county area, the Food Bank has experienced a large increase in people using its services during the pandemic. Since the pandemic started and people became food insecure, the Food Bank of the Heartland has helped about 296,000 people, up from its average of 207,000 people, said Stephani Bayle. More than 7.5 million meals were served to the elderly, families and children between March 15 and June 30, Bayle said.
We’re seeking to raise $1,000 for the Food Bank by the end of August. For every copy of Unique Eats and Eateries sold on our website – uniqueeatsomaha.com – in August, we will donate $5. We’d appreciate your help in meeting that goal.