September 7, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Anna Wilson’s brothel made her the “Queen of the Underworld” in Wild West Omaha before she bequeathed her fortune to charity. Josie Washburn—who would later write a book about her life between the sheets—was Anna’s top practitioner of the world’s oldest profession in the house of ill repute situated in what was then known as the city’s Sporting District—a festering cesspool of gambling, prostitution, and all manner of vice. Today their infamous names live on at Wilson & Washburn on Harney Street along the western edge of the Old Market.

“We’re a neighborhood bar,” explains Jeff Luby, who owns the business with his wife, Faith. “We just happen to be one with a great selection of specialty beers, craft cocktails, and elevated bar food.”

Because brothels once carried the euphemistic label of “comfort stations,” the owners incorporated that notion into the bar’s tagline, “A Serious Comfort Station.”

“We specialize in comfort food,” Faith adds, “but with a twist. Nothing too fancy. Nothing overly pricey.”

Wilson & Washburn’s signature Beet Chips are a case in point when it comes to simplicity at its best. Wafer-thin slices of the vegetable are prepared in the same way as their potato-based cousins, but a splash of malt vinegar and a sprinkle of flaked salt transforms this most humble of dishes into something wholly—and yummily—“other.”

Their not-your-grandma’s-Mac-and-Cheese boasts a carefully curated amalgam of Chevre, buffalo mozzarella, smoked Gouda, and bleu cheese in a truffle panko crust. The Rueben features brisket that is smoked on-site and is topped by house-cured sauerkraut and a beet horseradish sauce sandwiched between hearty Russian rye. Jeff says he’ll bet that diners will place his Fish & Chips against the best in town. And the Beet Burger (there’s that brightly hued orb again) is a favorite among vegans and meat-lovers alike.

“Everything is made from scratch,” Jeff says before Faith adds, “Our food services truck deliveries are pretty light in their load here. We’re an easy stop for them. We don’t need from them what a lot of other restaurants choose to source from them. We have to, for example, get our milk from somewhere, but most everything coming out of our kitchen is of our own making.”

Operating out of a 19th-century building that once housed a purveyor of rat poison, the mahogany-clad space uses subtle décor elements in a nod to whorehouse chic. A mezzanine-level private party space appropriately dubbed the Madam’s Lounge is demarcated by blood-red, damask curtains in a pattern that screams “bordello.” Vintage tintype photographs depict bygone bar patrons in frisky scenes that are naughty without being too risqué. The eerie bat motif once used to illustrate the cover of Washburn’s book, The Underworld Sewer: A Prostitute Reflects on Life in the Trade, is replicated in the upper reaches of the building’s towering, curbside windows.

The space, which opened a little over a year ago, has quickly become a favorite among the Orpheum Theater and Holland Performing Arts Center crowds. Whether as a place for a tastily accessible pre-show meal or for post-curtain noshing and conversation, Wilson & Washburn offers a vibe that is at once comfy and sophisticated—just like Anna Wilson’s legendary brothel.

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