December 25, 2009

Bright spots in dark year - Restaurants old and new satisfy with innovation, flavor and hospitality

by Nichole Aksamit - World-Herald Staff Writer

In some respects, it's been a bum year for dining out.

Layoffs, pay cuts and economic uncertainty made many of us less frequent diners. Fewer new restaurants opened in Omaha – about half as many as the previous year, by my informal count. Some national chains scaled back their operations here. And eateries that might have pulled through in flusher times shut their doors.

Still, 2009 gave rise to some tremendously tasty and innovative local startups. It also encouraged diners like me to revisit and rediscover more of the gems around us: solid local restaurants that, for years, have quietly turned out consistently cravable food.

Of the 48 eateries I reviewed in 2009, the best (ranked below) fall into three categories: established, if a bit under-the-radar, restaurants with delicious food and a clear sense of hospitality; new chef-driven eateries that embrace local foods, bold seasoning and from-scratch craftsmanship; and great ethnic spots that transport you for the modest price of a well-spiced meal.

All offered what felt to me like value – satisfying food, warm service and a dining experience befitting the cost – in a year when that became even more important.

Tied for Best Steakhouse 2009

The 40-year-old Drover makes old-school touches (like a well-edited salad bar, oval aluminum alloy salad plates and garnishes of apple ring and kale) seem new again. Its signature whiskey-marinated steaks are as desirable as a seat by the fire. And the service is as smooth and familiar as a cowboy's favorite saddle.

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