Residents from central Nebraska flock to the outskirts of northern Omaha when it is time for dinner. They crave the fried chicken at the Alpine Inn, but locals know to arrive early, grab a table by the window, and wait for the live entertainment to come crawling in. As dusk approaches, feral raccoons from the surrounding Ponca Hills arrive and snack on repurposed food scraps regularly tossed onto the patio. For nearly 50 years, this secluded restaurant has been recycling their leftovers for the masked critters so that patrons can not only have dinner, but also enjoy a show.
Affectionately nicknamed “Home of the Wildlife,” this family-owned restaurant is a hidden gem. They don’t have a website, so I first hear about the Alpine Inn from my brother-in-law, a Nebraska native. This air of mystery entices me to drive toward the cerulean chicken shack in the woods. When I arrive, Jaimi Fay, the friendly bartender on duty, is pouring drinks behind a dimly lit bar. She looks up and greets me with a smile.
“Welcome and thanks for being part of our story,” Fay says. “Sit anywhere you like.” I get lucky: A waiter has just cleared a table by the enormous windows, and I have a front-row seat.
The Alpine Inn has been family owned and operated since 1973. Founded by Glenn and Flav Robey, their children and grandchildren have kept the bustling operation running in recent years. Glenn, a champion stock car driver, used to sit on the first barstool and greet everyone who walked through the door. Racing trophies and photographs of his eight-ball car decorate the walls of the restaurant alongside other antiques; velvet paintings and various other trinkets on display depict mischievous raccoons peeking in and out of tree trunks. The Robeys never had to travel far to work because they lived upstairs, in a space that now remains empty in their memory.
Here on the periphery of Omaha, raccoons live and roam free. Omnivorous, they leave their dens in the surrounding forest to scrounge for a midnight snack. However, these non-domestic animals are sometimes seen as trash-digging pests or as a commodity. Throughout history, raccoons have been coveted by trappers, fashionistas, and Indigenous tribes, who use the pelts and fur to make clothing.
The Alpine Inn’s chicken-heavy menu features award-winning fried chicken (made from a family recipe), liver, and gizzards. I order a drink and snacks while I wait for the feature performance. A tree perch outside acts as a stage for the munching nocturnal visitors. The platform is eye-level with my 6-year-old, who is sipping a soft drink, wide-eyed as the furry creatures emerge.
I start snapping photos, and other patrons pull out their phones too. They grab a few snapshots and show me other images they have captured over the years. One picture includes a nursing mother and her kits. In another, the patio is so full of raccoons that it looks like ocean waves. I count more than 40 fluffy striped tails.
My evening spent at the Alpine Inn has given the phrase “having dinner with some friends” a new meaning. After a round of pool and some great conversation, my farewell is as friendly as my arrival. Fay (the Robeys’ granddaughter) thanks me for visiting and gives me advice as I head out and back onto the winding path that led me here.
“Drive safe and watch out for wildlife on the road,” she says.
If you go
The Alpine Inn is open 7 days a week from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m.