The first time I went to M's Pub, I was an 8-year-old wearing a sparkly, feathery dance costume. My yearly recital at the Orpheum Theater had just ended, and my parents always let me choose where I'd like to go for dessert. I am certain that I ate crčme brűlée.
I'm not the only one with such a story. After 40 years in business, M's atmosphere and food evoke the same fond feelings and vivid memories in lots of Omahans.
During two recent visits, I found food that hasn't changed much but works in spite of its age. I also found some new, contemporary twists that keep the menu fresh without upsetting the regulars who order only their favorites.
It's a grande dame of the Old Market, and it's aging well.
The atmosphere at M's Pub is a big reason so many Omahans love it. It's why visiting New Yorkers love it when locals take them there. The simple, straightforward sophistication melded with warm Midwestern hospitality has worked for the restaurant since it opened in 1972.
"Some days, it doesn't even feel like it's our restaurant," said co-owner Ron Samuelson, who bought M's with business partner Ann Mellen 25 years ago. "It feels like we're the keepers of a community treasure."
The decor at M's is simple: a green marble bar surrounded on three sides with bar stools occupies the front of the restaurant, and battered wood tables fill the back. Exposed pipes crisscross the ceiling. The tiny open kitchen is always bustling.
Simple details, like a mirrored back wall and a window that looks into Nouvelle Eve, the women's clothing store next door, make it memorable.
The place feels inviting and relaxed; casual but still special. On our first visit, M's was somehow able to seamlessly accommodate a family with small children out on a Sunday evening and a couple at an intimate table celebrating a special occasion with champagne.
I've eaten the better part of M's menu since that childhood visit, and if there's one thing I can recommend, it's lahvosh.
We got the Sicilian, which recently came back on the menu after an extended vacation.
Every lahvosh at M's has the same warm cracker crust and is topped with melted mild havarti cheese. The Sicilian also has a fair amount of garlic, tomato, basil and a mixed variety of olives that includes green with pimento fillings and Italian black olives.
The half-moon shaped crust was incredibly crispy. The salty olives mixed well with the garlic, and the basil came through stronger in some bites than in others. The crust remained crunchy all the way through.
In an interview later, chef Bobby Mekiney said the trick to the lahvosh is not to overload it with toppings so the cracker stays crisp, even in the center.
I also had one of my favorite sandwiches, the fish burger. I've never had a bad one.
A good-sized piece of flaky mahi-mahi topped with melted provolone comes on a buttery grilled bun topped with tiny onions. The sandwich is well-composed, isn't too big and holds together well. A smear of the homemade tartar sauce is a must.
All of M's entrees come with a house salad, which is a simple mix of greens topped with a truly memorable dressing: tangy, sweet and pink. Mekiney said people ask him all the time "What's in the raspberry vinaigrette?"
"I tell them it's not a raspberry vinaigrette," he said, laughing. "There's no berries in the dressing."
Red wine vinegar gives the poppyseed base its pinkish hue, he said, and lends a bit of bite to the otherwise sweet flavor.
My sister got her standby menu item, one of the restaurant's most beloved: the carrot dog.
Samuelson said the carrot dog was the brainchild of a former M's chef, a vegetarian.
"People thought it was a joke," he said. "But we endured with it and it really built a reputation."
When Mekiney started at the restaurant, he took the carrot dog off the menu, and there was an outcry. It came back six months later.
It's surprisingly flavorful. The carrot is boiled in vegetable stock, soy sauce and pickling seasonings, then grilled and put on a bun. The sweet meatiness of the carrot makes a great backdrop for the saltiness of the soy and the smoky flavors that come from the grill. My sister said she likes the big white bread bun because it stands up to what she called the "zippy" condiments: grainy yellow house mustard, sauerkraut and chunky dill pickle relish.
Mekiney said the regular bun isn't vegan, but the restaurant has a vegan ciabatta bun available upon request.
My husband tried the brat plate, something none of us had eaten before. It didn't disappoint.
Two large sausages were accompanied by a pile of mashed potatoes and a pile of sauerkraut. The sausages tasted deliciously light, and they held a surprising flavor: cinnamon. The dish is a modern take on something that could otherwise be heavy and old-fashioned.
The pork brats are boiled with beer, cinnamon, onions, carrot, celery and a hint of Bailey's Irish Cream liqueur, Mekiney said. The onions and the sausages come out of the marinade right before they're grilled to order.
On a second visit, my husband and I sat at the bar. We went on two traditionally slow nights: a Sunday and a Monday, and both times the place was full by 7 p.m.
If the server doesn't bring you a dinner roll, ask for one, because they're great, made in house and piping hot. The two pats of butter that come with each roll are always perfectly soft and wonderfully spreadable. Clearly, they've put thought into this presentation.
I got the pasta special off the rotating specials menu, which changes every two weeks. It was roasted chicken mixed in with cayenne quadrettini pasta, wilted spinach, diced green chiles, queso fresco and a smoked cheddar chipotle sauce.
It was definitely spicy, and though my husband thought the sauce too close to yellow nacho cheese, I liked it. The chipotle elevated the flavor, and the diced green chile and spinach gave it even more appeal. It resembled nacho cheese only in color, not flavor. The chicken, all dark meat, was shredded and tender.
The pasta is homemade at Vivace, M's sister restaurant around the corner. Mekiney said some diners don't like its texture, but I did.
My husband went for one of his favorites: the Iowa Grill sandwich. Sliced smoked pork, red onion and provolone are grilled on herby sourdough bread. The flavors play well together. The highlight of the whole thing is the side of homemade honey mustard, less sweet than some bottled varieties.
Mekiney said these grilled sandwiches — there's also the Omaha Grill — are some of the most popular menu items. The secret ingredient to the honey mustard I loved is Durkee's Famous Sandwich & Salad Sauce, which Mekiney said is becoming harder and harder for the restaurant to find.
M's dessert menu is one of the most traditional I know: Cheesecake, pound cake and a flourless chocolate torte are mainstays. Samuelson said they've often considered redoing the dessert menu. Instead, they brought on a new pastry chef, Tina Tweedy.
The restaurant's new mini desserts are her brainchild, and they are simply great.
The set of three tiny desserts rotate every two weeks and can be ordered individually or as a trio. We tried a light but dense square of chocolate espresso cake topped with a brown sugar cinnamon glaze and bits of coffee. It was just sweet enough, decadent and, best of all, the right size.
"The minis let us be more creative with desserts without upsetting the apple cart," Samuelson said. "Tina really works hard to think of creative ideas. Rarely do you see the same thing twice."
Mekiney said he's working on some new things to take M's gracefully into the future. A house charcuterie plate is one. They're offering more vegetarian options, including one constant meatless special on the rotating dinner menu. Diners can expect to see more seasonal appetizers. Mekiney is learning to can and pickle foods.
He said he wants the restaurant to be in front of new trends and ideas, and his work shows.
For many regulars, like me, some things will never change. I'm as enchanted by M's now as I was at 8 years old, eating hot caramelized custard for the first time.
"Things move and change," Samuelson said. "M's stays the same."
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