Wednesday 10/9: We are on our way to Omaha, Nebraska by way of an evening in Iowa (Cedar Rapids).
Cate’s dad was born and spent his first few years in Omaha, Nebraska. I grew up hearing about Omaha, about the places he would go with his family, about what a great town it was to grow up in. I had never thought in a million years, I, myself, would be heading to Omaha one day.
When we started to plan this trip, both Michelle and I put Omaha on the list. For several reasons, one being that both of us wanted to have a steak there, but also because of the unknown. More for me though, to see where my dad was raised and try to in some way see why this town is so important to him.
When we pulled into town, we had no plan, no expectations. Ok, we had some wild idea that we were going to pull into a very western town; all the men in cowboy boots and spurs and hats and swinging doors at the bars. Our vision couldn’t be farther from what we found.
We parked the car and headed straight to the old market area per my dads suggestion. THIS is Omaha?
What we discovered was spectacular. Old brick buildings that were once warehouses, many of which still had the business names painted on the sides, combined with industrial metal awnings, unbelievable amount of flora and foliage and cobblestone streets that take you back in time. The old market is made up of several blocks of shops, restaurants, bars and people watching. For those of you that have been to NYC, very similar feel to the meat packing district – but not even close to being as crowded.
We took some time to walk around, in and out of shops and to photograph the beauty of this historic area. Our first stop was at Vine + Branch a cute little olive oil, vinegar and wine shop. The samples were divine and then came the wine (see what I did there?). Thank you so much to the amazing mother and daughter team Linda and Tish for the wine tasting and telling us all about Omaha!
We were on our way exploring when we came across what appeared to be a cupcake shop. Why, yes, it is a cupcake shop, but there was no signage outside. Curious, we popped in to see what these cupcakes were all about. Little did we know, once again timing and fate were on our side.
As we walked in, we were greeted by Aaron who explained that Cupcake Omaha had only been open for about 36 hours (yes, hours). Just as Aaron was asking us where we were from and what brought us to town, Chris comes around the corner and announces that he is leaving to get more supplies and will be back in about an hour. Aaron tells us Chris is the owner and cupcake genius behind the place. As he is about to walk out the door, we wish him a congratulations, thinking nothing more than wishing him well.
Although Chris was in a rush out the door with his mother to gather more confectioners sugar and the like, he stopped in his tracks to have a chat with us. We told him about our story, how we made our way to Nebraska and that we weren’t sure what the next few hours, let alone days would bring.
And then it happened.
“You have to stay at my house. It’s big, I am never there cause I am always baking, you can have your own rooms, help yourself to anything and everything, call me in an hour and a half and I’ll give you directions and the access code.”
Was this really happening? Not even an hour in Omaha,
we had a place to stay and some new friends.
Chris and his mom were out the door and we stayed behind to chat with Aaron and hear more about the cupcakes and sample one or two or five. Three words: Carrot Cake Cupcake.
After some more exploring and in complete awe at how inviting and picture perfect the Old Market is, it was time to call Chris and head to his place to freshen up for dinner.
As mentioned, my dad had sent us with a list of must see’s and do’s while in Omaha. The top of the list was dinner at Johnny’s Cafe. Not just because it is an Omaha institution, not just because it serves up some of the most delicious steak you will taste, but because this restaurant has some serious history.
Johnny’s Cafe was the restaurant that my grandparents, Helen and Sam, went on their very first date. This is where it all began.
As we walked in, it felt as if we were taken back in time and you have this feeling not much has changed in the restaurant. The main dining room is very large, murals of woods and hunting on the walls, dark wood tables with dark brown leather swivel chairs. The smell of steak wafting as you walk through the doors.
A delicious bottle of red wine, stuffed mushroom caps, filet, baked potatoes and salad and vegetables; this is what it is all about. This is what we have been waiting for. The food was absolutely delicious and the portions enormous. As we were there towards the end of the night, we had the pleasure of meeting the wonderful ladies that run Johnny’s Cafe on a daily basis. They shared their stories of Omaha as we shared our travels with them.
I was never lucky enough to meet my grandfather. But, over the years I spent time with my grandmother Helen in Wyoming, where she moved after she and Sam retired. She loved my dad and was so proud of the life he created, she always knew how to make us laugh. She always, always wore the perfect shade of lipstick and had the most beautiful skin. I can still remember her lipstick as if it was yesterday. I used to say to myself, “I hope I look as good as she does in lipstick some day.”
Johnny’s Cafe was her kind of place. I can see her eating here, laughing with my grandfather, sipping a martini with the olives dissected.
Cheers to you Grandpa Sam and Grandma Helen. I hope you were looking down on us, smiling and laughing as we slid bread into our pockets to eat later just as you used to do!
Also, how amazing are these bar seats at Johnny’s Cafe? Real saddles instead of stools!