Omaha is like some larger cities in that the neighborhoods all have a distinctive flair. Benson is a diverse, artistic, and fairly gritty part of town. It’s more urban and diverse than Dundee, yet more organic and settled-in than North Downtown. The main drag features a surprising array of shops: an alternative health market, coffee shops, neighborhood bars, and several of Omaha’s best music venues (The Waiting Room and Barley Street Tavern). The jewel in its crown, as far as bars go, is Jake’s.
Jake’s started as a cigar shop in Lincoln. When they first opened a branch in Omaha, it was a cigar shop and package liquor store. The place was tiny, with a humidor, wine rack, refrigerators, and a back-room barely big enough for a few massive highback leather chairs. It was the perfect smoking lounge that you couldn’t drink in. So we were all quite elated when they turned the back room into a bar a few years ago. This was back before Omaha’s smoking ban, and we relished the tiny bar for its smoky, jazzy vibe. And because they didn’t put in a draft beer system, they specialized in well-mixed top shelf drinks which were grossly underpriced (because the wait staff usually forgot the price).
When, two years ago, they bought the rest of the building and put a second bar in, I was a bit hesitant: would this turn our cherished, best-kept secret into yet another bro-bar? “Bro-bars,” for the uninformed, are so named for the preponderance of frat-boy types that fester, like Axe body-sprayed flies, in cheap suburban strip-mall bars.
But instead something wonderful happened: Jake’s got better. Now instead of hoping against hope that Jake’s would have one of four tables open for our birthday party, or worrying about non-smoking friends with delicate noses, we could stroll in with a party of ten and take a seat in the big new non-smoking room.
The influx of new customers unfortunately means they charge full price for their drinks now, but they installed a draft beer system with a rotating selection of wonderful and often obscure beers.
The music is still the best of nearly any bar I’ve been: a gritty mix of jazz, hip-hop, and soul music that creates a perfect lounge ambiance. The art, too, is excellent. When it first opened, they commissioned graffiti artists to spray-paint wall-sized portraits of Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie. In the new section they reserved an entire wall for small works by local artists, even if “local artist” means that someone took a Sharpie to the wall, as is the case for a few pieces. The tiny old bar is still there, and they also installed a cozy heated outdoor patio further available for smoking.
And for a while, the bros did come. But Jake’s is not their natural habitat – they thrive in caves made of plaster and cardboard drop ceilings, with easy access to rivers of Bud Lite. So the roving packs moved on to blander pastures, leaving Jake’s a unique and enduring venue, with every convenience required by the modern person of vice and leisure.