We were not hungry when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon in Omaha’s recently revitalized Blackstone District — about 2½ miles west of the long-gentrified Old Market area, where we used to begin our occasional visits to big-city Nebraska.
But because eating is the thing to do in the district’s commercial stretch — along Farnam Street, roughly between 36th and 42nd streets — my husband and I gladly began our weekend getaway at the Blackstone Meatball, an Italian restaurant specializing in mix-and-match homemade meatballs and sauces (theblackstonemeatball.com).
The delicious meatballs, casual ambience and lively crowd provided a good introduction to an up-and-coming neighborhood, full of fledgling restaurants and bars, that I had not heard of until an Airbnb search produced an intriguingly titled option: “Cozy, centrally located art-nest in Blackstone.”
“What’s Blackstone?” I asked Iowa friends who grew up in Omaha. I learned that Blackstone is now the hot spot, but not long ago it was a not-spot, well past its midcentury heyday when the former Blackstone Hotel hosted dignitaries from Eleanor Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.
Commercial and residential development, begun about six years ago, continues to transform the area, luring new residents and tourists. My friends’ upbeat report was bolstered by glowing press from the likes of Food & Wine magazine, which this year dubbed Blackstone “just about” Omaha’s “coolest place,” “changing the way we think about Omaha.”
I don’t know about that. But Blackstone did prove to be my kind of place — a morphing urban neighborhood at that bittersweet stage between begun and done, still a little rough around the edges but with enough street life, eclectic dining, people-watching and independent businesses to feel worth exploring.
It is also a great jumping-off point for nearby Omaha attractions, thanks to its location near downtown, between the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Mutual of Omaha headquarters. Beyond Blackstone, we enjoyed scenic Missouri River views while walking across the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, aka the Bob Bridge, honoring the former governor and senator.
Near the Old Market, we happened by an open house with international artists-in-residence at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, wandered through the deluge of vintage junk and sweets at Hollywood Candy and admired the art deco magnificence of the Durham Museum, in Omaha’s former Union Station.
Dining was reserved for the Blackstone District, which was hopping on a Saturday night, with people eating Mexican fare at Mula restaurant/tequileria (mulaomaha.com); sipping cocktails with names like Whiskey Smashed at the open-air front window at Blackstone Social (blackstonesocial.com); and standing in line at Coneflower Creamery, a “small batch” ice cream shop.
We strolled past low-rise renovated brick buildings and new modern complexes, some under construction. A still elegant brick-and-stone mansion was a clue that Blackstone is part of the Gold Coast Historic District, a 30-block midtown area with several mansions built by affluent city folk.
I later learned that the mansion we admired was built in 1906 by Gottlieb Storz, a brewery owner. It once hosted a movie premiere party attended by Jimmy Stewart, and has remained a single-family residence.
Slated for reconversion is the 1916 Blackstone Hotel, which became an office building in 1984. Last July, developers announced a $75 million project to revive and reopen the Blackstone in 2020 as a hotel, complete with restored ballroom and marble staircase.
Although we did not come close to exhausting Blackstone’s new dining options, we enjoyed our picks, several recommended by our thoughtful Airbnb hosts at the “cozy, centrally located art-nest.”
At the Blackstone Meatball, opened in 2016, we skipped the “meatball flight” — featuring the restaurant’s five varieties of meatballs and sauces — but did enjoy a design-your-own slider. We picked the Romesco Pork meatball made with roasted red pepper, garlic and cheese (Parmesan, Romano, ricotta) and topped with Pomodoro sauce, which was refreshingly light and moist.
We were glad we booked a table at Stirnella, a casual gastropub with lots of exposed brick and burnished wood. It was packed with diners sitting at communal and private tables. We shared a burger made with fancy wagyu beef, a seasonal heirloom tomato salad (with burrata and caper salsa verde) and a refreshing tuna poke with melon, avocado and red onion (stirnella.com).
On Sunday morning, we arrived too late at the Early Bird, which opened in 2017, serving brunch daily. Finding a crowd already waiting for tables, we went instead to Bob’s Donuts, which serves morning coffee, “artisan” doughnuts, fried chicken concoctions and tater tots. We drank strong coffee and shared a decadently large and doughy glazed doughnut, watching attractive tattooed parents with young kids come and go (eatbobsdonuts.com).
Before driving home on Sunday, we made a final foray to Coneflower Creamery, where we found a shorter line of about 30 people. A self-described maker of “farm-to-cone ice cream,” the tiny place touts its fresh ingredients from Nebraska dairy and produce farms. The butterbrickle, with bits of toffee, pays homage to the Blackstone Hotel, which reportedly originated the flavor. I can confirm that the “garden mint chip” tasted like mint leaves plucked from a garden. We’ll be back (coneflowercreamery.com).
Omaha’s Blackstone District is about a 370-mile drive southwest of the Twin Cities.
More places to eat and drink
Crescent Moon Ale House (beercornerusa.com/crescentmoon) has over 60 beers on tap plus pub grub including the Blackstone Reuben sandwich, reportedly invented in the 1920s across the street at the former Blackstone Hotel. Pizza options include Noli’s Pizzeria (thin-crust New York style) and Dante Pizzeria Napoletana (wood-fired Southern Italian style).
For local craft brew, try Scriptown Brewery and Farnam House Brewing Co.; for cocktails, Nite Owl and the Red Lion Lounge; for vino, Corkscrew Wine & Cheese; and for java, Archetype Coffee.
Visit Omaha: 1-866-937-6624; visitomaha.com; blackstonedistrict.com.
Betsy Rubiner, a Des Moines-based travel writer, writes the travel blog Take Betsy With You.