Issue 28

Omaha Dining: A 50 Year Retrospective

Omaha Dining: A 50 Year Retrospective

I have lived in Omaha for half a century. And as it turns out, this city and I have a lot in common. Both of us have grown up…and, um…out, in the past 50 years. And just as you probably would not recognize me from my childhood photos, much has changed with the city’s culinary scene in those many years.

Some of my fondest childhood memories involve – those who know me won’t be shocked – eating! We were regulars at King’s Food Host on 72nd and Cass (home of the cheese and tuna Frenchees), and the old, old Mr. C’s, when it was more drive-in than maze of holiday glitter. Henry’s sold hamburgers for 19 cents, and then there was that upstart…the place with those golden arches out on Dodge, that had those great French fries. We would order take out (no such thing as a drive-thru lane back then) and I would sit in the back of the car, holding the bag of food, and sneaking fries along the way. When Mom was in a good mood she would get us kids one extra sack of fries “for the trip home”.

When pressed to list my favorite Omaha restaurant experiences, my mind still drifts back to the fried chicken at Dixie Kitchen, Rose Lodge and Cliff’s.

Tiner’s Drive-In was also a favorite, near 44th and Dodge, as was Cliff’s Fried Chicken off 114th and Dodge….waaay out in the country in those days. We also spent our share of time at Sortino’s Pizza and Jack Holmes’ Ground Cow on Pacific. We always ordered out, and I can STILL taste that unique charred flavor of the burgers, fries and even in the apple pie. I loved their food, even though every time I ate there I soon got a terrible upset stomach. But silly kid that I was, I kept begging to go back.

When pressed to list my favorite Omaha restaurant experiences, my mind still drifts back to the fried chicken at Dixie Kitchen, Rose Lodge and Cliff’s.”

The only “nice” restaurant my parents would dare to actually take me and my kid brother and sister to was Italian Gardens in Little Italy. We felt like family there, and were on a first name basis with the owner Louise Salerno and her daughter Sara, who ran the place. To this day my favorite cuisine is Italian, and I have the Salerno’s to thank for that. I couldn’t get enough of the toasted ravioli, spaghetti and meatballs and other Sicilian favorites that came from the Salerno’s kitchen. The place was tiny (the building later housed Café de Paris), but on a couple of occasions when our extended family came to town they would close the restaurant to the public and it became all ours. Once, when my mom had surgery and was off her feet for a week, word somehow got out to the Salerno ladies, and one evening a car pulled up to our house, and several large trays of salad, spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna and yes, toasted raviolis were delivered to our front door…gratis. Now that’s Amore.

All of these memories, and a whole lot more, came floating back to me recently when I was shown a copy of a 1974 Omaha restaurant guide that turned up at an area garage sale – “Peter Citron’s Insider’s Guide to Omaha Restaurants.” I instantly remembered the guide from my high school days. It was a hot seller, the only one of its kind in town.

Peter Citron was, for quite a number of years, a restaurant/entertainment columnist for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, and later he reported on food and entertainment for Channel 6 TV. New York City born, Peter hit River City with a lot of high falutin’ ideas about food. It later came out that Peter had a dark personal side, which culminated in a prison sentence, but even that scar to his reputation would not change the fact that he unquestionably, and almost single handedly, helped kick-start Omaha’s bucolic restaurant industry in the 1970s and 80s, and set it on the course to what it is today. One quick read of his 1974 restaurant guide drove that point home.

Citron’s guide profiled almost 100 restaurants. Guess how many remain open today? 20. And that includes write ups of Denny’s, IHOP and Village Inn. Fully 80% of the “top” spots for dining in 1974 are consigned to history today. They include fixtures on the Omaha restaurant scene such as four separate restaurants owned by the Caniglia family, the Bellevue Queen, Coco’s, Dixie Kitchen, Ross’, The Hilltop House, Sparetime, Trentino’s, Marchio’s, Kenny’s, Nasr’s, the Ranch Bowl, and Rose’ Lodge, to name but a few.

We have come a long way in that area in 34 years, although still not far enough for some of us.”

What struck me most in going through the listings was that there was so little variety back in the 1970s. Nearly 60% of the restaurants listed featured multiple steak items on their menus – even the four or five oriental restaurants listed all had steaks on their menus. I also noted only four Mexican/Latin restaurants in the entire booklet. That compares with upwards of 50 around town today. One unfortunate place listed was called “Sambo’s.” Need I say more about how times have changed? Also, mention was repeatedly made of the fact that many menu items were delivered to the restaurants frozen, not made on premises. That would get you thrown into culinary jail today.

You will be interested to note that Omaha’s reputation of not being a great BBQ restaurant town has long roots. Not a single barbecue restaurant made the guide. Not a one! We have come a long way in that area in 34 years, although still not far enough for some of us.

With prosperity and military service, many Omahans are well traveled, and we demand so much more of a dining experience than did our parents or grandparents. While we might seek out places on a cold winter’s night that offer the “comfort food” of our youth, that was about all you could find in Omaha 30 or 40 years ago. That and a smattering of French and other high end European dining options. There was no sushi or sashimi. No tapas or paella. No calamari. No fajitas! No wine bars. No brew pubs. No Indian, Cuban, Belgian or Thai. No gourmet pizzas. No vegetarian. No fresh seafood (excluding carp). No casino restaurants, either – of course their were no casinos also.

While we might seek out places on a cold winter’s night that offer the “comfort food” of our youth, that was about all you could find in Omaha 30 or 40 years ago.”

Omaha today boasts one of the Midwest’s largest culinary institutes, at Metropolitan Community College. The institute recently broke ground on a new $16 million expansion, which will help raise it’s stature to a level of national importance. None of this existed 30 or 40 years ago.

Yes, so much has changed; but when pressed to list my favorite Omaha restaurant experiences, my mind still drifts back to the fried chicken at Dixie Kitchen, Rose Lodge and Cliff’s. And of the view from the Top of the World, and hamburgers at Henry’s. Of the tiny Italian gem that was Leonarda’s on Leavenworth. And yes, even of the heartburn generated by a steakburger and baked beans at the Ground Cow. But mostly, of mother and daughter Salerno, lovingly making magic in the form of homemade meatballs dancing in a slightly bitter tomato sauce, fresh lasagna and platters of toasted ravioli. Ladies, you may be gone, but you left an indelible place in my heart.

Bill MacKenzie

Bill MacKenzie

Bill MacKenzie is better known to many in Omaha BBQ circles as "BBQ Bill." For the past 15 years he has been a member of the Greater Omaha Barbeque Society (GOBS), including serving a recent stint as president. BBQ has been one of Bill's food passions since his college days in the 1980s. As a certified BBQ Judge under rules of the Kansas City BBQ Society, Bill has judged sanctioned barbeque contests in 5 states.


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