Omar’s Restaurant is an Ashland institution, and almost everyone seems to know its history and have an Omar’s story to tell.
How many, though, know of Omar’s Toad in the Hole, a specialty item that’s been on the menu almost continuously since 1953?
Toad in the Hole — like Spotted Dick, a Scotch egg, bubble and squeak, and quaking pudding — is a traditional British dish. Omar’s Toad in the Hole though is like nothing you’ve ever seen, heard of or eaten before.
I stopped at Omar’s last week and ordered a Toad in the Hole. Pai, who’s worked at Omar’s since the 1970s, stopped short asking, “Do you know what it is?”
“Yes,” I said. “I want Toad in the Hole.”
First to the table was a nice gin and tonic and a family-sized salad served in a hand-thrown service with a choice of blue cheese or poppy-seed dressing and warm, sweet bread. And then, there it was, Omar’s Toad in the Hole in all its glory: A grilled 8-ounce, seasoned ground-beef steak perched on a baked potato, topped with country gravy and served with sautéed vegetables on the side. The beef was tender and juicy, the baked potato dusted with chives, the country gravy thick and savory.
This classic British dish was first documented in 1762 as small pieces of meat or lamb kidneys cooked in a pudding. For at least the last century, the dish has been prepared with banger sausages baked in a Yorkshire pudding. An Australian version has sliced chicken baked in a biscuit-type batter. More recently, Toad in the Hole can mean a thick slice of fried bread with a center ring cut out for an egg, or a burger grilled with an egg in the center ... or a Corvallis Celtic punk band.
Omer and Hazel Hill opened Omar’s in 1947, just a small roadhouse counter catering to the automobile trade motoring along Highway 99. In May of 1952, the business was doing so well that Omer expanded and built the dining room. Omer added the lounge area in August 1953, closing up the window from the kitchen into the short room.
Since they poured a lot of money into the expansions, the Hills may have wanted more business. I suspect they organized a competition for a new dish that would first be advertised the week that Southern Oregon College students returned for fall semester.
Toad in the Hole appears in the Sept. 12, 1953, issue of the Mail Tribune. The advertisement shouting, “Omar’s Original Toad in the Hole. Ask your neighbor!”
Bruce Dwight, a recently retired Omar’s partner, recalls the story that Omer had an idea for a filet of beef in a cordon of mashed potatoes with a demi-glace. In 1953, the cost of beef was too high (and the nature of the roadhouse not suited to upscale meals), so instead Omer held a contest for a new hamburger dish. Toad in the Hole was the winning recipe, submitted by an inventive cook who is lost to history, on the menu at $1.60.
There’s no mention of the recipe contest in the Mail Tribune or Daily Tidings, but Dwight delights in the telling.
Toad in the Hole has disappeared from the menu a couple of times over the years (the chefs arguing among themselves about comfort food or no comfort food), but locals have always called for its return. The brown sauce was changed to country gravy in 1974 when Southern chefs added Chicken Fried Steak to the menu.
Partner Jen Sink says the restaurant served 400 to 500 Toads in a Hole last year even though Toad in the Hole is now just a small entry at the tail end of an expansive menu.
Omar’s is a classic American steakhouse right out of the ’50s updated with the fine, fresh food that patrons expect. The red flock wallpaper has been painted over (you can still see the texture) and the banquettes reupholstered, bright and comfortable in red leatherette. The poppy-seed dressing is still on the menu, and so is Toad in the Hole at $16.99.
Today, Omar’s is best known for fresh seafood, pastas, poultry, choice dry-aged steaks, a carefully curated wine list and specialty cocktails. Omar’s lounge is a well-liked retreat for Southern Oregon University students, and the dining room is favored by foodies in the know.
Omar’s Restaurant is at 1380 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland, and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch and from 5 to 9 p.m. for dinner, until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 541-482-1281 for takeout. The bar is open daily with a limited menu from 11 a.m. to closing, around 2:30 a.m.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer living in Ashland, Oregon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org