When I heard that the major north-south Tulsa streets were going to be featured in Tulsa World Magazine, my first thought was: What are the oldest restaurants on each of those streets?
I did not mean the oldest physically on a particular street. That would have been interesting but a little tricky. I was more interested in the restaurants with the longest histories in Tulsa that happen to be on one of the featured streets today.
I fudged a little on the addresses, too, as a couple I ran across sit a smidgen off the main streets. Details.
No matter how you look at it, if you like Tulsa history and like to eat, visits to these restaurants are a must.
Carl’s Coney Island
4285 Southwest Blvd.
Carl Kennedy, who sold Carl’s Chili to area restaurants for many years, founded this coney spot in Crystal City Shopping Center in 1971. It likely is the longest-running restaurant in west Tulsa. Janet and Mike Cook own it today. In addition to coneys, check out the Ernie Special, a spaghetti and bean dish named after former Webster High School Athletic Director Ernie Jones.
CINCINNATI AVENUE/MLK Jr. BOULEVARD
212 E. 46th St. North
Barbara and Ronald Vaughan opened their restaurant, which sits just off MLK Jr. Boulevard, as a Tastee Freez in 1975. Tastee Freez was Dairy Queen’s biggest competitor in the burger and soft-serve ice cream market for half a century. The Vaughans dropped their affiliation with Tastee Freez in 1999 and changed the name to The Freeze. Various members of the Vaughan family have operated the restaurant since. Brothers Scott and Robert Vaughan run it today.
Weber’s Superior Root Beer
3817 S. Peoria Ave.
Oscar Weber Bilby and his son, Leo, opened this Brookside icon in the familiar orange-and-black building in 1933. Today, the restaurant, which features burgers and house-made root beer, is operated by fourth- and fifth-generation Bilby family members — Jennifer and Rick Bilby and their daughter, Michelle. Other family members have been involved in the restaurant from time to time, including Rick’s father, Harold.
El Rancho Grande
1629 E. 11th St.
Technically on 11th Street, this popular Mexican restaurant has been operating just off Utica Avenue since 1953. It was started by the Rodriguez family from Sonora, Mexico. The Walden family purchased it in 1984, and John Walden is the current owner. It has one of the most recognizable exterior signs in town — a neon vaquero with a big sombrero and lasso.
Goldie’s Patio Grill
5200 S. Lewis Ave.
Goldie and Melvin Crow took over what had been Tommy’s Patio Grill on a par-3 golf course in 1962. Goldie had been a waitress at Tommy’s following careers as an airline flight attendant and an employee at Tulsa’s Douglas Aircraft. Goldie’s is known for its flame-grilled burgers and complimentary pickle bar. Members of the Crow family still operate Goldie’s, which today has six locations in the Tulsa area.
Brownie’s Hamburger Stand
2130 S. Harvard Ave.
Bill Bowen, a memorable character if ever there was one, and his brother, Darrell, opened Brownie’s in 1957. They never intended to call it Brownie’s, which features burgers, house-made root beer and pies. Bill had worked at a hamburger spot on 11th Street called Troy’s. Brownie’s root beer stand was nearby, and Mr. Brown sold a sign with a young boy holding a root beer mug to the Bowens. Current owner Dusty Oakley had the old wooden sign rebuilt with metal, and it still stands today.
3109 S. Yale Ave.
Mike Samara, the classiest restaurateur in Tulsa over some five decades, opened the Celebrity Club as a private club in 1963, prior to liquor-by-the-drink being legalized in 1984. Private club guests ranged from Bob Hope and Mickey Mantle to Stevie Ray Vaughn and the Dave Clark Five band. It’s known for its crushed red velvet décor, steaks, seafood and Caesar salad prepared tableside. Mike’s children, Paula Osko and Nick Samara, run the restaurant today.
6033 S. Sheridan Road
Greek immigrant Nick Kelamis opened his first restaurant, then called Kelamis Café, in downtown Tulsa in 1918. It has had several locations and a name change to Savoy, which moved to Sheridan Road in 1975. It’s known for its traditional diner fare and big cinnamon rolls. Nick’s grandson, Bill Kelamis, and great-grandson, Evan Kelamis, operate the restaurant today.
4401 S. Memorial Drive
Hello, chicken-fried! One wonders how many times a server on the line at Nelson’s has yelled that phrase over the years when a chicken-fried dinner was ordered. Must be thousands. Nelson Rogers Sr. founded the restaurant in 1929, and it operated downtown for more than 70 years, many of those years under Suzanne and Nelson Rogers Jr. It moved to Memorial Drive seven years ago. Suzanne and daughter Jody Rogers are current owners. Sons Nelson Barry Rogers III and Steven Rogers also are involved. Another oldie on this stretch is Jesse’s, which opened in 1968 at 1134 S. Memorial Drive.
4555 S. Mingo Road
One of the area’s favorite greasy spoons — and we mean that in a good way — has a long history and long story. Leo Waller opened his first burger joint in 1951 and later was joined by his son-in-law, Johnny Akers. The first store is long gone, but the second store at 2807 W. Charles Page Blvd. still is going strong. The Akers family, based in Bartlesville, acquired all of the Bartlesville and Tulsa stores, except for the Charles Page store, in 1994. The Charles Page store first went to Waller’s granddaughter, Deanna Gordon, then to longtime employee Graciela Qualls. When she died, she left the store to her son, Johnny Qualls. The Mingo Road restaurant was opened in 1981, which still makes it the oldest eatery on Mingo Road. Interesting fact: Leo Waller had the phrase “A square meal on a round bun” copyrighted in the ’60s.
11223 E. Admiral Place
This restaurant, like many around town, started as a Tastee Freez. Then it was Tanner’s Drive-In, then Golden Burger. Howard Hatfield bought it in the late 1970s, gave the restaurant its current name and added a big smoker out back for barbecue. He ran it for 19 years, and when he retired, Lera and Gary Smith purchased it. Lera’s mother was a Golden Burger manager, which is how Lera and Gary met. For many years, an exterior pole held three signs. The top one, “Hatfield’s Hamburgers,” was blown away in a 2012 storm. The two left are “The Real McCoy” and “Hickory Smoked Ribs.” It sits a stone’s throw west of Garnett Road.
Ike’s Chili House
1503 E. 11th St.
Ike’s has the longest history of any restaurant still operating in Tulsa. It has had many celebrity visitors, going back to Will Rogers, in its 111 years, and regulars still revere its secret-recipe chili. Ike Johnson and his nephew, I.O. “Ivan” Johnson, purchased the Robert Morris restaurant in 1908 and moved it from an alley to the Reeder Hotel at Second Street and Boston Avenue. It has had many locations and owners, all in the family, since. Len Wade, who married into the family, runs it today, and other members still are involved.