You'd think a place like Omaha would be awfully easy to define from afar, but you'd be wrong. Way out there on the tail end of the Midwest, and yet still a half day's drive or so from the places where the West begins in our popular imagination, Nebraska's big city sits there, stuck in the middle and right on the banks of the Missouri River, staring blankly back at Iowa, lost in something like its own universe.
Settled by dreaming pioneers and speculators and raised up with the stockyards and the meatpackers, Omaha retains some of that rugged and wild, almost-West feel to this day, giving the place more of an edge than you might expect to find in your more prototypical Midwestern city, if there even is such a thing, anymore. Omaha is not always a place of easy pleasantries, at times more easily given to long stares than quick hellos; this is a town that also happens to like its space, or so it would seem—lots of space. Nearly one million people can be found out here, in what feels like an ever-expanding metropolitan region; to say Omaha feels scattered is to put it mildly.
There is much to see and do here, of course; you can travel around the world right here in Omaha, visiting the world's largest indoor desert, trapped beneath the world's largest glazed geodesic dome at the Doorly Zoo. Do you like a bit of green? Even in the dead of winter, take an easy trip to the tropics, thriving inside the recently built Conservatory at Omaha's Lauritzen Gardens. A wealth of art can be found inside the grand Joslyn, drawing ever closer to its hundredth birthday, while the Durham Museum, breathing life into the city's Art Deco train station, is itself a marvel.
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Stick around for a while, however, and you'll end up spending an extraordinary amount of time driving around, navigating Omaha's baffling sprawl, driving past all manner of blank spaces and urban planning disasters—starting right on the banks of the Missouri River, mind you—to get someplace else. You could drive west from the river for roughly half an hour, even longer at rush hour, and still not have reached your destination in the western suburbs. At times, it feels as if Omaha never lost that pioneer urge, that call westward, like it won't be content until the city has been stretched halfway to Colorado.
But there is another Omaha, too—there is the historic Old Market district, for example, with its brick streets and handsome old buildings, now converted to all sorts of uses. This colorful corner of town, inaugurated decades ago, and still one of the most striking examples of adaptive reuse around, sits immediately adjacent to the heart of Omaha's downtown area, which has made great strides in recent years, giving more people a greater number of reasons to spend time at street level than they've had in a good while. There's more, too—about a mile west on Farnam Street, which is Omaha's historic main drag, on 16 acres of once underutilized land just below the impressive Mutual of Omaha tower, one of the most successful mixed-use developments in the region has recently taken shape. Called Midtown Crossing, the neighborhood, a concept-y thing built around a giant park, features plenty of local businesses, including one of Omaha's best restaurants, The Grey Plume.
Keep going on Farnam, however, past a few more parking lots, a couple more traffic lights, and you'll come to the neighborhood that right now best represents what one hopes might be Omaha of the future. The Blackstone District is what they call it, honoring the century-old Blackstone Hotel, a gigantic relic of a thing now converted to offices. The Reuben sandwich was apparently invented on premises, and when the hotel went up, this area was known as the city's Gold Coast—one writer even likened the area to the closest thing Omaha had to New York's Fifth Avenue.
Omaha being Omaha, the money didn't hang around here for very long, preferring instead to move even further west. (Surprise, surprise.) Many of the area's grand old homes were subdivided into less grand apartments, and if you found yourself over here as recently as a decade ago, you might wonder why nobody was seeing the potential for the neighborhood to be great once again.
Someone did, eventually. Long story short, The Blackstone District is now one of Omaha's most sought-after neighborhoods. As is often the case in areas that have mostly come up in the wake of the last recession, much of the appeal here is food and drink related—the district's central hub is a multi-block stretch of Farnam Street, absolutely packed with restaurants, bars, and cafes. Not coincidentally, these are some of the most talked-up places in town right now.
The neighborhood isn't done yet, not even close—a wave of new residential development, a notion that might have seemed almost impossible to imagine only recently, keeps pushing the district forward. In a very short time having swung from up-and-comer to so-hot-right-now, it's easy to see what happened here as the start of something bigger—much bigger, in fact, considering how much room the central part of town still has in which to maneuver. The city might be done testing its limits. Omaha may be ready, finally, to settle down, just a little bit.
Coming to town? Here are just a few essential stops in the Blackstone District right now—all within easy walking distance.
Ansel's Pastrami & Bagels
A water-filtration system that delivers a similar mineral content to New York City's fabled water, plus all-natural Piedmontese beef, cured, rubbed and smoked, and what do you get? Some of the best bagels and pastrami money can buy in the Central Time Zone.
Scriptown Brewing Co.
The name pays tribute to one of Omaha's earliest neighborhoods—this microbrewery with a passion for accessible, sessionable beers is one of the district's better hangouts. In good weather, dig the small patio out back.
The dynamic duo behind Omaha's coolest ice cream shop brings a wealth of combined experience in places like California's Napa Valley and Chicago to the table. Flavors rotate regularly; if you can, try the butter brickle, a classic, Heath Bar-like flavor first introduced at the Blackstone Hotel, back in the 1920's.
Easily the city's best coffee shop right now, this will remain the case until the go-getters behind what Food & Wine recently tapped as Nebraska's most impressive roaster open their second, even more impressive location, coming soon to another neighborhood (South Omaha, this time) few people would likely have predicted as the next big thing.
Dante Pizzeria Napoletana
This cheerful, accessible place for a quick, Neapolitan-style pie—fired in a wood oven, no less—and perhaps a glass of wine, is the smart-casual follow-up to a popular West Omaha restaurant, Dante. This spot stays focused on one of the original's most popular items, because who doesn't love good pizza, giving it a starring role.
Source local, eat global, seems to be the thing at this lunch and dinner spot that feels like the neighborhood's most serious restaurant, right now, serving lunch and dinner. Food or no food, the cocktails here are terrific—if it's hot outside, try the rhubarb margarita. Never mind the weather, actually—go ahead and try it anyway.
Omaha's got some great classic donut shops, but this one's thoroughly modern, and while the whole maple bacon / crème brulee / premium pricing for a fried ring of dough thing might feel a little old to some visitors, the classic glazed square, sold for a reasonable (by standards of modern donuttery) $2.20, is a thing of beauty.
Who says brunch is for weekends only? Seven days a week, slide into this cheerful spot with an over-the-top, aggressively goofy menu that conceals some solid standards, starting with no less than four different kinds of very good bacon, which you can order as sides. Get them all.