Thanks to the island atmosphere (think moody Rat Pack, not kitschy Cheeseburger in Paradise), guests at the Havana Garage are swept away to a more sophisticated era when jazz and the blues were kings in the music scene.
“A cigar, a drink, great live music you don’t have to shout over…it’s a social style,” says Chaz Kline, owner of Havana Garage, a cigar bar in what he calls the Old Market’s lower east side. “There comes a certain point when you want to graduate to a different level of socializing.”
The Garage doesn’t have live music every night, but expect it on Fridays and Saturdays and maybe Thursdays, if you’re lucky. “We’ve talked about curating an open mic night on Sundays, too,” Kline says. Regular performers include trumpet player Darryl White, the OK Sisters, and a couple different bands that Matt Wallace, esteemed local saxophonist, plays in.
Crime Sena, for example, is a kind of ‘70s rock band. “You know, what was on the radio in the ‘70s,” Wallace says. “People think they’re getting their last drink, and then we play something they haven’t heard in years. A few songs later they’re still in the back there singing along.” Thomas Sena, founder of T’eez Salon, plays piano in the band, a fact that has forced Wallace to take stock of his ego. “You really think you’re something until you play with him, and all the women are like, ‘Is that Tom Sena?’”
Though live performances can be planned out months in advance, Kline will leave a few holes here and there in the calendar to fill in when something extra special comes up. “We haven’t found enough bands in Omaha with that Sancho Panza feel, you know?” he says. “What you’ll find most often is Mexican, a mariachi flavor. We’re looking for something more Cuban, more Caribbean.”
There’s usually no cover, but if you show up after 10 or so on a night of live music, you might get charged $5, depending on the band. “We’ll probably still promo a drink though,” Kline says. “This is Omaha. It’s not New Orleans with lots of places like this to choose from. We’re an adjunct to the music scene here. It’s not our whole angle, but it’s definitely the cherry on top of the cake.”
If you’re new to the rest of the cake, Kline suggested selecting a mild cigar from the humidor downstairs that has over 300 different facings. “Maybe Romeo y Julieta. Or Monte Cristo,” he says. “Those are some of the oldest names. They’re actually from Cuban seed.” Then, with a signature Havana Garage cocktail in hand (Brazilian rum, ginger beer, mint…think mojito meets Moscow mule), have a seat in either the backyard bodega for a low-key chat or in the bar area to listen to the Latin strains of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
If you need a snack to complete the picture, Kline noted with pride that Havana Garage rubs shoulders with some of the oldest restaurants in the Old Market. “People bring over their dinners from Ahmad’s or Twisted Fork or Indian Oven a lot,” he says. “We’ll get you the menus, we’ll phone next door.”
That sort of service is de rigueur as far as he’s concerned. “We’re all kind of little ambassadors here on the lower east side. The best compliment is, ‘I can’t believe you exist.’”