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Dining by the decades

New book serves up T-town nostalgia

The chrome soda fountain and the hostess stand fabricated from a turquoise 1957 Chevy made Tulsa’s Metro Diner a space out of time when it opened in 1984. The 1950s-style diner sat on historic Route 66, across from the University of Tulsa and within smelling distance of the Bama Pie factory. Its bright neon sign beckoned diners of all ages, bragging improbably that “Elvis Eats Here” despite his death in 1977.

Elvis Presley conspiracy theories notwithstanding, the rock n’ roll icon did not eat at Metro—but generations of Tulsans did. They sipped milkshakes and chewed hand-breaded chicken-fried steak there for 22 years, in polo shirts with popped collars in the 1980s, flannel and denim in the 1990s, and cargo pants and puffy jackets in the 2000s.

Rhys Martin, author of the new book, “Lost Restaurants of Tulsa,” laments that of the 44 restaurants featured, Metro Diner was the only one he actually ate at. Still, his lovingly-researched work, to be released by American Palate on Dec. 3, brings to life Tulsa restaurants of yore such as Molly Murphy’s House of Fine Repute, Casa Bonita, and the Golden Drumstick through photos and anecdotes from those who ate and worked there.

Martin, who grew up in Broken Arrow in the 1980s, traces the city’s dining history with as much passion as if he lived through six decades, telling the stories of the mostly family-owned restaurants that found success for a time despite liquor-by-the-drink laws, the oil bust, and an influx of chain restaurants.

Colorful personalities fill the pages. Way before “Seinfeld” made the “Soup Nazi” a household name, 1960s Tulsa diners looking for great steaks drove to Al’s Hickory House at 81st Street and Memorial Drive. Now a bustling part of town, back then it was deep in the sticks. Being served by owner Al Saab was not a given. Diners entered through the kitchen, and if Saab didn’t like you, then no steak for you.

In some cases, Tulsa’s restaurateurs dished as much drama as any episode of “Vanderpump Rules.” There was the time a disagreement grew so heated that Italian Inn chef Jack Reavis picked up owner Donald Funston and plopped him on the griddle. Or the time that a bass player hit just the right tone to crack the glass aquarium at Nine of Cups. Water poured on two suit-and-tie customers and left fish flopping on the floor as wait staff scrambled to rescue them.

Author and photographer Martin is also a “roadie,” one of a legion of Route 66 aficionados. He serves on the board of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association and has travelled all 2,448 miles of the Mother Road, the nation’s first all-paved national highway connecting the Midwest to California. When he’s not working his day job at an engineering services firm, he’s often in his car looking to experience and photograph backroads and forgotten places.

“Lost Restaurants of Tulsa” was born out of one of those experiences. In summer 2016, he heard that an Oklahoma City burger place called the Charcoal Oven had a date with the wrecking ball. He drove southwest for a final meal there, capturing the experience in photos and a blog. That caught the attention of an editor in Chicago. A few conversations later and the idea became a book contract.

He spent the next 18 months researching and writing. Martin logged hours at the Tulsa Historical Society and Central Library and reached out to friends and family who helped run the restaurants from Tulsa’s past. “It was their stories that most interested me,” he said.

Already, the book has garnered much attention, especially online with the 33,000+ people who haunt the Facebook group “You Know You’re From Tulsa If” for photos and memories of Crystal’s Pizza or Pennington’s Drive-Inn or cars cruising the Restless Ribbon in the 1950s and 60s. In response, Martin has organized several local events for people interested in the culinary history of Tulsa to share stories and some of the food such as Pennington’s famous black bottom pie and My Pi deep-dish pizzas.

Since he began his research, Martin has been looking forward to the book release. “Not because this is a money-making project for me,” he said. “But because I get to share these family stories with the world.” He hopes to hear even more tales from those with firsthand experience, especially any stories about restaurants in Tulsa’s Greenwood District which proved hard to find for this edition.

“Memory is a funny thing and it’s not always accurate, but the warmth of fond recollection is a beautiful thing to witness,” Martin said.

Lost Restaurants of Tulsa Book launch events:
Sat. Dec. 8, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. at the Tulsa Historical Society, 2445 S. Peoria
Tues. Dec. 18, 6 p.m. at Mother Road Market, 1124 S. Lewis.