As 1963 dawned, Mike Samara was living in Oklahoma City but owned a pizza parlor and liquor store in Tulsa and frequently visited the fairer city to conduct business deals, especially with his friend, the late Lou Abraham.
One day they met at a little bar “way out east” at 31st Street and Yale Avenue and happened to learn the bar was for sale.
“Lou said, ‘You could buy this and turn it into a private club,’ You know, liquor by the drink was illegal back then,” Samara said with a sly grin.
Samara bought the bar, expanded the space, put in a menu with five entrees (for many years it had no written menu) and turned it into the Celebrity Club, a private club that had no membership fee but required a membership card to enter.
Two years later, it burned to the ground.
“It was arson,” Samara said. “There were so few private clubs then, I knew who did it but couldn’t prove it.”
The Celebrity Club was rebuilt in three months and acquired the stately ambience it still has today — gilded artwork, lots of crushed red velvet and the city’s classiest host in the dapper Mike Samara.
“The men all want to shake hands and talk to him, and the women all want a kiss from him,” said Samara’s daughter, Paula Osko.
This conversation took place recently when Mike, Paula and Mike’s son, Nick, gathered to talk about the restaurant’s 50th anniversary this month. It wasn’t difficult to get them together because all three are at the restaurant almost every day.
Mike Samara never quite admits to bending the liquor laws a bit during the Celebrity Club’s first 21 years, but, as Nick said, “You might say some places followed the rules a little closer than others.”
“We never got busted,” Mike said. “They busted Southern Hills and some others, but they never could find anything on us.”
During its heyday, the membership list included such notables as FDR’s son John Roosevelt, Bob Hope, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Mickey Mantle and the Dave Clark Five, to name a few.
It remained a private club until 1984, when liquor-by-the-drink was legalized. Samara was issued the state’s first license and poured the first legal drink.
We met a couple there on a recent stormy night. The menu has exactly twice as many entrees as the original, and we settled on skillet fried chicken ($14.95), surf and turf ($57.50), grilled salmon ($18.95) and a special that night, grilled rib-eye ($26.50).
The leg, wing, thigh, breast and back came from a pretty small bird, but the light breading and flavor were wonderful. The chicken came with biscuits and cream gravy.
The salmon also had a nice texture and was drizzled with a tasty, citrusy sauce. The filet on the surf and turf was thick and cooked a perfect medium-rare, and the good-sized lobster — I would say 10 ounces or so — was tender and sweet. The rib-eye had plenty of marbling to give it a rich flavor.
One of the real treats is to have the Caesar salad prepared table-side ($6 a person). Nick has made thousands of these, and he made a great one for us with salt, black pepper, garlic, anchovies, Worcestershire sauce and a mix of Parmesan and Romano cheeses with oil, lemon juice and egg.
Those put off by the egg may order a regular dinner salad or minty Syrian salad.
Dinners come with a dinner salad (unless substituted), corn on the cob and a choice of various potatoes and vegetables. We had baked potato, Parmesan new potatoes and cottage fries, and all were excellent.
Our server, Fawn, was courteous and efficient.
“What is unique about us is you see the same people here day after day,” Osko said. “Most of our employees have been here 15 to 25 years.”
Find this and other reviews in Thursday's Weekend magazine. Find all of Scott Cherry's reviews online at tulsaworld.com/cherrypicks.
3109 S. Yale Ave.
Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; accepts all major credit cards.