Walking through the front door, I notice that as usual all the tables and the counter are crammed with people. This is the Fair Deal Cafe, run by Charlie Hall (1930-2009) since it opened in 1954. Run by he and his wife Audentria “Denny” (1933-1997), the Fair Deal was known as Omaha’s “Black City Hall” for almost 50 years. It was at North 24th and Burdette in the heart of the Near North Side neighborhood.
The following is a scene is from my life in 1995. Walking in, I immediately saw pics of crystal lakes on plain white walls, and looked up to see the old white painted tin tile covered ceiling. Over the kitchen entry, there was a pic of BBQ ribs, chicken and corn. Shoved against a wall, a white refrigerator held a small black-and-white TV on top of it, and the diner’s white formica tables were situated so almost everyone could see it. We sat on black vinyl-covered, steel-tubed chairs, or on the dozen stools wrapped around an L-shaped counter.
“Just a sec, hon,” calls out a large woman as she swoops by with four plates packed with food. It was always a little awkward being the only white guy in the cafe, but I feel like I belonged there. I got in more trouble in my own neighborhood for being white than I did there. The diner was closed only on Mondays. The rest of the week it was open from 6am to 6pm, serving breakfast all day.
As I stand at the doorway, a pair of stout workers lumber past me and out the door. The young guy busing tables clears off a small square in the front corner and I was ushered to sit down. A greasy menu smudged from too long use is handed to me and a cup of water is set on the table. Lazy white ceiling fans spin in slow motion from the tin ceiling.
The menu changed all the time, according to what Charlie could buy cheap from the nearby groceries. Every meal had two vegetables served with it. The menu was filled with ala carte items like greens, black-eyed peas, neck bones, chittlins, rice, beans, and yams. Chops, chitlins and sirloin tips browned in their own fat and slow-cooked. There were braised ham-hocks, pig’s feet and ox tails, and thick gravies made of pan drippings. Every meal was better with candied sweet potatoes, and on cold days nothing was better than Charlie’s stew and chili. There were also cakes, pies and cobbler every day.
The large woman comes to my table and kinda winks at me when she says hi and asks what I’d like. Knowing I’m the most special person in her day, I order a plate of fried chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, some greens and Charlie’s famous black eyed peas, along with a slice of sweet potato pie for desert, and a cup of black coffee. Its a huge meal, and since I’ve been working at the warehouse all night I figure I deserve it. I found newspapers from Denver to Chicago with excited reviews about the restaurant. Politicians, activists, and community leaders gathered there throughout the years, too, helping Fair Deal get the nickname, “Omaha’s Black City Hall”. It was a social and cultural hub in North Omaha for almost 50 years, and Omaha’s only soul food restaurant for at least 20 years. Some of the more notable regulars there included Ernie Chambers, Brenda Council, Ben Gray, Gene Haynes, and other community leaders. Celebrity diners included Ella Fitzgerald and Jesse Jackson. It was THE after-church meeting place, and was highly-regarded for its chitlins and candied sweet potatoes.
As I’m flipping through a copy of the Omaha Star that was sitting on the counter, Clyde comes in. He works the same shift as me at the warehouse, and pulls up the chair at my table. After we talk for a minute he orders pancakes and eggs, also drinking a cup of black coffee. Just then three older men sitting at the front counter laugh loudly, patting each other on the backs.
“Fat cats,” Clyde hisses. The guys at the counter are bookies, dressed nice and celebrating last night’s take from the football season underway. Working at the corner of 24th and Fort, the oldest of them is Mister L, who used to tip me with a five dollar bill when I was his paperboy a decade earlier.
In 1987, some of the meals Charlie served at the Fair Deal included roast pork and dressing, brown gravy, cranberry sauce, candied yams for $2.05; baked chicken and dressing, two veggies for $1.65; neck bones, cabbage, sliced tomatoes and onions for $1.40; prime rib, two veggies for $2.35; baked spare ribs, cranberry sauce, mustard greens, potatoes and gravy, and veggie for $1.65; a one-inch thick USDA Choice rib steak with french fries and salad for $2.65; and smothered steak with cranberries, potatoes and veggie for $1.95.
I finish shoveling in the last of the molasses-tinged sweet potato pie and set the paper on the table. Clyde left a while earlier, headed home to his Jamaican wife and six kids. Looking around the place, I wonder about the stories its walls could tell, smile, and leave a ten dollar bill on the table, which included a good tip.
That was the last meal I ate at Fair Deal. The next month I moved away from Omaha forever. Charlie’s wife passed away soon after, and he decided he couldn’t keep the place open without her and sold it. The new owner closed it in 2003.
Charlie Hall passed away in October 2009.
The Future of the Past
As with much of the Near North Side neighborhood, there always seems to be a plan in the works for the Fair Deal Cafe building. The cafe building and site were bought by the Omaha Economic Development Corporation in 2008. In 2010, there was a plan for an arts district around the cafe that was anchored by the building.
In Summer 2011, the Empowerment Network announced a $1.43 billion North Omaha Village Revitalization Plan approved by the City of Omaha. As part of the plan, a redeveloped Fair Deal Cafe will become the showcase of the new “Fair Deal Urban District”.
In late 2016, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation (OEDC) opened a new facility on the corner of North 24th and Burdette Streets. Its called the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace, and its address is 2118 North 24th Street. The new Fair Deal provides micro-retail opportunities in a dynamic environment designed by the architecture firm Alley Poyner Macchietto for OEDC.
This pop-up retail space is an arrangement of adapted shipping containers, scaled to house about eight micro-businesses as well as a café and healthy food store. The front of the old Fair Deal Cafe building was dismantled and reassembled on the site.
The original businesses housed at the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace were the Fair Deal Grocery Market; Hand of Gold Beauty Room; Fashun Freak; LikeNu Resale & Exchange; Mike’s Custom Creations; Divine Nspirations; 402Printz & Itz Poppin’, and Shadez of US. Also, when it opened, the MarketPlace was home to a new version of the Fair Deal Cafe.
According to the OEDC website, as of August 2019, businesses at the Fair Deal Village MarketPlace include
- Fair Deal Grocery Store
- Emery’s Cafe
- Marie Hair Boutique
- Fashun Freak
- Haberdash O.N.E.
- Vibes Massage Studio
- Divine Nspirations
- Still Poppin’ Popcorn
- Ames Florist
You Might Like…
- A History of North 24th Street
- A History of the 24th and Lake Historic District
- A Recent History of 24th and Lake
- Fair Deal Village MarketPlace official website
- Here’s a fine article about the restaurant, its food, and the community’s culture.
- Here’s the Fair Deal Cafe Wikipedia article I wrote.