Egalitarian Eating

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Sometime in the early 1990s, in a rugged, brick-walled building on the gritty fringes of downtown Tulsa, a glass-plating factory closed its doors for the last time. A lot of buildings in that area were being abandoned in those days. And around the same time, a young man eager to make his mark on the world cruised those deserted streets, gazing at those venerable yet forlorn buildings and dreaming. One day, he vowed, he would make one of them into something glorious.

On an August afternoon 20 years later, the sun blazing down on a neighborhood that’s lately become a vibrant, vital part of downtown, that same man, Lee Brennan, stands outside the 90-year-old glass factory. In less than a month, Brennan’s new restaurant will open. Swarms of workers exit the building. Brennan greets each one by name; “They’re the hardest working crew around,” he says. Brennan’s a hands-on boss, involved with every detail. “This will be an outdoor lounge,” he says, his arm sweeping toward a vast expanse of patio. “People can stretch their legs here, then go back inside or sit down a while.”

Scattered around will be comfortable padded armchairs and sofas. (The upholstery is waterproof.) Brennan doesn’t think of Rusty Crane as a restaurant, or as a bar, or as a venue for live entertainment, though it will be all three. He thinks of it as a place where friends and family will gather, will have fun and linger.

 Brennan uses the word “accessible” a lot. He dreams of a place that will be fun for everybody, hip downtown hangout where one won’t have to be trendy to be welcome. Creative snacks and entrees lovingly made from scratch that even the pickiest eater – an eater who looks at words like “gourmet” and “haute cuisine” with a mix of fear and loathing – will love.

A family on its way home from a baseball game at nearby ONEOK Field might stop for burgers. They’d sit outdoors or at one of the casual seating areas inside. Downtown office workers may rendezvous at the bar, where they’ll be dazzled by an elaborate selection of signature and classic drinks. Couples who crave a touch of elegance and romance will head for the intimate booths and tables just beyond the hostess station. That hostess stand is a breathtaking Art Deco creation from the 1930s. Brennan has a scavenger’s eye for hidden treasures, and he’s used them, along with the weathered brick and the rusty steel girders of the original 1922 building, to make the decor unique and special. The 30-foot bar is accented by original terra cotta from the old Mayo Hotel. Some of the tables were made from the worn, mellow wood of the building’s antique doors. The huge, old elevator, complete with vintage bulbs and buttons, becomes an intimate booth for tables.

Like the decor, the food is eclectic and creative. “It’s happy food,” Brennan says, and quirky combinations abound. The Mediterranean taco marries tortilla and hummus. There’s an enchilada with chicken Alfredo and fresh spinach; it’s called a Yumlada. A lot of effort goes into procuring the finest ingredients.

Leaving the building, Brennan detours to a loading dock to point out the old crane hoist that inspired the name Rusty Crane. It’s not rusty, he admits, but, “I thought it’s a fun name, and I chose it to show that everyone, whatever their dress or mood, whatever their walk of life, can have fun here.” But what is his favorite sort of customer? “Oh, I’m like an old grandma with her grandkids,” says the youthful Brennan. “I make each and every one of them feel that he’s my favorite.” 109 N. Detroit, Tulsa. 918.232.2262

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