Road Trips: A Drinker's Guide to Omaha, part one

Satellite Motel Sign detail"THERE'S A PLACE CALLED OMAHA NEBRASKA," Groucho Marx sang once, before misplacing the town on the map: "In the foothills of Tennessee." Singers don't seem to know just where Omaha is, come to think of it. All the Counting Crows knew was that the town was "somewhere in Middle America," while Bob Seeger placed himself "on a long and lonely highway, east of Omaha," which could be just about anywhere that's not west of Omaha. Way to be specific, gents.

Well, we at the Bottle Gang have been to Omaha. And not just in a passing-through-on-the-way-to-somewhere-else sort of way. We've been to parties with The Faint and Conner Oberst (and a lesser-known act from Omaha, Mulberry Lane, who once sent us a postcard from Japan). We've crashed three of Alexander Payne's shindigs, once wishing him a happy birthday when it wasn't his birthday at all, and made many calls to the Academy Award-winning writer/director, several times by accident, which he did not appreciate. We drunkenly strolled through the halls of the Joslyn Museum with Omaha's former mayor, Hal Daub, after dining with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee, who has a yearly theater festival in Omaha. We made friends with an enormous, bearded astrologer and blues guitarist who is reported to have once bitten off a man's ear. Also, we've been to a lot of Omaha strip clubs, although, on the whole, we prefer those in Council Bluffs.

So trust us when we say that Omaha is a great place to drink. We've drunk our share there. The alcohol is plentiful and it's cheap -- three cocktails made with middle-shelf liquor will cost you the same as one cocktail in Minneapolis's North Loop. But be warned: Omaha bars generally are not very well stocked when it come to liquors, generally carrying a small and generic selection, and Omaha bartenders, for the most part, are only capable of making a half-dozen of the most common drinks, and will look confused if you ask for anything fancy. What Omaha lacks in cocktail sophistication, however, it makes up for in character. Sometimes the city seems like a glacier flowed over it in 1964 and just recently melted, leaving the architecture of the period perfectly preserved, and so here we have a town filled with oversized Steak Houses and gaudy signage, an eye-popping, kitschy delight.

Drinkers, should you find yourself in Omaha, here is a travelogue of our favorite watering holes.

Homey InnWe begin, as we always do, on Saddle Creek at the Homey Inn. This small neighborhood bar has gotten quite busy recently, since Esquire named it one of the best bars in America; it used to be quite desolate, except on weekends, when all Omaha bars spring to life.

The Homey Inn seems constructed out of the fallen remains of previous bars, some in Omaha, some elsewhere in the Midwest. The walls are hung with fading newspapers and decorated with ancient menus, beer cans from long forgotten brands, and old novelty items from liquor distributors, such as Nude Beer, upon which photos of women in Eighties hairstyles wear brassieres that can be scratched off to reveal ample bosoms. Some have been scratched.

Nude BeerThey also have champagne on tap, both sweet and dry. Of course, it's not real champagne, but rather a fruity and inexpensive sparkling wine, but who cares, really? They don't know how to make a champagne cocktail with the stuff, but they will gamely try, tossing in a few drops of bitters and a packet of sugar. You wouldn't serve it to Humphrey Bogart, but it's passable.

Additionally, the Homey Inn serves peanuts. In dog bowls. And you can order food from across the street, from a Beatles-themed pasta restaurant called Sgt. Peffers, presumably out off fear that if they called themselves Sgt. Peppers, Apple Records would sue. Interestingly, the Homey Inn has a wider selection of Irish beers than many Eire-styled pubs. We couldn't tell you why this is. And we don't care to ask. We're happy enough sipping our sweet sparkling wine, eating our peanuts, waiting for the delivery man to bring us a plate of spaghetti, and scratching the bra off a woman on an old beer label.

Lynx LoungeNext, it's onward to The Lynx Lounge, just a few blocks away on NW Radial Hwy. The bar is rather unassuming to look at from the outside, nestled in a strip mall between an assortment of low-rent businesses that have, in the past, included an off-brand makeup store and an erotic lingerie dealer. Inside, however, the bar is pure Seventies, including a fire pit and a recessed and mirrored alcove where couples can pair off for a more intimate drinking experience. The bar is kept dark, and the alcove may be the darkest spot on earth -- it is pitch black until a bartender lights a candle, and then the only thing visible in the alcove is the candle.

The bar is mostly patronized by African-American drinkers, who have, in the past, been so surprised to see the Bottle Gang sidle up to the bar that they have greeted us warmly and bought us drinks. Omaha is a disquietingly segregated town, with most of its black community living north of the city, and white Omahans can be unaccountably nervous around their black neighbors. Actually, this isn't just true of white Omahans -- we once brought a young girl of Korean extraction to the Lynx Lounge, and, upon leaving, she asked a surprising question: "Did you notice that we were the only white people in the bar?" We briefly considered reminding her that, as an Asian, she wasn't precisely white, but then we decided the whole discussion was crass and politely let it drop.

Lynx Lounge barAnyway, we've been patronizing the Lynx Lounge for years, for their good selection of brandies, their swanky ambiance, and their terrific jukebox upon which you can find a marvelous selection of soul and R&B songs. We may be too light-skinned to pretend to be Billy Dee Williams, but that doesn't mean we won't drink at a place where he would seem perfectly at home. (SPARBER)

Read part two here.


Arbitrator said...

Of course the bars YOU list are short on liquor supply. Next time you're in Omaha, head out west. You need to visit Holiday Lounge, The Green Onion (still has "Drunken Ira Hayes" by Johnny Cash on the Jukebox, The Conservatory, Pamela's (Monday night football, you grill your own burger on the back porch, with $1 Buds), Hank's, The Drover, The Dundee Dell, Mackey D's, The Penthouse (a personal favorite, you won't see a better collection of velvet paintings anywhere), and the list goes on.

I suggest you rent a bus or a limo next time you're around and do a bar crawl, Omaha is the land of lounges, it's like a treasure hunt.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the Mai Tai, Bar 415, The Crescent Moon, The Nifty, Marleybone, Trackside Lounge, Murphy's, My Way, Fabulous Fan Tan Club, and Barrett's. Heck while you're at it throw in Pauli's, The Dundee Dell, (both of them), The 49'r, and McFly's.

Anonymous said...

mackey d's is a total dump, as are most of the other bars arbitrator and anonymous listed.

Anonymous said...

As a former Creighton student, I spent a lot of time at the Homey and Peffer's back in the mid'90s. I took it for granted, and have since spent a lot of time looking for something similar. Good were the days--Fullers ESB on tap, a bowl of peanuts etc. etc. The beer selection is outragous, a true brew snobs dream, while the surroundings are simple. Man, I miss the place