Here’s my travel story about Omaha’s Blackstone District from the Minneapolis Star Tribune

I keep forgetting to add my Midwest Traveler stories for the Minneapolis Star Tribune! Here’s one on Omaha’s Blackstone District!

Midwest Traveler: Omaha’s Blackstone is reserved for dining out

Revived neighborhood is the place for eating and drinking in the Big O.

By Betsy Rubiner Special to the Star Tribune

 

DECEMBER 6, 2018 — 6:12PM

We were not hungry when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon in Omaha’s recently revitalized Blackstone District — about 2½ miles west of the long-gentrified Old Market area, where we used to begin our occasional visits to big-city Nebraska.

But because eating is the thing to do in the district’s commercial stretch — along Farnam Street, roughly between 36th and 42nd streets — my husband and I gladly began our weekend getaway at the Blackstone Meatball, an Italian restaurant specializing in mix-and-match homemade meatballs and sauces (theblackstone­meatball.com).

The delicious meatballs, casual ambience and lively crowd provided a good introduction to an up-and-coming neighborhood, full of fledgling restaurants and bars, that I had not heard of until an Airbnb search produced an intriguingly titled option: “Cozy, centrally located art-nest in Blackstone.”

“What’s Blackstone?” I asked Iowa friends who grew up in Omaha. I learned that Blackstone is now the hot spot, but not long ago it was a not-spot, well past its midcentury heyday when the former Blackstone Hotel hosted dignitaries from Eleanor Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

Commercial and residential development, begun about six years ago, continues to transform the area, luring new residents and tourists. My friends’ upbeat report was bolstered by glowing press from the likes of Food & Wine magazine, which this year dubbed Blackstone “just about” Omaha’s “coolest place,” “changing the way we think about Omaha.”

I don’t know about that. But Blackstone did prove to be my kind of place — a morphing urban neighborhood at that bittersweet stage between begun and done, still a little rough around the edges but with enough street life, eclectic dining, people-watching and independent businesses to feel worth exploring.

It is also a great jumping-off point for nearby Omaha attractions, thanks to its location near downtown, between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Mutual of Omaha headquarters. Beyond Blackstone, we enjoyed scenic Missouri River views while walking across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, aka the Bob Bridge, honoring the former governor and senator.

Near the Old Market, we happened by an open house with international artists-in-residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, wandered through the deluge of vintage junk and sweets at Hollywood Candy and admired the art deco magnificence of the Durham Museum, in Omaha’s former Union Station.

Dining was reserved for the Blackstone District, which was hopping on a Saturday night, with people eating Mexican fare at Mularestaurant/tequileria (mulaomaha.com); sipping cocktails with names like Whiskey Smashed at the open-air front window at Blackstone Social(blackstonesocial.com); and standing in line at Coneflower Creamery, a “small batch” ice cream shop.

We strolled past low-rise renovated brick buildings and new modern complexes, some under construction. A still elegant brick-and-stone mansion was a clue that Blackstone is part of the Gold Coast Historic District, a 30-block midtown area with several mansions built by affluent city folk.

I later learned that the mansion we admired was built in 1906 by Gottlieb Storz, a brewery owner. It once hosted a movie premiere party attended by Jimmy Stewart, and has remained a single-family residence.

Slated for reconversion is the 1916 Blackstone Hotel, which became an office building in 1984. Last July, developers announced a $75 million project to revive and reopen the Blackstone in 2020 as a hotel, complete with restored ballroom and marble staircase.

Dining recommendations

Although we did not come close to exhausting Blackstone’s new dining options, we enjoyed our picks, several recommended by our thoughtful Airbnb hosts at the “cozy, centrally located art-nest.”

At the Blackstone Meatball, opened in 2016, we skipped the “meatball flight” — featuring the restaurant’s five varieties of meatballs and sauces — but did enjoy a design-your-own slider. We picked the Romesco Pork meatball made with roasted red pepper, garlic and cheese (Parmesan, Romano, ricotta) and topped with Pomodoro sauce, which was refreshingly light and moist.

We were glad we booked a table at Stirnella, a casual gastropub with lots of exposed brick and burnished wood. It was packed with diners sitting at communal and private tables. We shared a burger made with fancy wagyu beef, a seasonal heirloom tomato salad (with burrata and caper salsa verde) and a refreshing tuna poke with melon, avocado and red onion (stirnella.com).

On Sunday morning, we arrived too late at the Early Bird, which opened in 2017, serving brunch daily. Finding a crowd already waiting for tables, we went instead to Bob’s Donuts, which serves morning coffee, “artisan” doughnuts, fried chicken concoctions and tater tots. We drank strong coffee and shared a decadently large and doughy glazed doughnut, watching attractive tattooed parents with young kids come and go (eatbobsdonuts.com).

Before driving home on Sunday, we made a final foray to Coneflower Creamery, where we found a shorter line of about 30 people. A self-described maker of “farm-to-cone ice cream,” the tiny place touts its fresh ingredients from Nebraska dairy and produce farms. The butter­brickle, with bits of toffee, pays homage to the Blackstone Hotel, which reportedly originated the flavor. I can confirm that the “garden mint chip” tasted like mint leaves plucked from a garden. We’ll be back (coneflowercream­ery.com).

Getting there

Omaha’s Blackstone District is about a 370-mile drive southwest of the Twin Cities.

More places to eat and drink

Crescent Moon Ale House (beercornerusa.com/crescentmoon) has over 60 beers on tap plus pub grub including the Blackstone Reuben sandwich, reportedly invented in the 1920s across the street at the former Blackstone Hotel. Pizza options include Noli’s Pizzeria (thin-crust New York style) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (wood-fired Southern Italian style).

For local craft brew, try Scriptown Brewery and Farnam House Brewing Co.; for cocktails, Nite Owl and the Red Lion Lounge; for vino, Corkscrew Wine & Cheese; and for java, Archetype Coffee.

More information

Visit Omaha: 1-866-937-6624; visitomaha.com; blackstonedistrict.com.

 

Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.

 

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Detroit architecture walking tour!

For our next trip to Detroit, this info sent by a friend about an architecture walking tour of downtown Detroit will come in handy: https://detroit.curbed.com/maps/detroit-buildings-architecture-tour

Downtown Detroit’s essential architecture: A walking tour

Downtown Detroit from above | Photo by Michelle & Chris Gerard

Lace up your walking shoes or hop aboard the People Mover. It’s time to take a tour of the major buildings in Downtown Detroit. We did a similar map a few years ago, and we’re happy to say that some of the buildings people feared would be demolished are either renovated or in the process of renovation. We included the major buildings from the riverfront to Grand Circus Park.

We didn’t include all of our favorites, just the most recognizable. The Penobscot stands tall in the skyline, as does the Ren Center and One Detroit (or Ally Detroit). While others, like the Guardian Building and the David Whitney, have some of the most beautiful lobbies in the city.

If you find yourself in Capitol Park or Harmonie Park, we have separate maps for those areas, which are both seeing a surge in renovations.

Time to head out and explore the city! Did we miss your favorite? Let us know in the comments or the tip line.

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Wandering downtown – NYC

3E2B0234-9648-432F-9637-74D07EFB5A27I got a chance to do what I love to do most in NYC (besides seeing old friends and family): Wandering around interesting pockets of the city.

One day, I started at the Bleeker Street subway station and stopped for what turned out to be a giant breakfast at Russ & Daughters Cafe. (I took about half of my eggs/onion/lox and salad to go and left it at Union Square, hoping a hungry person would eat it…) D and I then wandered around the Lower East Side up to the East Village and ended up at Union Square and the holiday crafts market, where I also found some mutsu apples at the farmer’s market.

The second day, I started at the Spring Street station and wandered south into Little Italy and Chinatown, then a little west to Soho (western section is still charming, along Thompson and Sullivan/Spring and  Prince Streets) and then up to Greenwich Village/NYC, stopping for a nutritious lunch (not) of a chocolate chip cookie and coffee at the wonderful old Vesuvio bakery storefront on Prince Street (now technically the Birdbath Bakery despite the iconic storefront from the 1920s) and admiring a gated mews lined with pretty old carriage houses, MacDougal Alley,  just north of Washington Square Park. Reminded me, fondly, of London. I lingered in front of 1 Fifth Avenue, an elegant old building where my parents got married (when it was a hotel, I believe). Then I ended up at The Strand bookstore and at Union Square where I caught the #6 subway back to the Upper East Side.

Noshing on the Upper East Side included a delicious perfectly cooked (medium rare) half pound hamburger at EJ’s Luncheonette and kreplach soup and a corned beef sandwich (shared) at P.J. Bernstein’s. 

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Touring the fabulous new Renzo Piano building – downtown Des Moines

Thanks to the Krause Corporation (owner of the Kum & Go convenience store chain) for opening its fantastic new headquarters downtown for a day of public tours. So many people wanted to walk around the five-story Krause Gateway Center, designed by Italian architect  Renzo Piano that extra tours were added last Saturday (Dec.1) and another day of tours will be available in early January. If you haven’t gone already, go! The building isn’t technically open to the public except for the ground floor lobby which now has some cool architectural drawings and models tracing the development of the building.  Eventually the ground floor will also have a restaurant open to the public — an outpost of Table 128, one of the better restaurants in the metro area. An outdoor plaza to the west of the building is also public green space, with 128 mature trees,  interactive musical sculptures, chess tables, bocce ball courts and cafe tables —  perfect for people visiting the Pappajohn Sculpture Park (just south of the Krause building) who want to bask in the shade for a bit.The building is unlike any other in Des Moines — or elsewhere that I’ve visited–with its massive scale and sculptural look including high glass walls separated by four overhanging white horizontal planes.  The glass walls on the main floor are 29 feet high — higher than any other such walls in North America except for an Apple store in New York City. The space is very light (naturally) and the building almost translucent. From the building’s south side,  you have a fantastic view of the sculpture park below and if you look north, down a long hall, you can gaze through another window at a street leading up to the Sherman Hill neighborhood.

The interior design is sparse and clean with immaculate desks – in various configurations and groupings. There are high top tables, lower top desks, sitting spaces in an upholstered nook that felt a bit like a padded cell (except one side is open.) Most people don’t have assigned desks. Employees do get their own locker, to store their stuff, which they remove and place wherever they plant themselves during a given day. I gather this is au currant office design (and supposedly spurs more collaboration) but also takes some getting used to for employees accustomed to the creature comforts of their very own cubicle, slathered with family photos, gag bobble-heads and stacks of yellowing paper, yes, paper.

None of that to be found at the Krause Gateway Center, where the furniture is clean and contemporary, popping with color including orange and red Swan chairs, the famous chairs designed in 1958 by Arne Jacobsen for a Copenhagen hotel (I grew up with white Swan chairs in our ancestral home) as well as deep blue, orange and green high-backed chairs and couches. Big dramatic pieces of contemporary art also pop off the white walls and blond wood paneling –and there’s even a second floor art gallery, open to employees only.

The roof has vegetation that apparently will grow — and features stupendous views of the city, although I worry that the fencing at the edges isn’t high enough.

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The black model show at Columbia University’s new Wallach Art Gallery – NYC

We arrived in NYC  the Sunday afternoon post-Thanksgiving with just enough time to hustle up to 129th street and Broadway to see an art exhibit I really wanted to see (but is closed Monday and Tuesday, our two days in NYC). For maybe 40 years, a poster of Manet’s “Olympia” has hung on my bedroom wall. I love the audacious look of the nude reclining woman receiving flowers from a lover. Or so I believed that to be the story.

There is a lot more to it, as I learned from this show “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,”  which starts with a focus on the black maid who delivers the flowers to the white Olympia ( who I learned is a prostitute). Apparently the portrayal of the  maid is a milestone in the representation of black women, i.e. a more respectful and noble depiction than past portrayals and one that paved the way for others like it to come. Matisse apparently also had a few favorite black models who he portrayed respectfully (or relatively). One of the major portraits displayed looked very familiar. Turns out it is a painting from the Des Moines Art Center. This is the second time this year that something like this has happened. The first was at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark where I spotted a Des Moines Art Center painting in a  retrospective show of work by Gabrielle Munter. Must admit, I did not think the woman in the Matisse was black. Or white.  The exhibit included a photo of the stunning black woman who served as the model for the painting.

This free exhibit also had some interesting modern day pieces including several takes on Olympia. My favorite was a a black Olympia receiving flowers from a white maid.

The gallery is in a new modern extension of the Columbia University campus, in a gentrifying area of Harlem. Nearby on Broadway south of 125th we found some interesting looking ethnic restaurants. Dinner, however, was back on the East Side near where we are staying, at Bella Blue (Italian fare) with our dear friends Myra and Mike who made the trek in from Connecticut. Loved seeing them…and briefly their fab son Dan.

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Library book sale, Sip n’soda – Southampton,NY/Wainscott Beach

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Water Mill, we made our annual visit to the amazing book sale at the Southampton Public Library where often newly released books can be found for a fraction of their original cost.

Then for something new, seven of us crammed into a wooden booth at Sip n’Soda, the local soda fountain (since 1958) for some no frills food that was pretty good including crisp onion rings, good malts and shakes and a decent BLT and burger. We liked the old fashioned no frills vibe, the long counter, the booths.

We also had a lovely walk along the beach in Wainscott, a three minute walk from the sweet cottage where we stayed this year (my favorite of the many borrowed digs we have stayed at out here). The weather finally warmed, the sun was out and we walked to nearby Georgica Pond.

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Hauppauge Princess Diner/Parrish Art museum – hamptons thanksgiving 

We found my dream diner en route to water mill N.Y., which was not only open on thanksgiving day but packed with diners. For good reason. After much deliberation I ordered a tuna melt off of the encyclopedic menu, which was excellent.

A day later we took a break from eating and visited the Parrish museum which I have wanted to visit since its dramatic new building opened in a few years ago. It’s an interesting  building inside and a cook collection of work, much of it by artists who work or worked around here. I particularly liked The Fairfield Porter “raw” paintings.

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