Omaha eateries that owe the city thousands in back restaurant taxes might soon have a new reason to fork over the money.
A proposal on the City Council agenda could put restaurants’ liquor licenses at risk if they don’t pay the 2.5% tax.
The ordinance would allow the city to weigh late payment of the restaurant tax in its recommendations to the state on liquor license renewals.
A provision of the city’s restaurant tax law currently prohibits the city from considering nonpayment of the restaurant tax as a factor in any licensing decisions.
Councilman Rich Pahls, who chairs the council’s Law Committee that recommended the change, said the city needs new tools to encourage payment of the tax.
Under current law, the city has few options to compel restaurants to pay, short of shutting down the businesses.
As of the end of June, 107 restaurants owed about $350,000 in unpaid restaurant taxes, according to the city’s Finance Department.
“This holds people accountable,” Pahls said. “If somebody runs a business and doesn’t pay it, it’s not fair to the ones following the law.”
Several restaurants owe tens of thousands of dollars, based on information compiled Friday by the Finance Department. Some restaurant companies have changed names in what the city believes is an attempt to avoid paying the tax.
The city doesn’t know without auditing individual restaurants whether they are collecting the tax and keeping the money, calculating it incorrectly or ignoring the law.
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City Finance officials pointed to the example of the recently closed Candlelight Lounge at 50th and Grover Streets.
That restaurant, before it closed, owed about $30,000 in restaurant taxes, the most on the list, based on estimates compiled by the department. The business’ phone number was no longer in service Friday.
The city turns to collection agencies as a last resort to collect the restaurant tax, because the firms often keep 30% or more of what they collect.
Council President Chris Jerram said tying nonpayment of restaurant taxes to liquor license renewal applications makes sense.
“If you’re skirting the law on this (the restaurant tax), it raises questions whether you’re following the law on other things,” he said.
Several restaurant owners contacted Friday said that they had no problem with the city exploring another way to encourage payment of restaurant taxes.
Matt Carper, who operates Blackstone-area restaurants Stirnella, Butterfish and Red Lion Lounge, said he makes sure his businesses follow the law.
The restaurants collect the restaurant tax on behalf of the city, he said, so they don’t consider it to be the restaurants’ money. It’s the city’s, he said.
He speculated that some restaurants might be keeping the money to pad the books, and others might not be collecting the tax in protest.
He said the council proposal would be effective in encouraging restaurants to pay up, because alcohol sales are vital to the bottom line.
“Your revenue stream off of alcohol is much greater than off of food,” he said.
David Utterback, who owns the Yoshitomo restaurant in Benson, said people shouldn’t jump to conclusions about restaurants that owe back taxes.
He pays his restaurant taxes monthly, but he said it’s easy in a business with tight margins for an accountant or an owner to make a mistake that grows large quickly.
He gave the example of his business incorrectly calculating the restaurant tax on deliveries made by delivery services. His business now owes the city about $2,000, he said.
Utterback said he doesn’t mind the city’s new plan so long as it’s used as a last resort, and that the city works with businesses on payment plans.
“If a restaurant closes, you’re not going to get the money,” he said.
The city says it’s working with restaurants and trying to find ways to make sure the tax is paid in a reasonable amount of time.
Kristi Todorovich, who owns Starsky’s Bar & Grill in south-central Omaha, said she’s still working with the city to pay off about a $29,000 restaurant tax bill.
“We’re talking to them, and they’re working with us,” she said.
However, the city says it has yet to receive payment from the restaurant.
The public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Sept. 17.
World-Herald chief librarian Sheritha Jones and food critic Sarah Baker Hansen contributed to this report.
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This little burger shack has become local legend: burgers are served on napkins, and lines to get in can get long. Stella’s is also known for its gigantic Stellanator burger. Challengers get 45 minutes to devour six burger patties, six fried eggs, six pieces of cheese, a dozen slices of bacon, lettuce, tomato, fried onions, pickles, jalapeños, peanut butter, a bun and an order of fries.
Chef Keen Zheng moved to Bellevue from New York, where he was working at the four-star Sushi Nakazawa. He opened Umami, and instantly began serving some of the city’s best sushi out of a former Godfather’s Pizza location. He offers a full menu of cooked Thai and Chinese dishes, as well as regular counter omakase service.
Le Bouillon replaced one of the city’s oldest and well-regarded spots, the French Cafe. It’s carried on the tradition of French cuisine in downtown Omaha, but in a more modern way, with a raw bar, excellent tartines and a weekend punch special that’s always fresh and costs just $5 a cup. The French onion soup is stellar. Check out its sister, Howard Street Wine Merchant, which has lovely natural wines.
4. V. Mertz, 1022 Howard St.
An Omaha staple since it opened in the 1970s, V. Mertz is also a staple of the historic Old Market neighborhood. It’s located in the passageway, a popular walkway, and the restaurant itself oozes romance. The menu still includes favorites like pepper steak but has evolved with the times; the tasting menu is popular for many special occasion diners.
5. La Buvette, 511 S. 11th St.
This classic French spot is part restaurant, part wine bar and part wine shop, and its sometimes brusque service, shared plates such as hummus and cheese, house-made baguette and affordable wine make it an Old Market standard. When the weather allows, it has one of the busiest patios in Omaha.
Even after a fire in 2016 destroyed the original M’s, the Old Market classic is back; if you hadn’t heard about the fire, you wouldn’t know it happened when you’re dining there. Owner Anne Mellen restored the beloved spot down to the smallest details, and the menu got the same treatment. Its lahvosh crackers topped with a variety of items are popular, as are the crab cakes and other light entrees.
One of the city’s highest-end restaurants, The Boiler Room delivers on all fronts: atmosphere; one of Omaha’s biggest wine lists; and constantly creative cuisine coming from James Beard semifinalist Tim Nicholson. Stop in for a cocktail, if nothing else, and experience the interior designed by Omaha legends Mark and Vera Mercer (they also had a hand in creating V. Mertz and La Buvette).
8. Blue Sushi Sake Grill, 416 S. 12th St.; 14450 Eagle Run Drive; 16939 Wright Plaza
Blue could be credited with introducing Omaha to sushi and all-day happy hours, and its popularity endures in the form of three locations. It’s still packed on Sundays, when its broad happy hour specials last all day. The menu of rolls includes classics like the crunchy Blue roll. More recent additions include vegan options.
This small restaurant started downtown with a local, seasonal focus and became known for its popcorn; sandwiches including the whole bird, which has an egg, a chicken thigh and crisped chicken skin; and a weekend brunch service. The second midtown location is inside the recently restored Dundee Theater.
A field at Rhizosphere farm
11. El Dorado Mexican Restaurant, 5134 S. 24th St.
This seafood-focused spot is nestled in one of Omaha’s best foodie neighborhoods, South 24th Street. (It’s surrounded by plenty of delicious taquerías and a few ice cream shops, too.) El Dorado is best known for both its live mariachi bands on weekends and its huge towers of seafood, which are enough for at least a few diners.
12. Johnny’s Cafe, 4702 S. 27th St.
An Omaha classic near the sites of Omaha’s historic Stockyards, Johnny’s is one of the city’s oldest steakhouses. Come for the kitschy bar and the lobby full of historic menus — take a look at those prices — and stay for the red meat and a Manhattan.
13. Dinker’s, 2368 S. 29th St.
Omahans will argue about where to find the city’s best burger, and Dinker’s has a lot of passionate fans. The restaurant is cash only, and diners place their orders at a back counter. Fun fact: Dinker’s has one flat-top grill devoted entirely to buns. The onion rings are a customer favorite, too.
14. Time Out Chicken, 3518 N. 30th St.
Arguably the best chicken in Omaha, Time Out, in the heart of north Omaha, is worth a stop. The meat, marinated in a secret recipe, gets breaded in flour with a combination of spices (cayenne pepper is one). It comes, as any fried chicken dinner should, with a dinner roll and a side option, including baked beans, coleslaw and potato salad.
Chef and baker Ellie Pegler, a Nebraska native, moved back after years working and baking in some of New York’s finest restaurants. Her talent is on show at this new breakfast and lunch spot, where she’s making bread (for many other restaurants aside from her own, too) for sandwiches, along with breakfast pastries, ice cream and cookies. She’s also created a wine list using her sommelier training, plus house cocktails.
16. Lo Sole Mio Ristorante, 3001 S. 32nd Ave.
Known for its enormous portions, Lo Sole Mio has been a standard in South Omaha since 1992. Run by the Losole family, the place is always packed. In fact, a few years ago, the restaurant expanded its waiting area to accommodate the constant crowds. The antipasto platter is a house favorite.
Omaha’s only fully vegan restaurant, run by widely known chef and cookbook author Isa Chandra Moskowitz, recently moved into a bigger, brighter location. (Its second location? Brooklyn.) Moskowitz has created citywide favorites with her mac and shews, made with cashew cream; excellent pies and milkshakes; and a periodic vegan Reuben special made with tempeh.
18. The Grey Plume, 220 S. 31st Ave.
Many non-Omahans have heard of chef Clayton Chapman’s restaurant because of its appearances on several “most sustainable” restaurant lists. Chapman works with many local farmers from across the state on his finely crafted menu, and a map in the dining room plots each food source. The bar offers a separate menu with a stellar burger and a lower price point.
19. Crescent Moon, 3578 Farnam St.
Considered by many as the home of the city’s best Reuben, the Moon serves it up right across the street from where it has been said the sandwich was invented, the Blackstone Hotel (now undergoing renovation). The Moon also is well-known for its vast list of craft and local beer; it has 60-plus options on tap each day. The bar’s annual Reubenfest celebrates the historic Omaha sandwich.
20. Coneflower Creamery, 3921 Farnam St.
Coneflower’s motto is “farm to cone,” and the little ice cream shop is serious about using local ingredients and making from scratch anything it can; even the sprinkles are house-made. Don’t skip the warm chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwich, but be prepared to wait in line, particularly during the summer.
Perhaps one of Omaha’s most “love-it-or-hate-it” restaurants, La Casa has a devoted army of passionate followers. Its singular pizzas have a thin crust with a biscuit-like edge and are often topped with small bits of ground beef, among other ingredients. The original location, with its iconic neon sign, is on Leavenworth, but there are two more farther to the west.
22. Salween Thai, 1102 Northwest Radial; 6553 Ames Ave.; 7425 Pacific St.
Omaha has plenty of Thai offerings; Salween, which does brisk delivery service all over the city, is one of the most reliable. Pad Thai, Pad See Ew and panang curry are among its most popular entrées. Be advised: the heat scale, from 1-10, at Salween runs hot, so order a lower number if you prefer your meal to be milder.
Diners line up every weekend for the banana pancakes, kimchee omelet, biscuits and gravy and steaming coffee at this little neighborhood spot. But if you have time to linger, the wait is worth it: The restaurant even serves its own blend of coffee, made locally by Amateur Coffee Co.
24. Marks Food, Wine & Spirit, 4916 Underwood Ave.
Marks is a true neighborhood spot, and at any given time, the bulk of its diners might live less than a mile away. Macaroni and cheese, with or without a daily selection of additions, is the thing the restaurant is most known for; that and its charming atmosphere — in a former house — with second-floor views of Underwood Avenue.
25. Dario’s Brasserie, 4920 Underwood Ave.
Belgian beer, mussels and crêpes, plus a popular brunch menu and weekly beer specials in the back bar keep people coming back to this spot, where chef Dario Schicke has created a devoted following. His other restaurant, northern Italian-focused Avoli, is just down the street.
26. Pitch Pizzeria, 5021 Underwood Ave.; 17808 Burke St.
Pitch has a lively (OK, sometimes noisy) atmosphere, coal-fired pizzas, a great burger and a solid list of house wines made in collaboration with a California vineyard. A second location in west Omaha offers a similar menu plus a second-level roof deck.
Chef David Utterback is making some of the most adventurous sushi in Omaha. He brings in a vast selection of fish you won’t find anywhere else (except Umami, perhaps) and then does his work: aging, pickling, smoking and otherwise creating something totally unique to Omaha. His popular omakase events often sell out; so, too, do his chef pop-ups.
28. Au Courant, 6064 Maple St.
Chef Ben Maides’ $55, five-course chef tasting menu is one of the best deals anywhere in Omaha, especially considering his focus on local, seasonal, creative cuisine. Au Courant is one of those restaurants that can please locals and visitors alike, a rare, pleasurable feat.
Ika is Omaha’s most fun, vibrant ramen shack, and you can enjoy it at two locations — the original in Benson and at Ika San downtown. Classics like tonkotsu are there, but regular rotating specials offer singular takes on the dish. The cold “hot noods” bowl of spicy noodles is a local favorite, as are the saucy Brussels sprouts.
30. Blue & Fly Asian Kitchen, 721 S. 72nd St.
If it’s legit Chinese you’re after, Blue & Fly is your place. The restaurant serves a variety of specialties, among them a soup featuring whitefish submerged in a broth full of Sichuan numbing peppercorns, sweet-savory Chinese egg and tomato, sautéed bok choy and other greens plus spicy mapo tofu. For an adventure, check out the lit menu board on the wall; the staff is happy to translate or further explain the specials.
Though it’s temporarily closed after a December fire, The Drover plans to reopen this spring, according to its social media accounts. The Drover isn’t as old as the other steakhouse on this list, but it’s just as treasured; known most for its large bone-in ribeye, diners can get their steak dunked in the restaurant’s secret whiskey marinade. The salad bar, with its cold metal plates, was one of the first in Omaha.
32. El Basha Mediterranean Grill, 7503 Pacific St.
All food at El Basha is bathed in a bright sprinkling of fresh herbs, including cilantro and parsley, and the kitchen’s careful touch runs through the whole menu. Find some of Omaha’s favorite falafel, served in a wrap with hummus and pickles, as well as Lebanese specialties like lentil soup, baba ganoush, shwarma and kabobs.
33. Twisted Cork Bistro, 10730 Pacific St.
With its focus on the staples (and the wine) of the Pacific Northwest, plus a dash of Hawaiian cuisine, Twisted Cork is one of Omaha’s more distinctive restaurants. Diners return for the fresh fish, including poke, along with a burger that the Food Network called one of its favorites. The wine, particularly the Oregon pinot noir, is another draw.
Unlike its neighbor to the south, Kansas City, Omaha isn’t well-known for a thriving barbecue scene. Enter Tired Texan, tucked into the corner of a hotel at the intersection of 108th and L Streets. Alabama native Chip Holland smokes ribs, burnt ends, brisket and other meats that are often sold out by the middle of the day.
35. The Jaipur, 10922 Elm St.
The Jaipur has been brewing beer in Omaha longer than most of the city's breweries, and its signature jalapeño beer is one many diners celebrate locally. It happens to pair well with the restaurant’s menu of curries and fragrant rice dishes. An outdoor covered patio is a popular option come summer.
36. Le Voltaire French Restaurant, 569 N. 155th Plaza
Chef Cedric Fichepain is as French as they come, and his petite west Omaha restaurant proves it. The menu, printed in both French and English, includes classics like escargots de Bourgogne, foie gras frais au sel marin toasté, steak frites à la Parisienne and coq au vin, among many other classic selections.
37. Dante, 16901 Wright Plaza
Dante’s fresh, seasonal and modern take on Italian food makes this a west Omaha favorite. It’s known locally for pizza, baked in a wood-fire oven, but the specials and house-made pasta are can’t-miss, and Dante also has a great Italian-only wine list. Soon, chef and owner Nick Strawhecker will open a second restaurant, Forno, in the Blackstone District.
38. Runza (many locations statewide)
You can’t come to Nebraska or be a Nebraskan without trying a Runza at least once. Volga German immigrants brought the meat pocket, stuffed with peppery ground beef, cabbage and sometimes cheese, to Nebraska. The bierock, as it’s traditionally known, is at the heart of what the Runza chain serves. Check its menu for a wide variety of Runzas, plus seasonally rotating specials.