Elvis is in the building.
Just past the swaggering statue of Elvis Presley at the entrance to Tally’s Cafe South, the space opens up to soaring ceilings, checkerboard tile floors, larger-than-life photos of 1950s icons, soda-fountain stools and blue banquettes hugging a shocking pink wall.
You’ve wandered, it seems, onto the set of one of Elvis’ glitzy musicals. All it needs are some of those long, big-finned cars … and there one is – a bright pink Thunderbird that’s been converted into a four-top booth with a table in the middle.
“They have those car booths at the Beverly Hills Diner in Moscow. I visited diners all across Europe and the U.S.A., planning the decor of mine, and when I saw those Moscow car booths, I knew I had to have one for Tally’s.”
That’s James Alame talking. A few years ago, if you were one of those fortunate few whom big brokerages refer to as ultra-high net worth individuals, he might have been your financial adviser at Morgan Stanley.
Now he runs a family diner.
“I wanted to own a business, and I grew up spending a lot of time in Tally’s,” he says of the joint on 11th Street, part of Route 66.
Yes, his father is Tally Alame, perhaps the best-loved diner owner in Tulsa history.
“All my happiest times with my dad were at Tally’s,” Alame says. “And then I saw the perfect spot for a restaurant.”
It was two years from buying that spot until opening, two years of hard work. Alame didn’t hire a general contractor; he did it himself. He and his mother were the architects.
“The building was dark with little rooms,” he says. “We lifted the ceiling and opened it up to make one big space. I wanted a 1950s diner, but I wanted vibrant, modern, flashy.”
Sometimes in the early evening, you can see father and son sitting side-by-side at the counter. When they’re not in the front of the house, bright-eyed, bubbly servers guide you through the menu. It’s as if someone has taken every comfort food favorite you could possibly think of and packed them together in one place.
Meanwhile, nearby tables fill up. At one is a bunch of older men and women from a nearby car lot. At another is a bunch of laughing guys and ladies, their T-shirts adorned with the names of football players.
The food comes.
“Oh, that’s just how my grandma made it,” someone says excitedly.
That’s the fried catfish. The chicken-fried steak, highlighted in red on the menu as “arguably the best on Route 66,” just might deserve the accolade. The beef and sausage patty, called Tally’s Hamburger Heaven, overflows with braised onions and melted cheese.
Tally rushes in. He’s friendly, wiry, full of energy, a lot like the actor Alan Arkin.
“Oh, that traffic. I just got here from Owasso,” he says. “I’m looking for houses. My wife has nine huskies; we need a lot of land. You saw my son? Oh, he’s wonderful. A little shy, though. You’ve already eaten? Well, you can’t leave without a cinnamon roll.”
And he runs to the kitchen and returns with one as big as your head.