August 27, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ted and Wally’s. Tannenbaum Christmas Shop. The Passageway. These are staples of Omaha’s historic Old Market neighborhood. But what if you looked beyond the traditional to find the hidden heart of downtown? Do you dare venture down the road less traveled to find the secret spaces and hidden gems of the Old Market?

You are traveling down 10th Street, looking for an outdoor space to spend the warm, fall afternoon, when you stumble upon Lucile’s Old Market. This historic, two-story, brick building is wrapped with an iron gate and was originally owned by Lucile Schaaf, an architectural salvager. You remember being told there is a courtyard somewhere near her home, but all you see is a 10-foot-high brick wall.

You sneak down the alley between Jackson and Howard streets, only to find a large, locked, wooden gate. Disappointment seizes you, until you notice an iron grate in part of the brick wall. You decide to take a peek.

Terracotta landscape pavers line the three-tiered garden, and ivy consumes each wall. Grass and beautiful flowers overflow the 2,600-square-foot space, sharing occupancy with architectural pieces like two griffin wings, salvaged from the old First National Bank building. The wings form a walkway to the third level of the garden.

You hadn’t noticed, but the owner of Lucile’s, a man named Brian, has come up behind you.

“We have the only private backyard in the Old Market that includes grass and flowers. It’s just priceless; it’s literally priceless,” Brian says. He goes on to tell you that the courtyard is only accessible if you have a private event at Lucile’s. You decide to go on with your day, content with having enjoyed a view into the small paradise.

You’ve had enough of walking around, and decide that catching a movie sounds nice. Unfortunately, there is no movie theater in the Old Market. But you have heard about a tiny theater inside Fairmont Antique & Mercantile Store on 12th and Jackson streets.

Winding through stalls of vintage signs and retro clothing, you come across the theater, a walled-off section complete with marquee, deep in the heart of the store. It plays movies on Saturdays and Sundays. You recall what a friend, Alicia Smith Hollins, told you about her experience seeing Jack White play in the theater last August.

“The small, vintage venue felt more like where you should see Jack White play than a big auditorium. It was the coolest thing I have ever seen in Omaha,” says Smith Hollins, who was previously unaware that the theater existed.

After sitting through The Goonies, you are ready for a night on the town. You call up a few friends and decide to go bar-hopping. However, none of you are keen on anything rowdy or loud, so you attempt to confirm rumors about a speakeasy-type place. It’s hidden under the Indian Oven restaurant at 10th and Howard streets.

When you and your friends arrive at the restaurant, you notice that two horse statues are lit in the window. You’ve heard that this means the basement bar is making drinks that night. You enter the basement to find a cozy, newly renovated space.

“It’s a calm atmosphere that’s about celebrating the drinks and the conversations going on,” says Binoy Fernandez, the I.O. Speak’s owner and bartender. He talks with passion about how the I.O. Speak focuses on craft cocktails, drinks that go beyond standard two-ingredient mixers and that take a little longer to concoct.

Fernandez chats with your group to find out what each of you are looking for in a drink tonight. This is standard practice in the bar, he explains. Based on what customers enjoy drinking, he can provide recommendations from his list of pre-Prohibition and Prohibition-era drinks. For such special cocktails, he and other bartenders only use fresh-squeezed juice and syrups, bitters, and even ice made inhouse.

“[Old Market residents] are a great set of people that have, throughout the years, shown a willingness to try new things out, and, in a large way, to be the trendsetters of what’s happening in the Omaha community,” Fernandez explains as he makes your drinks. “Them, and the history of the Old Market, when speakeasies were running down here, make this the perfect place for my concept.”

You head home from the bar, content in knowing that you took the road less traveled. You found the Old Market’s diamonds in the rough.

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