There are lots of sports bars in Omaha with hundreds of seats, dozens of massive televisions and billboard-sized menus full of fried food and $5 frosty-mugged pints.
This story is not about those bars.
This story is about bars where you have to share a table on game day with a stranger to see the TV. Bars where regulars bring their own halftime chili in slow cookers. Bars where you get a funny look if your drink of choice is something other than brown booze or Bud Light.
With the goal of finding Omaha's lesser-known old-school haunts, I embarked upon an enviable mission for any football enthusiast: watching all four of the weekend's NFL playoff games at four different Omaha bars.
The Kansas City Chiefs played in the first game, so I met my friend, a die-hard Chiefs fan, at Pat and Mike's in northwest Omaha. Owner Mike Coschka said the bar has been open for 29 years and has been a Chiefs bar since day one, mostly through word of mouth of loyal customers.
I parked at the roofing company next door, figuring it was OK because every other car in the lot had some sort of Chiefs regalia on it. We walked into the bar to find it packed with Chiefs fans, and we grabbed the last two stools in the entire place.
Within two minutes, we each had a beer and were pointed toward the pool table, temporarily converted into a makeshift free-chili-and-sloppy-joe-buffet, of which we happily dug into. On days when the chili bar isn't there, the menu boasts standard bar fare, including a double cheeseburger called the Big Chief.
United by the game, we engaged in no fewer than five different conversations with heretofore strangers. Euphoric highs followed by heartbreak for the Chiefs meant that the atmosphere skewed between high five-laden celebration and obscenity-laced frustration. Pat and Mike's was happy to provide the backdrop, along with free grub and cheap beer.
We left Pat and Mike's with all the other customers — it resembled a funeral march after the Chiefs' loss — and headed to the Old Market for the evening game at J.D. Tucker's.
That night's game featured two teams without much of a local following, and it was a freezing night downtown the weekend after New Year's, so I had plenty of seats at the bar to choose from. The crowd was varied: A sullen bunch of Chiefs fans came in looking to dull the pain, a few regulars had probably been there all day, and a few groups of younger guys casually discussed the game's point spread.
J.D. Tucker's is the kind of bar that every busy downtown needs: a low-key place with cold drinks and sports on several large TVs that doesn't cater to a scene, but rather is the kind of place either to begin the night or spend an evening out of the house while still avoiding loud music and crowds.
There are 10 beers on tap — a decent number for a bar that classifies itself as a dive — and service was prompt. While the game and the crowd may have paled in comparison to the scene at Pat and Mike's, we still found J.D. Tucker's to be a solid venue to catch the game in a casual spot with friendly bartenders and affable customers.
Food at J.D. Tucker's comes from the Stadium Club next door, and sports fans have the option to order and eat in either space. The restaurant's sliders, on the menu as mini cheeseburgers, are a popular choice, with tiny buns that come from locally owned Rotella's bakery. The wings, another popular choice, come a lot of ways, including breaded, unbreaded or boneless and with Buffalo, hot, barbecue or sweet chili sauce.
It was an earlier start on Sunday, with the first game kicking off at noon. I checked with my stomach to see if it was ready for another day of bar food and alcohol, and once it gave me the go-ahead, a friend and I headed to Donohue's in South Omaha to eat the Sunday 50-cent wing special and have a few pints of beer.
We got a quick greeting and an even quicker order of beer and wings, which were enormous and crispy, and although the Buffalo sauce tasted fairly standard, the wings were a tremendous value at 50 cents each. The wings come served with blue cheese or ranch.
The appetizer menu at Donohue's strays from the standard bar food: There are “spicy bites,” fried pieces of breaded spicy chicken; Asiago olives, a blend of Asiago cheese and black olive pieces that are breaded, fried and served hot; and “cheese ole,” jalapeŮo cheese stuffed inside a crispy French fried potato shell. I appreciated the creativity.
Donohue's has a solid setup for football viewing, with a long wooden bar and large flat-screen TVs everywhere you look. It is a cliche to suggest that there are no strangers at a friendly bar, but it seemed as if everyone at Donohue's except for the two of us had known each other for years, which I found out later was, in fact, the case.
Co-owner Mike Donohue Jr. said families from the neighborhood and members of his own family tend to hang out on Sundays, which is why there were a number of older children and their parents next to those of us who came simply for food and sports.
On a football Sunday, Donohue's has the atmosphere of a big, Irish, family get-together, where even we felt like we had been showing up for years after an hour or two.
We finished our beers and headed to the last bar on the itinerary, Danny's Bar and Grill on 72nd and Blondo, just in time for the Green Bay Packers game to kick off.
Danny's bills itself as Omaha's Packers bar, and its interior certainly affirms that: The wall dťcor, the menus and everything else is covered in the Packers' green and yellow colors. There's even a burger on its menu called the Packer.
Danny's also has regular food specials during both the lunch and dinner hour, and it's all the kind of grub that appeals to sports fans. Lunch specials include items such as a hot beef sandwich and mashed potatoes, chicken-fried steak and a homemade pork cutlet. Dinner specials, which are served daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., include wings, tacos, all-you-can-eat shrimp or all-you-can-eat New York Strip dinners on Thursday and $1 off any food item on Sunday.
During Sunday Night Football, the bar has an all-you-can-eat taco and nacho special that runs just $4.79 from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
The place was packed with Packer fans, but we managed to find the lone remaining table with a decent view of the TVs.
With its comfortable chairs, wood paneling and Packers memorabilia everywhere, Danny's has the vibe of an obsessed fan's basement, in a good way. The beers were cold, the appetizers were fried, and the crowd was zealous in cheering the Packers.
During tense moments in the game, the bar became nearly silent. And even though a devastating loss ended the Packers' season, I'm certain that their Omaha fans are already counting down the days until they can return to Danny's for the first game next season.
It's easy to see the appeal of places like Danny's and Pat and Mike's: Plenty of us prefer the communal experience of sports, living through the joys and pains of a game in the company of our fellow fans. It makes the thrills all the more exhilarating and the defeats a bit less agonizing.
Or the appeal of places like J.D. Tucker's, a no-frills, sports-focused drinking establishment in the heart of one of Omaha's busiest nightlife districts. Or Donohue's, where you can relax with a cold beer on a gray football afternoon among great people and instantly join the conversation.
If you are heading to the bar for the Super Bowl, consider a classic bar. And if further research is needed, I'll be happy to go check out a few more places once March Madness rolls around.
Correction: Donohue's Pub's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.