Issue 29

Bar Chat: Bygone Days of Omaha’s Bar Scene

Bar Chat: Bygone Days of Omaha’s Bar Scene

Those interested in dining or enjoying cocktails out in Omaha pursue these interests within a bar and restaurant environment that is in a state of constant evolution. Today’s bars and restaurants, and the customers that frequent them, bring fragments of the culture and the establishments of bygone days with them into the present. It’s relatively easy to take a quick mental tally of the significant and exciting changes that have taken place over the past several years. But what about a longer look back, say twenty or thirty years, or even longer? What would this reveal about how we got to where we are today? How might one trace a thread of Omaha restaurant and bar lineage from the present back that far, and what insights might be gained in the process?

Fortunately, one such time capsule exists in the person of Pat Gobel, long-time proprietor of the Dundee Dell. Pat’s history in the Omaha bar and restaurant scene and his path to the Dell is a long, colorful and fascinating one that weaves its way through a number of marquee establishments, which themselves formed part of the early foundation on which today’s bar & restaurant culture is built. Pat was kind enough to sit down for an interview recently.

Food & Spirits Magazine: Pat, you have an impressive resume. Could you walk me through it?

Pat Gobel: My sophomore year of college at Creighton in the early seventies, I wanted to bring my car to campus. Technically you couldn’t have a car your freshman year. So I wanted a car and a girlfriend, and to support both of those concepts, I needed a job. A friend of mine was working at the Oar House, where the Spaghetti Works is now (corner of 11th & Howard in the Old Market). And she said, “Why don’t you come and work at the Oar House? I’m waiting tables, etc.”, and I said “Why not?” So I went down and I applied, and I got a job tending bar. At that time, the Oar House was Dixieland jazz (According to the Preston Love autobiography A Thousand Honey Creeks Later, Count Basie and his band played at the Oar House). It had oysters on the half-shell, it had peel & eat shrimp, and yards, half-yards, and feet of beer. The owner was a bit of a bounder and a cad, and it eventually came to no good. So I left there and went to The Observatory. One of our managers moved over to The Observatory and I kind of followed him over there.

FSM: And where was The Observatory located?

PG: That was at the old Prom Townhouse (7000 Dodge St), where Office Max is now (the building was destroyed by the 1975 tornado – its wooden arches, the only structural element left standing, were incorporated into the interior framework of the Pink Poodle restaurant in Crescent, IA). The Prom Townhouse was the bomb. Back in the day, if you wanted to go out, that was the place to go. They had a really good Japanese restaurant, a really good mainline restaurant, and a good Chinese restaurant all in one place. The people who ran the Chinese restaurant went on to start Chu’s Chop Suey House (formerly located at 6455 Center St), and the people that ran the Japanese restaurant went on to start Mt Fuji on 72nd & Blondo, and the guy that ran the mainline restaurant was Ernie Firmature (NOTE: Ernie passed away on November 9th of last year at age 85), and he went on to start The Gas Lamp (formerly at 30th & Leavenworth Streets) and several other wonderful restaurants (including longtime Regency fixture, The Sidewalk Café. The Brothers Lounge at 38th & Leavenworth is also a Firmature creation).

So, the Prom Townhouse was the stuff. Now, in 1972, it’s in its declining years. It’s not what it used to be. It was run by this group out of Kansas City that were reportedly the mob. I love the rumors in this industry. Whether or not it’s true, it makes for a great story. Anyway, it was the beginning of the disco era, may that rot in hell forever, so this was a disco kind of joint. The tables were eighteen inches or so off the ground, and all the waitresses wore were basically mini-skirts, orange halter tops and orange undies. So they had to bend way over to put your drink down on this little table close to the floor, and what happens to a halter top when you bend way over?

FSM: Wow!

PG: Yes, it was very risqué, especially for Omaha in 1972. The hippie era of peace and flowers and tie-dye and ‘why can’t we all just get along?’ had ended, and now it was disco, and cocaine, and Gloria Gaynor, and Donna Summer, and the Bee Gees, for Christ’s sake. And so it was just dreck. The Observatory was all of that. The manager fired a waitress in bed one day. She had apparently made a comment about his prowess.

I was only there for a few miserable months. Very short-lived. I couldn’t stand it. But one nice connection I made there was a great old boxer around town named Mouse Strauss (the boxing career of Bruce ‘The Mouse’ Strauss inspired the 1997 movie “The Mouse”, which featured cameo appearances by Ray ‘Boom Boom’ Mancini and Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb). Mouse was a longtime boxer who would box four or five times a night in different weight classes under different names, and he was the guy that went down. He was five feet eight or so, middleweight, and he was the head bouncer at The Observatory, and all the guys backing him up were these sides of beef that were linemen for UNO. And the rule was, “You don’t hit anybody until I hit somebody. If you see me getting hit, don’t hit anybody, but when I start hitting somebody, you can hit somebody”. And Mouse could take a punch. You couldn’t knock him down unless he decided he was going down. That was the beauty of his boxing career. You could be six four, punching this guy who is five eight, and he’s just standing there grinning at you like, “Is that all you got?” There were fights every night, but Mouse never lost his head. He never got emotional about it. He never got angry.

So I went from there and got a job at M’s Pub in November or December of 1972. M’s opened for business in January of ’73, and I was the first waiter hired. I didn’t know how to wait tables. I didn’t know what side of the plate the fork or knife went on, but Mary (Mary Vogel – founder of M’s Pub, the ‘M’ in M’s) thought I was cute. Mary was sort of this grand dame. She’d been an Ak-Sar-Ben princess, her father was a wealthy architect, she married and buried two very rich husbands, and she was rolling in dough. So she built this gorgeous place, and it opened my eyes to all sorts of possibilities. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska. We didn’t have any black people. We didn’t have any gay people. A mixed marriage there was when a Catholic married a Lutheran. We didn’t have any kind of an arts scene. We didn’t have wealthy people.

The Old Market at that time was basically four joints. The French Café opened first, then Mr. Toad, then the Firehouse Dinner Theater (in the space currently occupied by Upstream Brewing Company on 11th & Jackson), and then M’s Pub. There were a bunch of head shops, where you could buy pot under the counter, and records and bongs over the counter. And there were some really cool art galleries. A beautiful place called Gallery at the Market was in the Nouvelle Eve space (northwest corner of 11th & Howard). Tom Davis owned it, and his family was involved with First National Bank. So the Market was this weird mix of eccentric people, what was left of the hippies, really rich people from Fairacres and such, and an artsy kind of crowd. They’re all sort of hanging out and enjoying each other.

I’d work at M’s and wait tables, and learn how to do that from some very, very good waiters, and then after hours we’d end up in Fairacres, sitting around drinking wine and talking about Miles Davis, and Baryshnikov, and art. It really opened up my world. Looking back, it was a unique time in American history, and it was a unique time in Omaha history. All these things got together, mixed well together, and everybody got along. It was just a beautiful time.

I worked at M’s for a couple years at least. Mary sort of took me under her wing. I think I was her surrogate son. I eventually went on to become the bar manager there. I bought the liquor, ran the schedule, and did a whole lot of things, without thinking ‘this is unique’ or ‘I’m not qualified to do this’. None of that ever crossed my mind. I learned that there are many kinds of liquor, which was news to me because all I ever had been was a beer drinker. There were a dozen or so scotches, and four or five different bourbons. Vodka was kind of looked down on at the time. You didn’t drink vodka unless you were one of those ‘alcoholics’. So you drank gin, you might drink rum, you’d drink cognac, or scotch, or bourbon. But respectable people certainly didn’t drink vodka. It was a different world. The ladies always drank cream drinks. We blended I don’t know how many Grasshoppers, and Velvet Hammers, and Banchees, and Golden Cadillacs, these hideous drinks. But I was new to the game, and I didn’t know. It was just the way it was. And a Martini was a Martini. It was gin, and it always had vermouth in it. We were ‘by the book’ bartenders. There was a rigor to it, and we took great pride in the drinks that we presented. They were made according to the recipe and the proportions were correct. If you’re making a Stinger and it’s 2 parts brandy and 1 part white crème de menthe, and somebody wants more crème de menthe, well then it’s not really a Stinger anymore. If that’s what you want, I’m going to charge you for it, but it’s not a Stinger. It’s some kind of mess.

There was respectability and an expectation of a bartender back then that went away for a while and now seems to be starting to return again. Customers would come in, of course this is long before cell phones, and they would say, “If anyone calls for me, I’m not here”. Part of my job is making really good drinks, but another part of my job is taking care of my customers – that confidence. Whether they knew me by name or not, I was expected to hold up that end. So it was, “yes sir, no problem”. Then the phone call would come in, and I’d say, “I’m sorry. He’s not here”. And I’d hang up, and I’d go over to him and I’d say, “You just had a call. I told them you’re not here.” And he’d say, “Thank you”. There were pay phones in the rest rooms, so if you needed to make a confidential call, you didn’t go to the pay phone by the front door, you went to the pay phone in the rest room and you made your call.

You never mentioned to a customer who he was in here with previously, the night before or last week. You kept that to yourself, and you were expected to be aware enough to know to keep your mouth shut. Nowadays, everything’s on Facebook, blah, blah, blah, and ‘I had oatmeal for breakfast’. Who cares? But in those days, you were expected to keep a confidence, to keep your mouth shut, and to never ever mention it. There was a charm and a certain unspoken gentility about things. It was the end of an era.

After a few years at M’s, I went to work at the Chicago Bar. It was a brand new joint opened up on 33rd and Farnam, right by Mutual of Omaha. Dick Duda was another great mentor of mine. He had owned several joints, and he was just this larger-than-life guy. He had taken this place that was called The Players and turned it into the Chicago Bar. It went from being a sort of a singles lounge to being a saloon – peanut shells on the floor and longneck bottles, which was kind of novel at the time. Strawberry Daiquiris were popular at the time. God, what a hideous drink! We just made tons of them. The joint was packed. We had really good burgers and really good hot dogs. Dick taught me that you can make a fortune selling what people want to buy, but you’ll go broke trying to sell what you want to sell. It took me a long time to really understand the wisdom of that. He made a fortune selling tap beer and burgers. Nothing fancy, but man it was good! He knew how to fill a joint up. Dick would hire cocktail waitresses right off the floor. We’d get into the middle of a busy shift and we couldn’t get the drinks across the bar fast enough because there weren’t any waitresses, or they quit or whatever, and he’d go up to somebody and say, “Hey. Want to make twenty bucks? Here’s a cocktail tray. Go talk to him.” And he’d point at me. And I’d be thinking, “Dammit, Dick!” So this girl would come up and I’d say, “Go over and ask that table what they want to drink”. She’d come back and say, “They want a Gin & Tonic and a Rum & Coke”, so I’d make them and set them up there, and she’d say, “Which one’s the Gin & Tonic?” and I’d say, “I’ll put two straws in that one so you can keep them straight”. I’d go downstairs and change four or five kegs at a time, and I might do that twice in a night. It was crazy how much beer we sold.

Those were the days when there were only a certain number of liquor licenses in the city of Omaha, so if you wanted to open a bar or restaurant, you had to buy an existing license from somebody else. So you’d go to North Omaha or South Omaha, the depressed part of town, and buy somebody’s license. At that time, the going rate was ten to twenty thousand dollars, which was a lot of money back in that day

Anyhow, that was a rockin’ good time. I was in college. It was a college bar. The girls would roll out of Mutual at three or three-thirty in the afternoon, the college boys would be lined up there to meet them, and the game was on.

From the Chicago, I gravitated back downtown. The Chicago was fun, but the tips weren’t there. I learned that if you want to make good tips, you need to cut your hair, you need to present well, and you need to work the fancier joints. So I got a job at the French Café. The two long-time bartenders had quit, and there was an opening there, which just never happened. I got in there and got the job as bartender, and then I became bar manager. I worked there for about three years and had a ball. I learned more about fine cuisine, and cognac, and really fine service, lessons I carry with me to this day – an appreciation for the finer things in life, and doing things with a certain style. It was wonderful. Mike Harrison was there at the time, and Tony Abbott, of course. And I learned from some highly skilled individuals. We had a couple guys there that had been Union Pacific porters when they were young men. At this point they were pretty old men. Back in the day, if they wanted to get on the train, and these guys were supporting their whole family, they had to show up in front of the captain before boarding the train, in full uniform. It had to be pressed. All the buttons had to be shined. Their fingernails had to be shined. Their shoes had to be shined. If anything was out of place, the captain wouldn’t let them on the train, which meant that their family didn’t eat that week. So they came up from hard times.

The beauty of being in service in restaurants and bars is that it’s a very honorable position. A lot of people don’t understand that. They look down on the server, the bartender, the hostess, whoever it is. The chain restaurants have really done a lot to dumb those positions down. That’s why it’s such a joy to go to restaurant towns like New Orleans or Washington D.C., or to Europe, and to see true service and really appreciate it for what it is.

Here at the Dell, where I’ve been for 23 years now, we’re a pub, so we’ve specifically done away with a lot of service elements. We don’t have tablecloths. Our napkins are paper. This is a pub. This is where you come to hang out. If you want a meal, great, but you don’t have to eat. If you want a drink, great, but you don’t have to drink. We want you to be at home here, and we want it to have that homey feeling. But in a fine restaurant, which I enjoy as much as anything in life, it’s wonderful to see people that appreciate service. And not the snooty, ‘I’m too good for you’ kind of service – the kind of service where they truly enjoy presenting their products and their service. It’s such a joy to be around that.

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell

Dan Crowell, cocktail enthusiast and self-avowed ‘spirits nerd’, is the Luxury Brands Specialist for Sterling Distributing Company in Omaha. He talks incessantly (even occasionally to other people) about the virtues of what he calls ‘investigative imbibement’. An eternally fascinated student of the distillers’ art, he encourages any like-minded individuals to engage him in spirited discussion at http://libationassociation.blogspot.com


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