For nearly 20 years, I listened to Jeff Korbelik dish about food.
I listened as he called restaurant owners to discuss their menus — and the meals he’d sampled undercover as the Journal Star’s dining critic.
I listened while regular readers and curious out-of-towners called him looking for recommendations. A nice steak after the football game? (Misty’s). Local fare in the Haymarket? (Bread & Cup). Indian food? (The Oven). A romantic dinner for two? (Billy’s or Dish).
He always had the answers.
Now he has a book. And you should listen to me and buy “Lost Restaurants of Lincoln, Nebraska.”
Although you won’t be able to sit down in front of a plate of Arturo’s tachas or bite into a King’s Food Host burger, you’ll wish you still could.
And you’ll almost feel like you had.
My longtime colleague and podmate left the paper last year to pour (and order) wine at James Arthur Vineyards, but before he did, he pored over dozens of newspaper clippings and worked the phones and his charm to talk to former restaurant owners about life in the food business.
He didn’t want the book to be a recitation of opening dates and locations, said Jeff — Korb to his friends.
“I wanted to tell stories.”
Plenty of locals know about Kay’s Restaurant, he said. “But not that many know 'Terms of Endearment' was filmed there.”
He divvied up the book into two sections. Restaurants and supper clubs to start, followed by cafés, diners and drive-ins.
He included the long-gone Esquire Club, where I had a brief stint as a salad girl, and the recently closed Maggie’s Vegetarian Wraps, where I had a longstanding weekly lunch date.
He shared recipes — soup from The Steak House, apple fritters from Alice’s, the Drumstick's fried chicken — and he told some tales.
Of Legion Club diners on top of tables cheering Tom Osborne (and Bob Devaney before him) after championship games.
Of celebrity sightings at Tony and Luigi’s, the quilt at Crane River, and Herb, the waiter extraordinaire, at the Rotisserie.
Jeff started at the paper in 1996, writing about sports and eventually making his way to features and food (theater and local media and television).
His first dining out review? Cracker Barrel. His last? TBD. (He continues to write an occasional Dining Out column for Ground Zero, the Journal Star's weekly entertainment guide.)
He wrote about restaurants nearly every week; even after he was promoted to features editor. He wrote fast and he wrote well.
People loved reading about food.
This book is the best of Jeff.
When Arcadia Publishing contacted him in the spring of 2017, wondering who would be best-suited to write a restaurant memory book for the city, he said that would be him, but he was too busy and he’d get back to them.
Instead, he “hemmed and hawed“ for two months until his regular dining companion and wife, Rebecca Carr, convinced him to give it a whirl. (Lincoln historian and author Jim McKee, who assisted with old photos and a sharp memory, also played a role, telling the reporter: “Everyone has one book in them.”)
After he acquiesced, the reporter had six months to come up with 32,000 words, 32 restaurants, and enough old photos to conjure up the past.
He took out his tape recorder and rolled out his Rolodex and got busy. He met with the son and nephew of Tony and Luigi’s owner Tony Alesio. “I put a tape recorder between them and let them talk.” (The back and forth between Mike Alesio and Tony Messineo alone is worth the price of the book.)
He ate Miller & Paine cinnamon rolls with Bob Campbell while they chatted about the Tea Room at the iconic Lincoln department store.
He sussed out stories from long-retired cooks and quotes from decades-old newspapers. (How did the Acme Chili Parlor serve its spicy chili? With a side of vinegar to cut the grease and a pitcher of water to cool the palate.)
The book will make your stomach growl.
For me, it evoked long-forgotten meals at long-forgotten places. The Lincoln Underground, where my parents would take us for birthday dinners in the 1970s, with waiters appearing tableside with flaming baked Alaska. Drives across town for tubs of onion chips and dip at Tastee and chocolate ambrosia pie at Bishop Buffet.
Jeff, the food guy-journalist-turned author, made the work of compiling such a daunting culinary history look easy, and he made the restaurants that made us food and made us memories come alive.
I ate it up.