Issue 27

Omaha’s Whole Brain Restaurants: M’s Pub & Vivace

Omaha’s Whole Brain Restaurants: M’s Pub & Vivace

“Whenever anyone, but especially someone from out of town wants a dinner recommendation, I send them to M’s Pub because I know they will love their food, love the ambiance, and feel like they are experiencing that cool urban vibe,” Food & Spirits Magazine publisher Erik Totten told me. Erik is a nut, but he knows restaurants, and he’s not alone in his opinion. I’m not sure what a “cool urban vibe” is, since I am a country girl from Arkansas. But as some other redneck said, I know what I like. And I also know food.

I was skeptical. Omaha‘s Old Market is quaint and lovely. But you can’t eat cobblestones. Well, picture this: turn of the century architecture, wood in hulking planks that clearly came from big trees, soaring ceilings, tradition that seeps through the air like cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. Now this: forward-looking menu items, modern updates of classic dishes, killer mixology, made from scratch to-order food. It sounded a little schizophrenic. I mean, M’s Pub is one of the oldest running restaurants in the Old Market. And it is modern enough to capture the hearts of some heavy hitters (Google their website.) But M’s is considered by the family of people who run it to be more of a community treasure than a restaurant. Strangely, though, that’s not what makes M’s Pub and its “sibling” restaurant Vivace so special.

To understand why, a little food for thought:

A new model of brain health and development based on integrating the emotive right-brain with the logical left-brain is being promoted by neurologist and behavioral psychologist, Dr. Daniel Seigel. In his book, The Whole Brain Child, he explains that this integration is not only possible, but essential for psychological balance and well-being, especially for the growing brains of children. In other words, to be happy, healthy and function well, we must integrate the number-cruncher and list-maker in our brains with our internal painter and performance artist. Or, as Seigel says, we must use our whole brain.

When I met Ron Samuelson, co-owner with Ann Mellen of M’s Pub and Vivace, I saw that he is one of those rare restaurant manager/owners who feels at home in both the front and back of house. His mission is obviously to micromanage details, not people.

As his head chef, Robert Mekiny said, “our mindset is to ‘geek out’ over the ingredients in any new menu item.” Perhaps a lamb burger, (which Samuelson ate so many of during its development that he has a hard time eating them now) or the pizza and lahvosh that customers can’t get enough of.

But the people who work in the restaurants, including Mekiny and Vivace operating manager Becca Thompson, are scolded if they work too much. “We demand a lot of creativity from our team, and they can’t do that if their lives are one-dimensional and focused on just work,” Samuelson told me. He himself seems happy meeting with chefs, or discussing marketing and sales, negotiating with suppliers, chatting with customers, hanging out with his young twins, or doing community service for projects like “Share Our Strength” (a program to fight hunger.)

Then I spoke with business partner, Ann Mellen, who is the bookkeeper of the operation, (and whom Chef Mekiny described as “a perfect picture of grace.”) She told me she loved working the floor and bussing tables when M’s is busy. That’s when it became clear to me that the story of M’s Pub and Vivace was a story of integration and balance.

Balance seems to be what both menus strive for. There are choices on both menus that kids can eat: hot dogs, lahvosh, pizza (but very, very good pizza in the Neapolitan tradition) half-portions of pasta, but there are also seafood and steak entrees that would be at home in any fine New York bistro. Regular at M’s and local artist, Larry Sosso, says he loves that M’s is a place where you can wear a suit or jeans and still feel comfortable. “We like to mix the dinner menu with the bar menu,” he says, “and maybe have a lahvosh, a dessert, and a glass of wine after the symphony or a show.”

This sort of versatility was echoed when I spoke to Ron (Samuelson insisted I call him Ron, and he’s transparent but businesslike enough for me not to mind doing it) about how M’s menu evolved from its origins in the seventies as a kind of bar/cafe to an elegant restaurant with a cool bar. Ron, Chef Bobby and Ann all describe their restaurant as being customer driven. “People tell us what they want, and our job is to make sure they all leave with a smile,” says Becca at Vivace.

When Ron wanted to put pizza (the kind of pizza you expect to find in a cool urban setting – Naples, let’s say) on the menu, he did a crazy thing. “We deconstructed it. Took all the ingredients separately and had blind taste tests.” This was very scientific and left-brain of him, actually. Good tests results can only come when there is a double-blind situation, because no matter how much you try to be impartial, you just can’t, something the aforementioned Dr. Siegel calls “implicit memory,” or memory with emotional associations.

So they didn’t ignore their instincts, but they were rigorous about their trials. As Ron explained it, there were some surprises. The best tomatoes turned out not to be. The cheeses were critical and their suppliers even more so. The crust was tricky. Obviously, this was not some kiddie-birthday-party, dumbed-down pie; pizza aficionados in Italy slave for decades to win the coveted title of Vera Pizzaiolo Napolitano. Still, who would have guessed that for pizza, the actual taste overruled the tradition? Ron was, he admitted, slightly obsessed. They tested so many of them that Becca at Vivace told me in confidence that she got “really tired of eating pizza. “ But having sampled the fruit of their labors, I can tell you that this serious gourmet pizza was delicious to some very foodie moms I know, and was still eaten readily by five out of five children (not all mine, various ages) who snarfed up every scrap and loved it. The customer may not always be right, but at M’s and Vivace, they have the final vote.

That “customer driven” theme is also how Chef Bobby learned the hard way that some items on the M’s menu were sacrosanct. The dubious-sounding Carrot Dog (a vegetarian entree) was one he tried some new-chef changes on by removing. “I got hate mail,” he told me, laughing. “And not just from Omaha, but from people all over Nebraska. I was like, come on, it’s a carrot on a bun!” Oh, but it is a braised carrot, with gourmet mustard and sauerkraut, and having sampled the way those veggies on the pizza are slow roasted for perfect flavor and sweetness, I can tell you it is certainly not just a carrot on a bun.

Old Market developer and friend to Omaha visionary Sam Mercer, Mary Vogel, started M’s Pub 40-plus years ago, and some of her original items are still served there. Yet this restaurant is an up and comer after decades. So how does this balance between new and old coexist? Ron says, “I have never worked harder to find that balance between tradition and change. We don’t want change for change’s sake. But continued success is never a given. Ann and I consider ourselves caretakers of this business. To do our jobs well, we have to trust others to do theirs. It’s about developing relationships and talent. We’re not the flashiest place, but we have a certain spirit and energy.”

Wow, and that’s about as far from a business-class, lackluster mentality as you can possibly get.

I was still somewhat skeptical. It’s a character flaw of mine. But like a child staring at a cuckoo clock, and being told all about Swiss engineering and loving craftsmanship, I kept thinking, yes, but how does it work? How does Vivace’s regional Mediterranean food (which was new to Omaha when it opened 20 years ago, and now is in our vernacular) stay current, and how does M’s hold up the weight of tradition without being stodgy? Maybe Chef Bobby told me that when he said that Ann and Ron run the whole show like a family and their employees and patrons are a part of it. “We see generations of families at our bar,” he tells me. “Ron has a certain idea of how life should be lived, and Ann leads from the heart. When I was new, they told me to go home, quit working so much. I thought I was going to be fired. But what we do demands creativity and energy, and you can’t give that if you’re tired and worn out.”

Talk about balance. Let your team rest and create? Have a life? What kind of insane management strategy is that? Dunno. But it seems to be working.

Ron said that the menus from both restaurants have “depth, and offer things that can give customers comfort or challenge their palettes.” Usually when restaurants offer “simple food done well” it means they can’t be bothered to prepare it properly and season it. But these dishes are well-tested, both by time and practical preparation, and we are talking nearly a hundred menu items prepared from scratch and made to-order. Ann said, “We make sure everyone is happy: first to last. And we treat everyone equally well,” whether they order a cucumber finger sandwich, a bowl of mushroom soup, or a soup-to-dessert banquet with wine for a dozen people.

Both she and Ron came up in the ranks, he as a pastry chef who joined the M’s team and she as a working part of her family that took over M’s from Mary Vogel. She told me, “The thing that has surprised me the most has been my business relationship with Ron,” one he described as “symbiotic.” “Lots of people have told us we should start an M’s Pub in D.C. or New York, but then it wouldn’t be M’s,” Ann said. To me, that statement doesn’t sound very analytical at all. Where’s the corporate-speak, the bottom-line jargon? And where did these folks get the kooky idea that leadership is equal to service?

I am no longer skeptical about how these two restaurants work. I think the magic stems from the balance and harmony these two people have achieved. When I asked Ann, the logical left-brain bookkeeper what she wanted people to know about M’s Pub, she … um … emoted: “Thank you, to the people of Nebraska that have supported us for so long. We love you guys.” I’d say it shows in both form and function.

Ann Summers

Ann Summers

Ann Summers is not a 40-umpthing-year old rock climber who got shut down in Boulder Canyon and drowned her failure in a microbrewery. She is neither a mother of two, a fan of Latin plant names nor a lover of fine Italian Grappa. You’ll not catch her shooting guns for fun or hollering like a redneck. She hates Shakespeare, and doesn’t call a certain fast food chain “The Scottish Restaurant.” She turns her nose up at organic yellow beets, eschews fresh oysters, and loathes chubby guinea pigs with Violent Femmes hairdos. She is also a dreadful liar


Tags assigned to this article:
M's PubOld MarketomaharestaurantsVivace

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