Monday, February 24, 2014
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma traces its contemporary history to pioneers who populated the prairies. Now, new urban pioneers are repopulating the capital, Oklahoma City, as restaurateurs re-imagine landmark buildings and create new communities around them.
They could hardly have come at a better time: The local economy is booming, and Forbes ranks OKC as the nation's eighth-fastest-growing city, thanks to thriving oil, gas and wind-power sectors as well as fracking.
I was here in September for a consulting job, and I extended my stay to find these restaurants with a previous life. I had only three criteria: The restaurants had to have begun as some other kind of business, retain some of the old look and cook well.
It turned out to be an unexpected adventure in food, history and architecture.
I started in Bricktown, just east of OKC's compact downtown. Twenty-five years ago, these 45 city blocks of onetime warehouses sat mostly abandoned after the freight trains relocated. Now, Bricktown's music venues and clubs anchor the local night life, and hotels, restaurants and shops lend a low-key bustle during the day.
A 40-minute water-taxi ride ($9.50) on a canal built on a former street through Bricktown wends its way past mosaic murals and life-size bronze statues of rough-and-ready pioneers on horseback and wagon train. On my trip, the captain, a chatty young feller, narrated local sights, history and lore with patter not unlike that of Mark Twain.
Other big players have filled in Bricktown too: Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, home of the Houston Astros' triple-A farm team, the Oklahoma RedHawks; I Love this Bar & Grill, owned by Oklahoma-born country music star Toby Keith; and a branch of Sonic, Oklahoma's own drive-in burger chain. But it was the restaurants lining the canal that started it all and that store the local soul.
I stopped for lunch at one of the first, Nonna's Euro-American Ristorante & Bar, in a former 22,000-square-foot warehouse, with food that can feel almost as big: beef Stroganoff, Nonna's Favorite (meatballs over spaghetti with marinara and alfredo sauces), and giant cookies and strawberry shortcake for dessert. With entrees topping out at $15, it's a good value. I was inspired to hunt for more.
Next stop was Automobile Alley, just north of the downtown core, an eight-block-long stretch where restaurants, digital media and art and design studios have rejuvenated abandoned Art Deco- and Bauhaus-inspired car dealerships from as far back as the 1920s.
OKC is famous for livestock, and Red PrimeSteak is one of the top steakhouses in town. Behind the stately façade of a former Buick showroom — still sporting the original logo — is a futuristic world that the building's original occupants could scarcely have imagined: Long streaks of red neon imitate taillights, and the former auto turntable is now a private dining room. Besides steaks and cocktails, Red PrimeSteak serves cocoa-cayenne-dusted scallops and classic Southern fried chicken, at L.A.-style prices.
The walk up Broadway Avenue, Automobile Alley's main drag, took me to shops such as Rawhide, for Western clothing and accessories, and Plenty Mercantile, for handcrafted, back-to-nature gifts as well as crafts made by indigenous peoples. Coffee Slingers, once an auto repair shop, is now a cheery, airy coffee bar with its own roasting operation.
My visit to Automobile Alley coincided with Shop Hop, the third Thursday of the month, great for people-watching as stores stay open late, folks play streetside ping-pong, and artists and street performers entertain.
A couple of blocks away is Packard's New American Kitchen, which opened in 2013 in a 1920s Packard dealership that general manager John Ross described as "unoccupied longer than it's been occupied."
Only after he and his colleagues removed the boards from the giant picture windows did they realize that the original mosaic tile floor was still there; it's now restored and gleaming like new. Lunch and dinner here might include Sichuan smoked pastrami, rib-eye burger or pan-seared chicken with corn, fennel and edamame succotash. I also liked the rooftop tables with views of the downtown skyline.
The other half of the Packard building is Wine & Palette, sort of a Color Me Mine for aspiring artists. The motto: "Drink while you paint." Hard to argue.
About a 10-minute drive is Uptown 23rd Street, one of OKC's premier shopping boulevards until the 1960s, when suburban malls took over. Those glory days are hard to imagine now; more than one local I met described Uptown 23rd as "a war zone" until as recently as five years ago. It's still evolving, and amid the empty storefronts, pawn shops, auto parts stores and a plasma center that dot the streetscape, the first impressions aren't impressive.
But once I looked closer, I discovered new life. The 1938 Art Deco storefront, with its huge picture windows and now home to Cheever's Café, once contained a flower shop. The dominant feature of of this now modern restaurant is the 1950s glass-doored flower refrigerator, now about the sweetest wine cellar I've ever seen. Cheever's menu reads like a list of Oklahoma classics, with chicken-fried steak and a roasted pecan ice cream ball for dessert.
Around the corner, Back Door BBQ began life as a fancy men's clothing store and has been a design shop and electrical supply store. The original pounded-tin ceiling preserves the atmosphere, and the wood for the faux-farm-rustic interior, from aged, rough-hewn fencing, cost "exactly nothing," said co-owner and designer Chris Lower. Out front, a parklet (a tiny park in a parking space) attracted a crowd of fun-loving twentysomethings and added to street life.
Back Door opened last year and already has quite a following for its brisket, pulled pork and hot mess sandwich: beef and pork with smoked cheddar, hot sauce, fried onions and jalapeño.
About another 10 minutes' drive northwest, near Oklahoma City University, is the Plaza District, three hipster blocks of Northwest 16th Street that feel right out of "Portlandia." Used record store? Check. Tattoo parlor? Check. Retro design store? Check. Pizza joint in a former laundromat? For sure. At Empire Slice House, the music is loud, the walls are lined with rock 'n' roll posters and the pizzas are named for hip-hop artists (Notorious P.I.G.). And down the street, in the first floor of a simple, gray two-story apartment building, the Mule serves a dozen or so gourmet riffs on the grilled cheese sandwich, plus craft beers and variations on the Moscow mule cocktail.
Before I left town, there was one more place I had to check out: a cluster of 90-foot-tall former grain silos southeast of the city center. This is Rocktown, an indoor rock-climbing gym. Turns out that converted silos make a very effective — and very photogenic — climbing venue, painted bright greens and magentas, and there are some outdoor climbing walls too. Twenty-nine dollars gets you admission, harness and shoe rentals for the day and some basic orientation to belaying.
Sure, I could have gone to the hotel gym to work off all that good food, but after this adventure, Rocktown somehow looked and felt just right.
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