In the middle of a dark, windswept night of early winter, the corner of 31st Street and Yale Avenue in Tulsa is as deserted as the badlands of Montana. You might see a bartender straggling home or perhaps a sleepy-eyed baker trudging to work.
There’s a doughnut shop, whose sign signals that it was built as a burger joint in the early 1960s, and next to it is a windowless, gray, nondescript, mysterious building from the same era. Press your ear to the door and, at 4 a.m., when it should be deserted, you hear loud, excited laughter. If you’re superstitious, you feel a chill – it must be ghosts of parties past.
Fifty years ago, the elegant rooms within were the haunt and watering hole of the creme de la creme of Tulsa society. But what you see today is a large band of people – the Celebrity Restaurant’s staff – stringing Christmas lights, garlands and festoons.
“We try to cover every little inch,” says Paula Osko, daughter of Mike Samara, the genial man who knows everyone in Tulsa and has been the owner and guiding spirit of Celebrity Restaurant for a half-century.
“My dad always loved Christmas and children, and about 25 years ago he started the lights,” Osko says. “It takes two weeks for our people to put them up, and they work all through the night. There are fun areas, upside-down trees over the piano, a photo place and a nutcracker 6 feet tall. People reserve a year in advance just to have dinner here when the lights are up.”
It’s a safe bet that those dinner guests order Caesar salad, Celebrity’s specialty. A cart with a huge wooden bowl is wheeled to your table. In the old days, Samara himself would prepare your salad. (“I’ve done thousands,” he says.) He’s 93 and doesn’t come by the restaurant as often as before. Chances are, your salad is made by a no-nonsense woman by the name of Gloria.
“Here’s salt and pepper,” she says while sprinkling seasonings into the bowl. “Here’s garlic and anchovy and yellow mustard; that’s how we start. Now I’ll juice a lemon, whip in the eggs” – her deft hands, a blur, make it all look easy – “now there’s Worcestershire, salad oil, and that’s the dressing.”
Impressed by her skill, you might ask, “Are you a relative?”
“Oh no,” she says, “but I’ve been here 12 years, so I almost feel like one.”
You believe it when you taste her salad. And don’t try to make it yourself; we’ve left out a few crucial steps to preserve a secret kept for decades.
If you get steak or a South African lobster tail, you can order after the salad, but, if you want Celebrity’s renowned fried chicken, you’d better order early because each plate is made to order in a venerable cast-iron skillet. As often as not, the bartender, named Austin, takes your order. Like a good barkeep, he knows when to talk and when to be silent. He’s been here 12 years, too.
“I started as a busser, and after years of that I became maitre d’ for eight years,” he says. “And then, finally, a waiter’s spot opened up, and that’s a rare chance because the old waiters never leave. Not ever. So I grabbed it.”
A big birthday cake with three candles is carried over to a nearby table.
“Oh, when you said there’d be cake for my birthday, I didn’t know you meant a whole cake,” says a lady who, while old enough to remember Celebrity’s early days, is as excited as a 10-year-old child.
Austin tells her, “Now one candle is for the past, one for the present and one for the future.”
“Oh, I have a lot more past than future,” the woman says with a laugh.
“Ah, your past was glorious,” says Austin, talking as much to Celebrity Restaurant as to her, “and who knows what the future may bring?”