Category Archives: Omaha

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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bob’s Donuts, The Bob Bridge, Durham Museum, Hollywood Candy, Cubby’s convenience, Coneflower ice cream – Omaha

pplaying catch up from a hospital bed in dsm, post arm surgery, and no joke…my nurse is name bob

which brings me to our Sunday in Omaha which was a lot of fun. We stuck to our neighborhood, the Blackstone District and when the wait was too long for the early bird restaurant, we went next door to bobs donut coffee and chicken where we had two of the three (I don’t get the chicken thing). It was perfect and I enjoyed watching tattooed parents coming in with their little kids for breakfast.

from there we drove downtown to the Nebraska side of the bob (Kerrey) pedestrian bridge whic has some great views of the two states and the river. Found a spot to be in Nebraska and Iowa simultaneously.

onto some other Omaha hotspots that we have somehow missed during brief drive throughs in the past. Our kids, when they were little, would have loved Hollywood Candy, which not only has an outstanding selection of vintage candy (my Royal Crown sour candys greeted me right at the front door) but also an amazing collection of vintage kitsch, old pinball machines, lunchboxes, trolls, records.

we didn’t go into the exhibits at the Durham Museum but we walked around the Art Deco former train station in awe. Lunch was a surprisingly good shared tuna sandwich at the Cubby convenience store near the Old market (it even has an outdoor patio, away from the gas pumps.) . We were saving up for Coneflower ice cream in the Blackstone District which was excellent (the garden mint chip really did taste like it had I mint from our garden). Omaha was fun!

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Blackstone District, Bemis Center, Hotel Deco – Omaha

Our Blackstone District “art nest”

We have passed through Omaha many times, sneaking in a quick visit to the Indian restaurant in the Old Market, but we have never stayed overnight to explore. So here we are, staying in a spacious 1920s era apartment (thank you Airbnb) in the recently revived Blackstone District on Farnam Street, about 2 Miles west of the old market area. It consists mainly of about 4 blocks of interesting restaurants, bars and a few shops in older brick buildings in what was not long ago, we’ve heard, a rundown area. So basically, our kind of place.

We stopped at Blackstone Meatball because we’d never been to a meatballery before and sure enough they had quite the selection including a meatball flight (a variety of 5) and the meatball of the day (chorizo). We split a small meatball slider – pork with peppers, ricotta, Parmesan, garlic. Very moist and flavorful. Almost light.

we also chanced upon an artist’s in residence open house at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, located in a big red brick former warehouse near the old warehouse district. It’s been around for decades but we’d never heard of it. Our Airbnb hosts suggested it. Walking around the studios that double as living spaces on the second floor, we met an artist from Dublin and another from Riga, Latvia. Word has it there are 10 artists in residence who get a three month live/work studio here — as part of one of the top international residency programs. The work was pretty avant-garde. The main floor is a huge gallery, which was devoted to a one -woman show of “Hot Mess Formalism” by nyc artist Sheila Pepe, with giant fiber macrame installations, as well as ceramics and other mediums. To mark the show, free “hot mess” ice cream (a strange mix of vanilla ice cream and chocolate chips and bits of red licorice was served in little Chinese takeaway cartons. We were advised by some of the artists not to try the other option — avocado ice cream

we also dropped by the Hotel Deco downtown which has a tiny intact original Art Deco lobby and some interesting little bar spaces. Omaha is looking good!

Dinner was at a good small plates place, Strinella, a short walk from our Airbnb, well-recommended by our host. We were too full for ice cream nearby at Coneflower, which is just as well since there was a long line, maybe 50 people, waiting to get into the little place.

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Lewis and Clark monument — council bluffs, Iowa

We found our J & J Jackson water bottle that we mistakenly left behind!

We visited the place where the council in Council Bluffs comes from. Who knew, although I could have guessed, that the council refers to a meeting between native Americans and the explorers Lewis and Clark. We learned this while visiting a very cool, somewhat hidden memorial marking this council, located high on a bluff with a panoramic view across the Missouri River of downtown Omaha and the Omaha airport.

What did we do before Google and cellphones? (My mother, writing  in her travel journal 25 years ago, asked “what did we do without faxes?”) We found this place, off a winding country road, past horse farms on the outskirts of Council Bluffs, after I googled to find a picnic spot with the best views of the river. It turned out to be a dramatic overlook with some 1930s’ poured concrete, possibly WPA reliefs, depicting the “council.” It seemed like a local secret. There were several well positioned picnic tables, although we could have used a little shade.

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when next in Omaha/council bluffs …where to eat

State of Nebraska
Flag of Nebraska State seal of Nebraska
Flag Seal
Nickname(s): Cornhusker State
Motto(s): Equality Before the Law
Map of the United States with Nebraska highlighted
Official language English
Demonym Nebraskan

Will Forte, a star of the new film “Nebraska” had some interesting restaurant suggestions  after shooting the film in Omaha. So for the record, he told the NYTimes he liked The Boiler Room in Omaha and Dixie Quicks for breakfast in Council Bluffs. He liked staying at the Magnolia Hotel in Omaha and also recommended the Occidental Hotel in buffalo, Wyoming which we also liked when we stayed there (it is supposedly where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed when in town…Will didn’t mention another good place in Buffalo…Tom’s Main Street Diner on, you guessed it, Main Street.

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Filed under DESTINATIONS - Iowa, DINING, LODGING, Omaha, Wyoming

Scouting North Omaha – don’t do it at 10 a.m. on a Monday


The Slowdown venue in NoDo.

My son’s flight from Omaha to Lima (by way of Houston) was delayed two weeks ago so we had some time to kill on a Monday morning. We drove to the nearby “NoDo” neighborhood (aka north of downtown) but it was pretty sleepy at 10 a.m. We did peek into the windows of The Slowdown, an indie rock club, and neighboring Saddle Creek Records, an indie label whose artists include a band my son likes, Bright Eyes. The two are connected and both looked promising.  About the only signs of life on the one block stretch of shops and restaurants was at the Blue Line Coffee shop. We also stopped at the Old Market area but that too was very sleepy – what shops are left (the district seems to have far more restaurants than I remembered in earlier years) weren’t open until 11 a.m. Oh well.

Bright Eyes

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Sometimes it pays NOT to fly out of the Des Moines airport: (i.e. if you’re going to New Orleans or Lima)

I was despairing over the inexplicably high price of a plane ticket from Des Moines to New Orleans – where I hope to meet up with old friends from London in the fall – when I discovered, thanks to a new friend, that I can fly for about half the cost by leaving from the Kansas City airport ($230 vs. $450 or so from Des Moines). There’s even a direct flight from Kansas City, although it’s more expensive. It’s been awhile since I’ve schlepped to Kansas City to fly – we used to fly Southwest to Albuquerque until Southwest was no longer such a great deal. But it may be worth the drive and expense to park my car to leave from K.C.

I also discovered that a two-flight trip to Lima via Houston costs about the same from Omaha as it does from Chicago (not from Des Moines alas) so we’re thinking seriously of opting for that since driving to Omaha takes about 1/3 the time it takes to drive to Chicago (2 vs. 6 hours.)

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