Wilson and Washburn, on the west end of the Old Market, does the old-timey Omaha thing with just enough of a modern twist to make it fun instead of kitsch.
The restaurant is, after all, named for the city's most infamous turn-of-the-century madam, Anna Wilson, and one of her best working girls, Josie Washburn. So you expect a bit of old-timeyness.
You get it through the brick walls, original to the 1890s building. It was located in what was once called Omaha's Sporting District, an area known for its gambling parlors, boozing and raucous residents. You get it from dim, golden-hued lighting courtesy of a big chandelier by the large front windows. You see it in the long, dark wood bar. It comes from portraits in rich gilt frames that adorn the walls.
Thankfully the food — straightforward, modern gastropub fare with a stamp of originality — is the one important departure from this theme.
The beet burger might have been my favorite dish, but it's neck-in-neck with Wilson and Washburn's take on the classic Reuben sandwich. Order both and share them with your dining partner, or be even smarter and go twice so you can eat both all by yourself.
The beet burger's texture is spot-on, charred on the outside and soft but not pasty inside with earthy, smoky flavor. A layer of thin, homemade nut butter and a pile of jalapeños add a spicy, savory note. It's one of the best, most creative and well executed vegan sandwiches in Omaha.
Beets also make a cameo on the Reuben — I can already hear the purists hollering — but I liked the additional layer of savory, blood-red, slow roasted vegetables, pureed and mixed with horseradish, capers and dill. They don't overpower the tender, tasty pile of house-smoked brisket, the dark rye bread, or even the sauerkraut mixed with a touch of Thousand Island.
The beet lover in the kitchen at Wilson and Washburn is chef Hiomara Van Den Boogaart. The Reuben, she said, can be made without the layer of beets for diners who don't care for the root, though I always encourage adventurous eating. My husband isn't a beet lover, but he dug these dishes.
Along with those two beet dishes, we tried the beet chips appetizer, made with sliced-thin yellow and red beets. The chips weren't fried uniformly, so some were crunchy, some soggy.
Van Den Boogaart said the chips are a work in progress, and it's challenging to get the thickness and the frying time to jive.
There's more beets in a beet and salmon salad, which a friend liked for its mix of flavor and texture: beet chips, butter lettuce, smoked salmon, spiced walnuts, a tangy orange and quince dressing and a fried round of goat cheese. It's small but filling.
“I grew up around beets,” Van Den Boogaart told me. “I like the earthy flavor, which I also like in wine.”
We liked Van Den Boogaart's beet-free take on classic fish and chips. The meaty fillets of cod, dipped and fried in a crunchy, light batter were greasy and good. Cumin added a creative touch to otherwise standard coleslaw.
The menu at Wilson and Washburn is smartly succinct, with just eight entrees, four snacks, two sides and two desserts. It means, for the most part, execution is good. Service was prompt and friendly, and we never had empty water glasses.
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I had no complaints about the classic cheeseburger, served on a locally baked Le Quartier pretzel bun and cooked to a perfect medium. Juicy, thick and smoky, topped with fresh heirloom tomatoes, caramelized onion, cheddar, good Bibb lettuce and homemade smoked ketchup, it's hard not to like.
Van Den Boogaart grinds that burger daily, and it's a mix of hangar steak, short ribs and suet, along with fresh oregano and thyme. The vegetables that top it are from local producers, and the bread and buns served in the restaurant are all from either Le Quartier or Rotella's.
The chef also has her own take on macaroni and cheese, which I liked quite a bit: big pasta shells, cooked to al dente, swathed in a creamy sauce and topped with bold Maytag blue cheese and crunchy panko crust. The Maytag brought a hint of funk to the dish, immediately memorable. It's incredibly rich, and I shared it with two friends instead of eating it solo.
The sauce, a simple bechamel, uses five pounds of cheese per batch, Van Den Boogaart said. She finishes it with salt, pepper and a dash of truffle salt.
Eggs from Plum Creek Farms are inside the creative Scotch Egg appetizer. The soft-boiled egg, with a glowing runny center, along with some house made, herby sausage are encased inside a thick breaded exterior. It's topped with a citrusy, mustardy sauce and seems almost naughty in its goodness.
The Scotch Egg isn't always on the menu, but if it is when you're there, it's worth indulging.
Some diners might be surprised by the prices at Wilson and Washburn. Sandwiches come served alone, without fries, and are around $8 or $9, a side of fries runs $2.50 for a half order or $4.50 for a full, which is big enough to share.
Co-owner Jeff Luby, who opened the restaurant this summer with Eric Hochstein, said tax is included in all the prices on the menu, an unusual move. He said many diners don't get that when they order. Using fresh, local products also affects the price, he said.
Van Den Boogaart said they are taking seriously feedback from diners on both portion size — which were OK for me, but some might find small — and price.
Simplicity and creativity, in both the atmosphere and menu, make me like Wilson and Washburn a lot. It's an approachable, welcoming hangout — a “Serious Comfort Station,” as the sign's tagline suggests — but one made for the modern, sophisticated patron.
ABOUT WILSON & WASHBURN
Almost all the cocktails on the restaurant's bar list are named after old Omaha personalities: There's an Anna Wilson and a Josie Washburn; a Dan Allen, named after Wilson's partner; A Queen of the Underworld, which was Wilson's nickname in Omaha; and a Dirty Wicked, which seems themed after the neighborhood itself.
Wilson and Washburn co-owner Jeff Luby said the cocktails mirror the people's personalities. The Dan Allen is a twist on an Old-Fashioned (and my favorite on the menu), the Queen of the Underworld is a take on a Cosmopolitan and the Anna Wilson is a sweet gin drink. Josie Washburn's cocktail is a twist on the Strip and Go Naked, which is vodka, beer and lemonade.
Luby said a full bar on the second level of Wilson and Washburn will open soon and have more focus on cocktails for people coming in after work or after a show. The main level will be focused on diners, he said. The kitchen is open until midnight, and the bar remains open until 2 a.m.
Happy Hour runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday and all day on Sunday. Drinks and house wines are $5.50, and a special menu includes $3 beet chips and fries, $4 poutine and $7.50 sliders and fish and chips.
The restaurant shows English Premier League soccer matches Saturday and Sunday mornings, and serves a weekend brunch.
Soon, a display in the restaurant's entryway will tell the stories of Wilson and Washburn. The owners went to the Fort Crook House and researched the duo as well as the Sporting District.