A little over a year ago, Steve Gates started driving down Q Street, just to see how far it would take him.
Since the street runs into a tangle of narrow residential inlets and ultimately dead ends just north of downtown Ralston, as luck would have it, Gates ended up on Miller Avenue and began the slow slide south toward Ralston's The Village Bar at 77th Street and Park Drive.
It may or may not have been fate for Gates, a Pittsburgh native who now runs the bar review blog HitThatDive.com and who maintains a weather eye for the coziest, friendliest, most genuine drinking establishments in the Omaha metro area, but his advent at the venerable Village has turned out well for both him and the bar. Late last year, Gates announced The Village Bar as HitThatDive.com's Bar of the Year.
“It's such a cool-looking area,” said Gates, recalling his first impressions of happening upon The Village. “The minute you get out of the car, it stands out. I felt, in that moment, 'This is really something already.' It's a place people want to be. There's a vibe in there that just tells you that nobody's out of place.”
That feeling is in keeping with the vision set out by Brock Hatterman, a 1994 Ralston High School graduate who took over ownership of The Village Bar in July 2011 after the place had been run by the Bade family — first Marvin, then his son, Tom — since 1954.
In two-and-a-half years at The Village helm, Hatterman has expanded the bar's beer offerings, created a signature Bloody Mary, a menu of martinis and other craft cocktails and steadily built up the atmosphere and ambiance.
“We want to offer just about anything you would want in any other bar,” Hatterman said. “I think in two-and-a-half years it's really come along. The thing is, with a bar this size, you're never going to get rich, so I just want to have some fun with it, try some different things and see what happens.”
While The Village maintains its original 1950s roots as a neighborhood lounge and social hub replete with a cast of regulars, Hatterman said the scene can change on a dime.
“If it's what people want, we can get a club atmosphere in here in about five minutes,” he said with a smile. “We can accommodate most people's styles and tastes in here.”
A Skee-Ball apparatus lodges in one corner of the bar and the tabletops are adorned with various pop culture images and icons from the last 30 years.
Along with the good times, The Village has also held itself out as a community staple in other ways. In December, Gates and Hatterman teamed up to raise more than $3,000 in gift cards, presents and urgently needed household items for struggling local families.
The pair then delivered the gifts to the families.
“We're probably the two most unlikely fundraisers you'd ever see,” Gates said. “But what you've got at the bar are a group of people who want to see their community get better and they're willing to help out.”
Complete strangers a year ago, the two struck up a rapport when Gates needed a place to launch HitThatDive.com's annual Spring Stagger bar tour. With about six places to hit and 90 people along for the ride, Gates approached Hatterman about using The Village as the embarkation point for the event.
“Brock said, 'You can do whatever you need to do in here,'” Gates recalled.
“It's the kind of guy he is, it's the kind of place The Village is. As more corporations take over more bars and restaurants, you're losing the community appeal you get from small bars. Community matters to Brock. The bar is the city center.”
Having reviewed upwards of four dozen out-of-the-way, obscured or just plain hidden bars in the area — usually at the urging of one or more favorite patrons of the pub — Gates hears a lot about how some bars are second homes, reincarnations of Cheers, places where the stools bear posterior indentations of the regulars.
“And a lot of places in Omaha have that,” he said. “But at The Village, it's really genuine. What I love about The Village Bar is it's still running like a bar would have been run in the 1950s, '60s or '70s, where you had that community feel but you can still go in there as a 22-year-old and feel like it's a place you belong.”
The accolades, Hatterman said, are welcome, but he most enjoys that Gates has become a good friend and regular patron at The Village.
“It's an honor he even came here in the first place,” Hatterman said. “That he thinks enough of what we're doing down here is great, but ultimately I've made a pretty good friend out of the deal. There are a ton of great bars in this area, but I think at The Village there's a different level of participation.
“People who come here come here because we give them a chance to be themselves and relax in an atmosphere where everybody's laid back and having a good time.”
With the recognition, Hatterman said he also hopes The Village Bar might set off a trend in downtown Ralston, the likes of which has been witnessed in other neighborhood pockets around the metro like Benson and Dundee.
“I know Ralston wants to grow its downtown area and there's a great opportunity,” he said. “If we can get a couple more bars or café-type places down here, I think we have a good opportunity to show people what Ralston can be.”