Rising of the Plains
Rain, snow, sleet or hail, the Sooner State capital delivers
In fairness, it was difficult for Oklahoma City to fulfill expectations in the snow.
Where there should have been the effects of burgeoning change brought on by swells of money and influence from oil and gas, or the still-clanging reverberations of the boom-town mentality made manifest in weathered leather goods and the pungency of stockyards, there was only snow. Big honking flakes that swept the city down. Slush cut into white caps on the unsalted roads, the frozen wakes of a few passing cars. It, was in other words, not the best forecast for someone looking to capture the spirit of the place, with an afternoon and an evening to find it.
But even though the weather had effectively shuttered the town on that Friday evening—something especially evident along Automobile Alley, a district north of downtown that got its name in the ’20s as a hub for auto dealerships (and which was a wasteland of folded commerce by the ’60s)—there were suggestions of the vitality that had taken hold of the district in the past several years. Where once there had been the husks of car dealerships gone to rust, there were now boutiques, restaurants and galleries.
Within just a few blocks, I passed sustainably minded Plenty Mercantile and Rawhide, a purveyor of upscale western chic. Just a block off the main strip, there was Wayne Coyne’s gallery, painted in an acid drip of bright and manic color (if you are so inclined to visit the gallery, it might be worth Googling first—and perhaps not bringing anyone of especially fragile sensibilities). I thought to myself that there’s something telling about a place when all the noise has been cleared away—when the elements have collapsed virtually everything but the hardiest and essential, and the details of the city are displayed in a more tightly held relief—that seems to allow for a more intimate portrait of a place. At least this was the train of thought that I seized upon to provide some sense of solace—and a little warmth—as I peered through the darkened windows at bicycles and paintings and felt frost stiffen each individual hair on my upper lip.
But in even with the dampening effects of inclement weather, it was difficult not to see the change that had swept not only over the individual districts but the city as a whole. Because as most any bartender or museum worker or Uber driver or people out enjoying a nightcap despite the snow will tell you without hesitation: Oklahoma City is not the city it was 10 years ago. Although the city has succeeded in keeping ties to its Western roots, there’s a good reason that so many in the city have embraced the epithet of being a “city on the rise.”
You might look to the MAPS program (Metropolitan Area Projects, a “capital improvement program for new and upgraded sports, recreation, entertainment, cultural and convention facilities”) first started in the ’90s that raised $309 million for everything from the canal in the Bricktown neighborhood to the Ford Center (now the Chesapeake Energy Center). You could say the same of the arrival of the Oklahoma City Thunder at the aforementioned arena, the NBA franchise that sprung from its longstanding Seattle-based roots for a different sort of Western.
Even, in part, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995—the 20th anniversary of which is this month—lent the city a new sense of cohesiveness. Its aftereffects are found not only in the memorial but in the new development and the sense of place with which people speak about the events of that morning.
In seeing all of this, I couldn’t help but think back to a piece I’d read a few days before making the drive to Oklahoma City. Published in the Boston Globe, it’d been written by a man who’d come to the city and managed to see none of this. Rather, he’d expended the entirety of the piece on the Western roots of the city, narrowing his focus to include only the likes of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse and a sidebar on how best to ride a mechanical bull.
For much of the evening, I couldn’t help but marvel at how radically different his experience had been compared to my own. After taking an Uber to the Historic Plaza Arts District, another area that has likewise taken off in past years, attracting all manner of artists and entrepreneurs, I bellied up to the steel-riveted bar at Empire Slice House. After thawing with the assistance of a French press of coffee, I ordered a slice of Foghorn Leghorn—a New York-style slice topped with Asiago, chicken, bacon, jalapeno, sweet marinara and Sriracha drizzle, on some of the best crust I’ve tasted since living on the East Coast—and listened to a bartender tell the saga of how the 5-foot, 75-pound pink elephant trumpeting silently in the front had been stolen and returned this past fall. This, all while under the watchful gaze of the “Christopher Walk-in” freezer.
Again, not an especially Western experience.
After stopping into a few other places that had remained open for the snow—notably, the upscale Ludivine, where, after asking what the bartender would recommend, I was asked whether I preferred dogs or cats and to name my favorite bands and color before I was served a drink—I decided to walk the city a little to see if there was anything else that might reveal some suggestion of what the place might be like otherwise.
I thought about how OKC seems to be a place, like so many others, whose distinct identities can produce experiences that can vary radically—particularly, if there’s no overlap between one sphere and the other. It’d be possible to meet every preconceived notion of OKC as a backward cow town if you were to place yourself in settings, wittingly or not, that were confined to satisfying the preconception of that notion. Or, conversely, if you were to avoid them all together.
And yet as I walked south from the bar, I found, in the silence, a series of scenes more telling and indicative, I think, than anything I might have come across regardless of the weather. I walked past the Oklahoma Memorial, where there were wreaths and photos and race pennies locked up and down the chain-link fence. I walked past the Devon Tower, the newly constructed 50-floor structure risen up as a beacon of progress representing both a city reinvented and the industry of energy that first allowed anything to rise. And then as the voice of the newly christened Oklahoman building read the headlines to itself some distance away, I approached the Myriad Botanical Gardens, a long glass cylinder illuminated with blue light. Rippling along its spine, ring by ring, there was a belt of purple, and through the glass at the base, there were black silhouettes of trees and plants just inside looking out onto the grounds. In that setting was a reflection of what I’d seen—life within and without, rounded and divided, self-contained and revealed in a moment when there was least reason to expect it.
Fit to See in OKC
Taking stock of the city on the rise
Though perhaps best known for its rumored spiritual inhabitants (skeptics ought to consider booking a room on the 11th floor), this National Register of Historic Places-listed hotel has plenty to offer—including 225 rooms restored in 2007, downtown access and a piano lounge that plays well into the night—for all manner of terrestrial denizens. (1 Park Ave.; skirvinhilton.com)
It’s interesting to consider that the Colcord, OKC’s first skyscraper, built in 1910 to 12 stories tall, should now sit beside one more than quadruple its size (the Devon Tower). But while dwarfed in stature, the historic hotel still retains its position among the city’s most luxurious—and with a view looking out over the Myriad Botanical Gardens, among the most scenic as well. (15 N. Robinson Ave.; colcordhotel.com)
More often than not, determining where to stay solely based on the hotel’s gustatory offerings is perhaps a bit misguided. But when those options are this 54-room boutique hotel’s skyline-viewing seventh-floor O Bar and the Viceroy Grille, dubbed by The Oklahoman as “one of the city’s best-kept culinary secrets”—maybe it’s best to reconsider. (1200 N. Walker Ave.; ambassadorhotelcollection.com/oklahomacity)
//EAT & DRINK
Strictly speaking, what The Mule serves are sandwiches (though it does seem a disservice to call, say, the Fancy Pants—roasted chicken, Brie, Gruyere, caramelized onion, sliced pear, basil pesto and balsamic reduction—a sandwich, just because it’s between two slices of locally sourced bread). Needless to say, while unabashedly hipster-ish in aesthetic, clientele and location (specifically, the Plaza District), The Mule is not to be missed—and is certain to defy expectations. (1630 N. Blackwelder Ave.; themuleokc.com)
This is a place that’s really easy to love, with its clean lines, soaring white walls and reimagined cafeteria culture. It’s a place ideal for those who appreciate fresh and local ingredients, as well as carefully scrutinized coffee preparation. It’s also a great choice for anyone who loves brunch. (The fried green tomato Benedict is tremendous, as are virtually all of the baked goods.) (324 N. Robinson Ave.; kitchen324.com)
Empire Slice House
As regular employers of wordplay and puns, we certainly have a soft spot for any place with menu items such as the Fungus Among Us or Foghorn Leghorn (especially if said place has a Christopher Walk-in freezer). But seeing as the pizza, made from a recipe the owners picked up from a chef in California, is hands-down incredible—well, let’s just say that soft spot’s since expanded. Which is to say, our waistlines. (1734 NW 16th St.; empireslicehouse.com)
The fact is, there are any number of places where you might get a taste of Oklahoma. But if you’re looking for a whole honking mouthful—at a place where most everything is sourced locally and whose Food & Wine-approved menu is subject to the whims of drought and the weather—head to upscale Ludivine. (Also, don’t miss the bar. Really.) (805 N. Hudson Ave.; ludivineokc.com)
Red Prime steak
In a town familiar with what makes a good steak, and suffering no shortage of takers vying for estimation, the bar for red meat is rather high. But at a place where you’ve got “40-day” dry-aged beef and sauces that include the likes of black truffle butter … really, who cares about the bar? (504 N. Broadway Ave.; redprimesteak.com)
Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
Whether it’s the recorded proceedings of a groundwater meeting disrupted by the blast, the exhaustive coverage documenting the series of moments in the days and months and years that followed, or seeing 168 empty chairs—19 of which are smaller to indicate they were children—on the grounds where the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building once stood, what you experience will stay with you. (620 N. Harvey Ave.; oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org)
Dust Bowl Lanes & Lounge
Generally speaking, we’re fans of a good cultural mash-up, and this ’70s-inspired bowling alley (paper scorecards, green plaid carpet) paired with upstairs beer garden Fassler Hall (both of which opened this past winter in the Midtown district) practically makes our hearts sing. (421 NW 10th St.; dustbowlokc.com)
Oklahoma City Museum of Art/ Arts Districts
To be sure, with its Waterford chandelier (one of three in the world) and three-story Chihuly glass sculpture—to say nothing of the exhaustive third-floor exhibit that comprises one of the largest collections of the artist’s glass in the world—the museum is undoubtedly worth a visit. But for those angling after a little more local flavor, the arts districts—specifically, the Historic Paseo Arts District (north of downtown) on first Fridays—are a sight to see. (415 Couch Drive; okcmoa.com)
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
It pretty well goes without saying, but amid the explorations of cowboys, American Indians and the Western expanse (as seen through the lens of everything from comprehensive exhibits to the iconic sculpture The End of the Trail—trust us, you’ve seen it), you’re likely to experience all the West has won. Those interested in a more-intensive sensory experience might consider either the stockyards (best visited on Mondays) or the always-packed Cattleman’s Steakhouse in Stockyards City. (1700 NE 63rd St.; nationalcowboymuseum.org)
The Plant Shoppe
What began with the budding (sorry) interest of owner Jen Semmler has blossomed (sorry) into a verdantly adorned shop with no shortage of desert plants—cactus, aloe, jade, kalanchoe and echeverias—with roots (sorry) from across the country, all found under one roof. (705 W. Sheridan Ave.; plantshoppe.com)
Filled with, ahem, more than a fair amount of handmade kaleidoscopes, bow ties and beard oils, as well as everything you desperately need that you never knew you needed, even a cursory look through Plenty Mercantile’s 4,000-square-foot storefront is enough to confirm that the motto “sustainable style made beautiful” is something of an understatement. (807 N. Broadway Ave.; plentymercantile.com)
Farmers Public Market
In the very strictest sense, it is a farmers’ market because there are, in fact, farmers. But given the word “market” also encompasses 20,000 square feet of antiques, vendors and a bar keen on bloody marys—to say nothing of the 15,000-square-foot hardwood dance floor—needless to say, there’s a lot more to the name. (311 S. Klein Ave.; okcfarmersmarket.com)