It was a brash yet halcyon age of innocence. It was 1963. John F. Kennedy, who had recently stayed at Tulsa’s fabled Mayo Hotel, was in the White House. Tulsa was Oil Capital of the World. And in that year Mike Samara, a restaurateur from Oklahoma City, moved to Tulsa and opened the Celebrity Restaurant.
Step through the unassuming entrance, and nothing has changed since then. You’re in a world of hushed opulence, bathed by the russet glow cast by chandeliers off gilt mirrors, oxblood walls, swagged white curtains and Louis XV chairs whose pink velvet upholstery and glossy wood is burnished by wear and time. Elegance frozen in amber.
It’s hard to believe that 45 years ago, this place was cutting edge. Back then, most people thought of 31st and Yale, so far from town, as open wilderness, and the Club’s gas-fired grill was one of the first in Oklahoma.
The grill attracted the notice of top gas company executives, the food and service made them bring their friends, and the Club soon became the haunt of the reclusive, powerful elite that ran the city. It was a late-night hotspot. “A hopping place,” people called it.
To be allowed to serve liquor, it was run as a private club. Willie Nelson, according to legend, was refused membership because he refused to wear a jacket and tie. Things have changed; the restaurant is no longer private, and on his latest visit, Mr. Nelson and his friends ordered 60 plates of fried chicken.
But not much else has changed. Old-fashioned is a term of pride at Celebrity. Many employees have been there for 15 years or more, and some of the customers have been coming for 40. Some are middle-aged couples that first came on prom night; others celebrate the anniversary of the night they first became engaged at Celebrity, often requesting the same table. That table is covered with crisp, spotless linen; shortcuts and cutting corners are taboo at Celebrity Club.
Though quite a few celebrities – from Mickey Mantle to David Cook – have dined there, the true celebrity is Samara. He’s built his business on making people feel welcome. He’s in his late 80s and his eyesight is failing, but whenever health permits he’s at the door, greeting customers, recognizing regulars by the sound of their voice.
The menu isn’t long and hasn’t changed all that much since the club’s salad days, but the old-style signature dishes are so well made that they draw those regulars back three, four, even five times each week.
Cold-water lobster tails (no imposter Caribbean lobsters here); succulent strips, rib eye and filet mignon; juicy chicken fried in a cast-iron skillet. Whether you’re there for the food, for the warm welcome, for the piano player who regales the bar area on weekends or, at year’s end, for the elaborate Christmas decorations that take three days to put up – whatever you do, don’t miss the Caesar salad. Prepared tableside by Samara’s son Nick using a classic recipe, a perfect blend of raw eggs (don’t worry, they’re pasteurized), Worcestershire sauce and anchovies, it’s a taste of old-world perfection you won’t find anywhere else. Just like Celebrity Club. 3109 S. Yale, Tulsa. 918.743.1800.