In some respects, it's been a bum year for dining out.
Layoffs, pay cuts and economic uncertainty made many of us less frequent diners. Fewer new restaurants opened in Omaha — about half as many as the previous year, by my informal count. Some national chains scaled back their operations here. And eateries that might have pulled through in flusher times shut their doors.
Still, 2009 gave rise to some tremendously tasty and innovative local startups. It also encouraged diners like me to revisit and rediscover more of the gems around us: solid local restaurants that, for years, have quietly turned out consistently crave-able food.
Of the 48 eateries I reviewed in 2009, the best (ranked below) fall into three categories: established, if a bit under-the-radar, restaurants with delicious food and a clear sense of hospitality; new chef-driven eateries that embrace local foods, bold seasoning and from-scratch craftsmanship; and great ethnic spots that transport you for the modest price of a well-spiced meal.
All offered what felt to me like value — satisfying food, warm service and a dining experience befitting the cost — in a year when that became even more important.
1. Boiler Room Restaurant* Old Market developers Mark and Vera Mercer work their rustic-refined restaurant magic again — this time with chef Paul Kulik and master sommelier Jesse Becker in the renovated basement boiler room and first floor of the century-old Bemis Omaha Bag Co. Building. Their aptly named Boiler Room is the best new restaurant I tried in 2009 and the city's most interesting startup in years. An ever-changing, specials-only menu -- spun from unusual (and sometimes local) ingredients -- makes it uniquely suited for adventurous diners. The only constants: loft-like ambience, European-inspired cooking and the chance to try something you've probably never tasted before. (1110 Jones St., 916-9274; $$ to $$$$)
2. Prima 140 Marathon-running chef-owner Paul Braunschweiler shows no signs of slowing at his 11-year-old bistro, where global influences and French technique result in precisely cooked, potently flavored, beautifully plated dishes that celebrate fresh ingredients. The talented chef still works the line and makes most of the equally delicious and beautiful desserts himself. A clean, calm, modern dining room with gracious attendants was the setting for several eyes-closed, fork-to-plate moments. (2523 S. 140th Ave., 697-7840; $ to $$$$)
3. La Buvette Wine & Grocery What the Mercers started in 1991 as a little neighborhood wine bar and cheese shop is much more than the "little drinking place" its French name suggests. An expanded specials menu of French peasant dishes (from roasted marrow bones and braised shortribs to cassoulet) has made it more of a "little eating place," too. Executive chef Julie Friederich and crew offer lots more than cheese plates to complement the affordable wines at this lovely Old Market eatery. And the breezy service, like the wines and the people-watching at Buvette, seems to have improved with age. (511 S. 11th St., 344-8627; $ to $$)
4. España New owners have enhanced the value and polished the service at this six-year-old Spanish eatery in Benson, where the tapas, paella and sangria still sing a song of Spain. You needn't cross the Atlantic to enjoy the smoke-and-saffron-laced "paella of the earth" (with rabbit, duck, chorizo and snails) or the terrific Spanish wines. The atmosphere — flickering lights, flashes of olive and crimson, Spanish guitar played from a small stage at the rear — suggests a cosmopolitan tapas spot in Barcelona, only friendlier. (6064 Maple St., 505-9917; $$$ to $$$$)
5. Steakhouse tie: The Drover and 801 Chophouse The 40-year-old Drover makes old-school touches (like a well-edited salad bar, oval aluminum alloy salad plates and garnishes of apple ring and kale) seem new again. Its signature whiskey-marinated steaks are as desirable as a seat by the fire. And the service is as smooth and familiar as a cowboy's favorite saddle. (2121 S. 73rd St., 391-7440; $ to $$$) The swank three-year-old 801 Chophouse (rechristened from its original Paxton Chop House moniker) offers some of the best hand-cut steaks and chops in Omaha. It's pricey, but you generally get what you pay for: solidly prepared hunks of quality meat, interesting sides, an extensive wine list, one heckuva soufflé, jacketed servers, speakeasy-style jazz and a mahogany-lined dining room that idolizes beef. (1403 Farnam St., 341-1222; $$$$)
6. Taxi's Grille & Bar Experienced hosts serve American classics with flavor and finesse at Mac Thompson's comfortable and stylish seven-year-old bistro — which, incidentally, has nothing to do with taxicabs. Thompson has been part of Omaha's restaurant scene for three decades. And it shows. Taxi's incorporates dishes and touches he and his partner, the late Bill Johnette, developed at the former Neon Goose and YoYo Grille restaurants. From bread pudding French toast at brunch to pot roast, potatoes and pound cake at dinner, Taxi's delivers. (1822 N. 120th St., 898-1882; $ to $$)
7. New bistro tie: Brunettes Bistro* and Ryan's Bistro* At the 45-seat Brunettes, in northwest Omaha, executive chef Vicki Swartz delivers seductive, explosively seasoned, globally spiked American fare with funky jazz and smooth service sure to make you happy, whatever your hair color. (2101 N. 120th St., 933-8780; $$ to $$$) At the slightly larger Ryan's, in southwest Omaha, chef-owner Ryan Gish offers a meandering menu of approachable dishes — mostly American with international flourishes, often both unique and crave-inducing. Service that's friendly, graceful, informed and efficient seals the deal. (17607 Gold Plaza, 614-2202; $ to $$$)
8. Gold Mountain Restaurant Tucked in an unassuming northwest Omaha strip mall, this five-year-old eatery offers a range far beyond its ordinary-looking Chinese-American menu. Inquisitive diners will find an affordable and delicious list of dim sum items (such as sticky rice in lotus leaf, five-spice beef, and chicken feet in black bean sauce), a wipe-board menu of Vietnamese specialties (including the delicious beef noodle soup, pho), and a Chinese menu full of unusual Cantonese dishes (such as jellyfish salad, fish hot pot and pork belly with plum-simmered greens). (15505 Ruggles St., 496-1688; $)
9.Dhaba Indian Cuisine* This new independent Indian spot's got something for everyone: quick and casual buffet-only lunches, relaxed full-service dinners, speedy takeout, and terrific north Indian, south Indian and Indo-Chinese dishes. The chefs toast and grind their own spices. And hospitality sparkles in the details: complimentary papadam at dinner, carefully carved lemon and pepper garnishes and hammered-copper family-style serving vessels. (2012 N. 117th Ave., 505-6950; $ to $$)
10. Taco tie: California Tacos & More and Taqueria Tijuana Tacos at each are tasty, cheap and not-to-be-missed, but that's where the similarities end. Cali Taco is the undisputed king of the big, puffy, two-hand Mexi-Cali fried taco. (3235 California St., 342-0212; $) Taqueria Tijuana is the master of the small, soft, one-hand Mexican street wonder. (5139 S. 24th St., 731-1281; $)
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What the symbols mean:
*: New restaurant, opened in the past 14 months
$: Estimate of per-person meal prices at the time of our visits. ($$$$ = $40 or more; $$$ = $25 to 40; $$ = $15 to $25; $ = $15 or less)