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Omaha Magazine

A Cup of Coffee and A Smile: Omaha Diners Offer Good Food, Great Memories

May 27, 2021 04:14PM ● By Jeff Lacey
old diner black and white

Photo Provided

There are few species of eating establishments that echo American themes more than diners. Primarily independently owned and run restaurants, diners are businesses that offer the huddled masses (whether yearning for a hamburger or a stack of pancakes) a clean booth, a cup of coffee, and an affordable meal. Not only are they encased in the amber of American literature (such as those in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath), they are celebrated in current popular culture, especially through Guy Fieri’s long-running show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. 

Historian Ryan Roenfeld, author of the book Secret Omaha, explained that “diners are an important but often unremarked-upon facet of our daily culture, and are powerful drivers of a sense of community.”

Below is an incomplete list of diners in Omaha: some no longer serve customers, some currently thrive, but all help to weave the cultural fabric of Omaha. Those still in business are marked with an asterisk (*).

Big Mama’s Kitchen*
In 2007, at age 62, Patricia “Big Mama” Barron opened the doors of her first brick-and-mortar restaurant in the cafeteria of the building on 45th and Bedford streets that was formerly the Nebraska School for the Deaf. She previously ran a popular catering business. The next year, the restaurant was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Big Mama’s specializes in soul food, from the notable sweet potato pie to the more unusual pig’s ear sandwich.

In 2020, Big Mama’s moved to 2112 N. 30th St. in the Seventy-Five North Development’s Highlander Accelerator Building. The restaurant has been run by Patricia’s daughter, Gladys Harrison, since Patricia died in 2018.

The Calumet
Once located on 1411 Douglas St., The Calumet opened in the 1890s, and was open seven days a week, all year long. The name was derived from the highly decorated peace pipes employed by the Illinois Native American tribe. The Calumet changed owners several times, but at one point was run by filmmaker Alexander Payne’s grandfather Nicholas, who changed its name to the Virginia Cafe. The restaurant burned down in November 1969.

Carter’s Cafe
The current location of Love’s Jazz and Art Center at 24th and Lake streets is the former site of Carter’s Cafe. Run by businesswoman Lucy Carter, Carter’s Cafe was locally renowned for its owner’s good deeds as well as its food. According to northomahahistory.com, Carter was known for her outpouring of generosity to “community-driven campaigns, nonprofits, the church, and the business community of Omaha.” Carter passed away in 1983, but her legacy to the history of Omaha lives on.

The Diner
Those who went to the Old Market in the last half of the 20th century (and the early part of the 21st), would have seen The Diner. Built in 1982, this independently run restaurant was located at 12th and Harney streets and was an architectural staple of the Old Market: a brightly colored, stand-alone diner that looked and felt as though it were straight out of an Elvis movie, complete with a red counter, chrome-backed swiveling counter seats, and a black-and-white checkered floor. The building was torn down in 2007, but the memories remain.

The Fair Deal Cafe
The original Fair Deal Cafe wasn’t just an eating establishment. It was a gathering place for politicians and community leaders in Omaha for decades; so much so that it was occasionally referred to as “Black City Hall.”  Opened in 1954 and located at 24th and Burdette streets, The Fair Deal was graced over the years by local figures such as Brenda Council and Ernie Chambers. Those who ate at the original restaurant might have ordered their famous sweet potatoes and a cup of coffee, and admired the art-deco decor.

The original Fair Deal closed in 2003, but was so vital to the history of Omaha that the North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan included a major project named after it: The Fair Deal Marketplace, located at 2118 N. 24th St. There one could find a new iteration of the Fair Deal, which was open from 2016 until 2018, with one Yelp reviewer declaring gladly that, at the Fair Deal, they enjoyed classics like, “catfish, spaghetti, baked beans, and peach pie with cinnamon ice cream.” 

Nite Hawkes Cafe*
The Nite Hawkes Cafe has been a staple of Omaha food culture since its establishment in 1942.  Located on the corner of 16th Street and Carter Boulevard, it has been operated by the Hawkes family for four generations. Currently run by Tracy Hawkes, Nite Hawkes currently has classic diner fare, including The Stacker—biscuits smothered with hash browns, gravy, and two eggs.  

One of the highlights of the menu at the Nite Hawkes is the Dan Special, created by founder Dan Hawkes. This is a ⅓ lb. hamburger patty ingeniously inserted into a grilled cheese sandwich, then topped with french dressing and tomatoes. A popular option is to add a side of onion rings. 

This article originally appeared in the 60+ Section of the June 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.