Bill and Sue Oakes ran into their son and his wife at M's Pub this Christmas Eve.
Larry Mazzotta first took his son to M's when the boy was a year old. Now the 24-year-old takes his own friends there.
And when Bob Peters entertains out-of-town family members, that's where they want to go.
If you're a devotee of the Old Market's oldest restaurant, “at some point, your personal life becomes woven into the fabric of M's,” Peters said.
M's Pub might have some of the most devoted customers of any restaurant in Omaha. Regulars call the place warm and welcoming, and say the staff is like family. And after 40 years in business, the restaurant has lots of regulars.
M's is older than the Old Market Spaghetti works, which opened in 1973, and older than V. Mertz, which opened in '75. M's keeps company with other long-time Omaha restaurants like The Drover, Anthony's Steakhouse, Big Freds Pizza and Harold's Koffee House.
Slideshow: Omaha's oldest restaurants
But M's stands out because not only has it survived, it's survived in the city's most popular destination for locals and travelers: The Old Market.
The atmosphere at M's Pub is a big reason for its success. It has simple, straightforward sophistication — the long bar with its green marble top, the mirrors on the back wall and parts of the ceiling, a cut-through window that looks into the clothing shop next door, a handful of outside seats made for summertime people-watching. That atmosphere melds seamlessly with a staff focused on service and a menu of European bistro food that gets consistent praise.
The restaurant's interior hasn't changed much since the late Mary Vogel opened it in 1972. She originally opened M's as a pub that served food, and she worked with three architects on the design of the space, which Peters, the former Omaha city planner and an architect, called “timeless.”
In a World-Herald story from 1993, the then 77-year old Vogel said she wanted to open a restaurant where every customer was treated like a guest.
“I couldn't stand a snooty restaurant,” she said.
M's is noisy but not too noisy, lit in a way that makes everyone look their best and welcoming to diners dressed in jeans or formal gowns. It's diverse clientele is one of its hallmarks.
In 1979, Floyd and Kate Mellen bought the restaurant from Vogel. Current owners Ron Samuelson and Ann Mellen bought it from her parents in 1987. Mellen and Samuelson met when he applied for a job there in the mid 1980s. She hired him, and after a year of working together, they became business partners. They've run it together since.
“I realized the other day,” Samuelson said, “that I've spent almost half my life here.”
Samuelson worked at restaurants in college, waiting tables and tending bar, and said the business suits his personality. He returned to Omaha because the Denver restaurants he managed were corporate-owned, and that's not where he wanted to be.
“Some days, it doesn't even feel like its our restaurant,” Samuelson said last year. “It feels like we're the keepers of a community treasure.”
M's is the kind of locally-owned place that can, in one night, play host to a family with small children, a couple looking for romance and a group of regulars who have been meeting there for drinks on Friday nights for years that call themselves the “slime dogs.”
The slime dogs have been around as long as M's has been around, and over the years the unnoficial group has had 20 or 30 members at a time. They used to sit at the end of the bar and drank beers on a near-nightly basis. One member, Howard Shoemaker, told the paper in 1993 that you had to be around for a while to become a member, you could be a man or a woman and you had to consider M's “top dog.” No one is really sure where the name came from.
Mazzotta, one of the modern day slime dogs, said now the group sits at table number one, next to the window that looks into Nouvelle Eve clothing shop, on Friday nights.
Architectural details like the window next to table number one are what initially drew Peters into M's, that's what still does.
“The great thing about M's,” he said, “is that it hasn't changed. You walk in for the first time and you feel like you have been there forever.”
Bill Oakes said he and his wife started going to M's around 1980. Word of mouth brought him in the door. He met friends there every Friday night and though he wasn't an original slime dog, he was definitely a slime dog wannabe, he said.
“I'd go right after work — I worked downtown — and my wife would come and meet me,” he said. “We'd hang out and drink and sometimes forget to eat.”
One of the Oakes' sons got a job at M's when he was 16 years old, and they'd pick him up from his evening shift, often closing down the restaurant while they waited. That was hardly a chore, Oakes said.
It's hard for regulars to name just one dish they love at M's, but a few are undeniable favorites: the lahvosh, a warm cracker crust topped with mild havarti and an array of toppings; the soups, which rotate daily and are all homemade; the Pub Favorite, turkey, swiss, cream cheese, red onion and mayonnaise on grilled pumpernickel; the grilled sandwiches; and the notorious carrot dog, a whole marinated and grilled carrot served on a whole wheat hoagie with lettuce, tomato, relish, stone ground mustard and sauerkraut.
“Probably for two years, I ate lunch there every day,” Mazzotta said. “I had a soup and a salad and I never got tired of it. I just love the place.”
Mazzotta — and all the other regulars and employees — credit the restaurant's owners, Samuelson and Ann Mellen, for its staying power.
“We have a lot of terrific restaurants in Omaha, but they don't always make it for the long haul,” he said. “Theirs is a formula that works without being formulaic. I bet some people would like to patent it.”
Katie O'Connor, president of the Omaha Restaurant Association, agreed: The staff at M's is key.
“Ann and Ron are fabulous people,” she said. “And the restaurant is a little family.”
O'Connor, who worked at the restaurant as a waitress 18 years ago, said annual Christmas Eve gatherings that include current and past staff, old and new customers, further that close-knit feeling.
Dan Crowell, who bartended at M's from 1991 to 2003, served drinks to tons of after-work slime dogs, couples and probably parents of staff members, too, over the years.
“People like to see the same faces when they go to a place,” he said, “and the staff sticks around at M's.”
One bartender, affectionately known as Smitty, has been working at M's for more than 20 years. Another, Trey Knott, met his wife at the restaurant.
Forty years of history is passed down through that staff, Crowell said. And that's something those employees are pretty serious about.
“The spirit doesn't get diluted as quickly. The identity survives, and people connect with it.”
M's launches its 40th birthday celebration tonight at 5 with a free buffet, and Crowell will be mixing drinks behind the bar once again. He's donating his tips to Habitat for Humanity in memory of the restaurant's late manager, Jay Bock, who volunteered for Habitat and was a skilled carpenter.
Bock was one of four motorcyclists killed in an accident in 2010. The four who died were riding home from Sturgis, S.D., when the collision occurred. They were southbound on I-29 near Little Sioux, Iowa, in a two-lane construction zone when Andrew Schlichtemeier's northbound pickup crossed the center line and killed them.
Schlichtemeier's blood alcohol level was .373, more than 4½ times the legal driving limit, according to the Iowa State Patrol. Now 23, Schlichtemeier pleaded guilty to four counts of motor vehicle homicide and was sentenced to 50 years. He is incarcerated at the Clarinda Correctional Facility in Iowa.
M's has a tribute to Bock on its website that includes a note from the owners and his photo; Bock worked at M's for 25 years.
Samuelson said though the restaurant has had its ups and downs financially over the years, it's stable now. “I think the fear (of closing) is in the heart of every entrepreneur,” he said. “If there has been fear, it's been the kind manufactured in the mind. We have been on solid ground for a long time.”
Peters said some people would suggest the reason M's has been a 40-year success is its Old Market location. Others might say it's because out of town travelers frequent the place.
But he thinks it's something else.
“There is no way you can walk into M's and not bump into someone you know or someone you are about to become friends with,” he said. “The space creates that interaction. It's a warm hug.”
Slideshow: Famous guests at M's Pub