Originally published in The Reader.
Welcome to Omaha, College World Series fans. Sorry about the river. It doesn’t normally look this way.
Nevertheless, this is a new adventure for us as well. With the CWS downtown for the first time you’ll no doubt become well acquainted with the Old Market as well as the watering holes in close proximity to the stadium. (Check out the Slowdown while you’re down there. In a true showing of Midwestern hospitality our shining gem of a hipster-hangout is doing its best to morph into a sports bar for the next 10 days.)
But there’s more to Omaha than just what you can walk to from TD Ameritrade Park. Stop anyone on the street over the next few days and you’ll get all the recommendations you could possibly want for the best the city has to offer. Chances are someone will recommend the amazing beer selection at Old Chicago or Rock Bottom. If they do, ask someone else. Nothing wrong with either of those places but you didn’t come to Omaha for someplace you could probably go to back home.
Or, just consult my selections below because I’m not recommending anything that’s not distinctly ours. After nearly two years here, this is my version of the best Omaha has to offer:
STEAK: We’re known for beef around here. The moose out front should’ve told you. There are no shortage of old-school steakhouses in Omaha and, the fact is, they might offer more from a nostalgia perspective than actual quality and taste but that’s okay. It’s still an experience and the steaks are good, if a little short of great.
Johnny’s Cafe, 4702 S. 27th St., easily presents the best visual experience. A crazy, cattle in the woods mural takes up an entire wall, bronze bullhorns adorn the doors, the seats are leather and outdated, and it sits in the shadow of the Livestock Exchange Building, the last vestige of Omaha’s once world-famous stockyards. The place screams steakhouse. Go with someone else and get the chateaubriand for two.
The Drover, 2121 S. 73rd St., is actually my favorite steakhouse in Omaha. Tucked on a little side street just off 72nd St., The Drover is famous for its whiskey steaks, a super-secret marinade that’s not so secret now that the Internet exists. Compared to Johnny’s there’s a little less of the old oaky steakhouse atmosphere but the trade off is, in my opinion, a better steak.
PIZZA: Goodnight’s Pizza, located just a stone’s throw from the right field foul pole, is going to be packed. That’s good because the pizza, frankly, is underwhelming. You’d be much better served to go to the Baseball Village (12th and Cass) and find Dante Inferno, the mobile unit of Omaha’s best pizza restaurant. (See it in all its beautiful simplicity here.) It’s a btt of a trek out to their actual location in West Omaha at 168th and Center, but once you try one of their mini-pies you’ll want the full experience. In addition to pizzas, the appetizers and sides stack up admirably. Get the salumi plate as a starter. It typically features prosciutto, speck and coppa from La Quercia, an Iowa farm that produces some of the best charcuterie in the world. And if you find yourself stuck in a rain delay, Dante has an indoor bocce court to keep you busy.
Pitch, 5021 Underwood Ave., is another relatively new entry on pizza scene in Omaha. They cook their pizzas over a coal fire and their offerings go beyond the traditional sausage and pepperoni. A trip to Pitch will also take you to the heart of Dundee, Omaha’s most charming neighborhood.
DRINK: Go to the Homy Inn, 1510 N. Saddle Creek Rd. Some will say the place lost a little of its charm after Esquire named it one of the best bars in America, but I think the distinction is merited. Popcorn and peanuts are available for a dollar, the beer selection is impressive, and they have champagne on tap. Omaha has a number of great dive bars but this one still stands out as the best.
The Crescent Moon Ale House is the real center of Omaha’s beer culture and it’s really three bars in one. The main bar features all the American craft beers you could want. Max & Joe’s is your home for Belgian beer and the Huber Haus is downstairs, featuring a beer hall style atmosphere and German draughts. You can get the boot if you want to look like an asshole, but buying by the liter or half-liter is a much more dignified and pleasant experience. For pub food, the grub here is surprisingly good.
The Bohemian Cafe, 1406 S. 13th St., is better known as a restaurant but I like the bar just as much. Get a Pilsner Urquell lager in a ceramic mug, maybe a little svickova (a Czech-style sauer braten), and you’re set for the afternoon. This is one of Omaha’s best remaining links to its days as an Eastern European immigrant hotbed.
MISC.: I hesitated to include this because I’m not sure how many foodies are trekking to Omaha for a college baseball tournament but if you truly want the best Omaha has to offer there are two places that you can’t miss. The Boiler Room, 1110 Jones St., is right downtown and Chef Paul Kulik, fresh off a March dinner at the James Beard House, has the culinary chops to stack up against anyone anywhere.
So does Chef Clayton Chapman, the brains behind The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave. Named the “Greenest Restaurant in America” earlier this year, this is your place for fine dining with a focus on local ingredients.
And if you’re into the mobile food movement, Chef Sara Demars Cerasoli has given her already excellent truck, Soup Revolution, a CWS spin by turning it into Hot Dog Revolution for the next 10 days. Look for her truck featuring all-beef hot dogs, house-made condiments, sea salt pretzels and bacon caramel corn in the Tip Top Ballroom parking lot, 15th and Cuming.
As a downtown devotee, it’s not often that I’m recommending that visitors to Omaha expand their reach but the list above assumes you’ll get your fill of the Old Market (and likely the crowds) relatively quickly. Most of the places on the list above aren’t too far beyond that but it is at least a little bit of an escape. It’s also the list I’d give to anyone who wants to understand why Omaha gets the occasional bit of buzz as an up-and-coming city.
Enjoy the baseball and enjoy Omaha.