SCOTTSBLUFF, Neb. — Sara Schluter kept her first rule succinct: No iceberg lettuce.
The first-time restaurateur’s second rule was a little tougher to pull off in Nebraska: No baked potatoes wrapped in foil.
But her third rule of order at the Emporium, maybe Scottsbluff’s first and still among its best fine dining spots, was unheard of.
“No steaks,” Sara remembers, chuckling.
The Sara Rule of Steak may have been the shortest-lived edict in Nebraska restaurant history. And, yes — years after Schluter and husband Ron transformed the place from coffee shop to lunch spot to, eventually, high-end restaurant — steak is on the menu at the Emporium.
“That rule didn’t really go so well for me,” Sara says.
The rest of her ideas to introduce this city of about 15,000 to the finer things in life — including fried Brussels sprouts with prosciutto, a bottle of Sonoma County rosé and the joy of dining on a sunny, wraparound porch — have earned it a hard-core following. And it’s just not locals who are wild about the Emporium. It’s caught the eye of tourists from across the U.S. and from as far as France and Australia who have come to western Nebraska to follow the Oregon Trail or see Chimney Rock.
And celebrities have taken note. The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan — directors of such films as “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men” — stopped in this month.
Thanks in part to Google, visitors (whether Oscar-winners or not) have the opportunity to leave the area with memories of more than just the landmarks.
“People think it’s the end of the Earth out here,” Sara said. “It is a great place to be. But a food destination? That’s not at the top of anyone’s thoughts.”
Sara certainly didn’t think she’d be the person to change that perception when she and Ron moved from St. Louis to Scottsbluff in 2000. The couple, both born and raised in Lincoln, returned to Nebraska after the Postal Service eliminated Ron’s job in Missouri. One night he ran the idea of Scottsbluff past his wife. She got on her computer and, like many of her guests do now, Googled the town.
“There was a Target and a Starbucks and Clinique counter, three things critical to a girl’s survival,” she said. “So I said, ‘Let’s go see it.’ ”
The couple lived in the Holiday Inn for two months. By their second week in town, Sara said, they were regularly buying pre-made salads and roasted chicken at the grocery store. Aside from steakhouses and Mexican, they didn’t find much in the way of restaurants.
So nine months after they arrived, they went to look at a little coffee shop with a plan: open a juice bar.
“Can you imagine that?” Sara asks, laughing.
The couple bought the Emporium, and ran it not as a juice bar, but instead as a coffee shop with three or four lunch items. Slowly, that lunch menu grew to include more food, such as fettuccine with three styles of pesto. The business grew enough that Sara left her other full-time job to run the place in 2002.
“Then,” she says, “we dove into dinner.”
The shop had only a small kitchen — nothing resembling a full professional space — which presented plenty of problems. Sara was cooking the menu herself, without formal culinary training. So during a family vacation that summer, they built a full kitchen, acquired a liquor license and hired their first professional chef.
Sara quickly discovered that Scottsbluff had a taste for a nice restaurant, and she had a taste for both running the show and the dining room.
“There were local people who wanted something other than quick food,” she said. “They wanted interesting food, and they cheered us on.”
The sophisticated Colorado lamb dish — a customer favorite — comes with a rich sherry cream sauce, mushrooms and Sara’s answer to the baked potato: thinly sliced potato squares piled into a cube that gets zapped in a deep fryer. It’s a crispy-creamy concoction, and it’s hard to resist.
Diners also will find Kobe meatballs that arrive with big pieces of melted cheese on top of red sauce, and charred pieces of baguette are meant for dipping. Veal sausage is a standout in the gnocchi, which comes with melted mozzarella and thick tomato sauce.
A seasonal special — Sara said she and the chefs use them to bring fresh ideas to the menu — of lightly fried green tomatoes came stacked in a tower topped with a chunky red pepper sauce and hunks of goat cheese.
“I think we took our inspiration from what’s going on in the world around us, and tried to bring it here,” she said. “When we started, I don’t think anyone else here was doing that.”
It’s an approach that didn’t just appeal to locals.
Heather Henderson and her husband were road tripping east from Portland and decided to follow the Oregon Trail. She said they stopped at a handful of places in Nebraska, and Scottsbluff was one. Like most travelers, she pulled out her phone to look for a place for coffee and lunch.
“We thought it would be a quick little bite,” she said. “But its name did not represent what an elegant little restaurant it turned out to be.”
So the couple stayed for lunch, and then came back for dinner the same night.
“It was one of the best meals we have ever had, anywhere,” she said. “There is one dish, Brussels sprouts with pancetta and a poached egg. We were moaning over every bite.”
Two weeks later, when the couple were on their way back west, they stopped again.
“We made a point to stop just so we could eat there again,” she said.
Sara said soon, as the weather warms, the restaurant’s wrap-around patio will be filled with the Emporium’s eclectic mix of devoted locals and travelers looking for their next great meal.
“They’re here to see Chimney Rock, the Oregon Trail, the Scotts Bluff (National) Monument,” she said. “And they have had their fill of Midwestern fare. Now they can come here and find interesting food, a great shot of espresso and great wine, all in Scottsbluff.”
* * *
Food critic Sarah Baker Hansen is from Omaha. Columnist Matthew Hansen grew up in Red Cloud. As a married couple they travel Nebraska to share with each other little-known people, unexpected stops and memorable foods. Come along and discover more of what the state has to offer in "The Better Half," an occasional series prepared with support from the Nebraska Community Foundation.