Tucked behind a softly lit door — that light green or red, depending on luck — in the lobby of downtown’s new Hotel Indigo sits the city’s latest speakeasy, serving a succinct lineup of original, artful cocktails. If the light is green, knock with the big brass door knocker shaped like a woman. (If it’s red, you’ll have to come back later.)
When that door does open, you’ll be enveloped by hot scarlet light and greeted by a photograph of Anna Wilson, Omaha’s “Queen of the Underworld,” and its best known madam, who died in 1911.
Welcome to Anna’s Place, the latest bar, and Omaha’s first, from James Beard semifinalist Jill Cockson, who runs three bars in Kansas City and was the original operator of Lincoln’s The Other Room.
With co-owner Devon Mundt, an alum of Wicked Rabbit, another downtown speakeasy, Cockson is serving a solid list of inventive, often beautiful drinks with names inspired by Anna Wilson’s life, Omaha lore and Nebraska history. One even features a house made riff on Kool-Aid.
Cockson said when she started working on her first Omaha concept, she knew she wanted to look toward the city’s history. She found herself captivated by Wilson’s life story, including her successful brothel, which was near 9th and Douglas streets, that Wilson later turned into the city’s first hospital, and her grave in Prospect Hill Cemetery, under nine feet of concrete so “respectable” society couldn’t move it.
“It becomes more interesting and organic if you start with the real story,” Cockson said. “We don’t need to come up with something new. We’re part of that continued story.”
To that end, and probably not surprisingly, Anna’s Place is decidedly a bar for cocktail-loving grown ups. There are no wines, no shots, no list of craft beers and no snacks, unless you count an edible cocktail garnish or two. And while the owners can make you any classic drink you might desire, I’d advise, after visiting several of Cockson’s other bars, to stick to the list; we didn’t encounter a single disappointing sip during our recent visits.
We tried several of the eleven original drinks on the menu, plus one of the six house twists on Old Fashioneds, all priced at $15. There’s also two $11 drinks created with pre-prohibition style house tonic water made using Peruvian bark powder, a natural source of quinine.
The Anna Wilson, one of the “Soiled Dove Auld Fashioneds,” is the first drink on the menu, and it’s served with drama: it arrives at the table in a Venus de Milo shaped vessel modeled after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Uncork the top and smoke curls out; scented with Frankincense and lavender, it flavors the drink, which gets poured over a fat square of ice in the accompanying rocks glass, that ice topped with a slice of dehydrated apple (another night, I had it topped with an orange, as its pictured here.)
Made with apple brandy, rye whiskey, honey syrup and Angostura bitters, the ingredients are simple but balanced, and the gentle smoky element pushes that flavor beyond the ordinary, invading both your nose and your palette as you sip.
The Necromancer, named after a practitioner of black magic, takes the classic honey and lemon Bee’s Knees cocktail (a favorite of mine) and amps it up to eleven. If you like a cocktail that borders on the medicinal, which I do, this one’s for you, with its hints of anise, mint, rosemary and honey. Mundt told me the flavors put him in the mind of a Ricola cough lozenge, and I can’t say that’s too far off.
The drink comes served over pebble ice, and is made with Mastiha, a pine spirit; along with absinthe; herbal liquor; fresh lemon; honey; and Fernet Branca Menta, classic Fernet’s mintier cousin. It arrives topped with a house-made, gold leaf-flecked piece of hard candy that has that cough drop vibe on lock.
The decor inside Anna’s Place is striking and sexy. Omaha artist Watie White created all the art in the room, which includes a large painting of a reclining nude and many small sketches inspired by Wilson’s life and work. Cockson told me she commissioned the art for the space, and the drawings are meant to resemble sketches on napkins.
There’s comfortable banquette seating and plush wingback chairs, thick Persian rugs and several eye-catching custom light fixtures, including one embellished with black roses and others made to resemble fishnet stockings. Cockson said of all her bars — Kansas City’s Swordfish Tom’s, Drastic Measures and Chartreuse Saloon — she thinks Anna’s place has the most cohesive look and feel, and I’d agree. There’s no mistaking it for someplace else.
You’re most likely to find Mundt behind the curved bar, like we did on all our visits, and he will happily direct you through the menu, asking questions to help guide the less knowledgeable to a drink they’ll most enjoy, and chating with the more educated cocktail lover about the interesting surprises on the menu. A bar like Anna’s Place could come off as intimidating, but Mundt’s hospitality changes the tone. He steered my cocktail loving partner, Matthew, toward two drinks in particular: The Devil’s Staircase and the Burnt District.
The Burnt District, named after Omaha’s original red light district, is made with Ardbeg Islay scotch, Campari, sweet vermouth and a smoked saline solution. Matthew described the drink as a booze-forward, interesting twist on a classic Boulevardier. It has an undeniable bitter note balanced by smoke and an interesting salty note from that saline solution.
“Guaranteed to put hair on your chest,” Matthew said.
The Devil’s Staircase is the aforementioned Kool-Aid cocktail. Mundt creates a carbonated and acid-adjusted house blend of Kool-Aid (Matthew said the flavor profile tasted closest to fruit punch) then adds Tequila and Meletti Amaro, which has caramel and chocolate notes. It comes garnished with a tender, house made marshmallow that Mundt infuses with alcohol, lending a pleasant burn to an otherwise sweet treat.
I can’t stop thinking about how the Underworld Exorcism looks under the bar’s red lights. A twist on the Aviation, one of my favorite cocktails, it’s made with botanical gin, violet and herbal liquors, fresh lemon and a house made hibiscus-Cubeb pepper syrup; the Indonesian pepper has a slightly bitter aromatic similar to allspice. It’s delicious, complex and layered but still approachable. But what really sticks in my head is its garnish, a candied hibiscus flower, that sits atop the drink, pricked by a spear. Under the red lights, it eerily but also sort of beautifully resembles an anatomic human heart.
There’s an unmistakable edge to Anna’s Place, one that’s sharp enough to be noticeable. But with Cockson’s signature warm hospitality, which both she and Mundt personify, the bar transforms into a spot that cocktail lovers will feel welcomed by kind service and a creative spirit, perhaps the kind of place Anna herself might have frequented.
1802 Dodge St., inside the Hotel Indigo
M-Sat 4 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Visitors can enter the bar if the light above the door is green; if the light above the door is red, the bar is at capacity.