My husband's family is Omaha Mayflower and they love to wax nostalgic for the sort of dimly-lit, muralled-walled, cavernous restaurants that were everybody's special occasion places back in the day.
So when I heard that Kim Reiner of OhMy!Omaha had written Lost Restaurants of Omaha (The History Press), I immediately checked several names off my holiday shopping list -- then used the time it freed up to pepper Kim with questions so that I will be able to hold up my end of the conversation (and thereby hopefully avoid politics completely) at Thanskgiving dinner.
TB: This book is such a brilliant idea. Have you always been interested in restaurants of a bygone era?
KR: Actually, I was approached by the publisher. I had contributed to research-based books as a reporter for The Daily Nonpareil in Council Bluffs, and I had been kicking around the idea of writing a book, but I hadn't yet settled on the topic. Having this assignment motivated me to learn a lot about restaurants I'd never been to or heard of before. It also really provided an insight into the history of Omaha, and how things that were happening on a national level, such as rationing and the civil rights movement, played out in our city's local restaurant scene.
TB: What restaurant would you have most loved to have visited?
KR: There was a restaurant called Café Beautiful that was in the space where King Fong is now. A restauranteur named Tolf Hanson, who already owned a successful place called Calumet Coffee House (also in the book), opened it in 1908. He was inspired by the great restaurants of Europe, and said he wanted it to be better than anything that was available on the coasts. He insisted on the best of everything. The menus and the wait staff were all French-inspired. The Tiffany windows he had installed are still there. But it just wasn't sustainable. It's a really tragic story because he was a well-loved employer and businessman, and he poured everything into this project. In the end, he went bankrupt and died by suicide.
TB: How did you conduct your research?
KR: I spent a lot of time in the photo archives at the Durham Museum, and also researched at the Omaha World Herald, the Douglas County Historical Society and the Nebraska Historical Society. For example, that's where I found out about Empress Gardens, another extravagant downtown restaurant in the early part of the 20th century. It was in the basement of the Empress Theatre, and it had double staircases that were straight out of a Hollywood movie.
TB: I bet a lot of people were eager to share their memories with you.
KR: I crowd sourced information from the Forgotten Omaha Facebook group, and I met with several of the owners, including the owners of the Bohemian Café shortly after it closed. They brought out lots of old photos for me. And, I went to Louie M's Burger Lust. The owner Louie Marcuzzo and his friends all still get together and give each other a hard time. They told me a lot about how if you attended one school, you went to this drive-in, and if you were from one part of town, you went to this place with your family. Marcuzzo's grandmother was an owner of Italian Gardens, which is in the book. He told me it was bombed the day it was supposed to open. Was it racketeering? Bootlegging? No one knows, but they opened eventually.
I also emailed Alexander Payne. His family owned Virginia Café, which opened in 1920 where Calumet used to be and was the Old Market's oldest restaurant by the time it was destroyed in a fire in 1969. The Paynes still own the building where King Fong (formerly Café Beautiful) is, and I had heard Alexander Payne collected vintage menus. When he called me back, it was during my son's seventh birthday at the Omaha Children's Museum (where Kim works when she's not blogging and writing books), which was definitely a little hectic!
TB: What's next for you?
KR: I hope to continue writing books. I was an exchange student in Spain and I would love to do something that's a partial memoir of my time there.
Lost Restaurants of Omaha will be available for purchase at local bookstores and on Amazon on October 30. Kim will also be doing a Q&A about the book during the Omaha Public Library's Culinary Conference on Nov. 4.
You can follow Kim's adventures with her family in Omaha and beyond at OhMy!Omaha.com.