I love this bar and city!

(This article was originally published on 10/07/09)

Looking for an affordable family vacation within driving distance of Houston? Try Tulsa! The 45th-largest city in the U.S., population just under 400,000, is well worthy of a long weekend trip. Tulsa has so much to offer visitors: history, natural beauty, culture, great restaurants and casinos.

Tulsa is No. 5 on the list of America’s most livable cities and while its charms may be somewhat unknown to Houstonians, to those in the know, it is a lovely juxtaposition of Southwestern influences of Native Americans, pioneers, farmers, oil barons and mostly just plain nice people who have come together to create one of America’s most hospitable cities.

Plain nice is one way folks remember Will Rogers, America’s celebrated humorist, movie star and writer. Famous for saying, “I never met a man I didn’t like,” Rogers’ life and enormous influence is celebrated at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in suburban Claremore. Built in 1938 on the property Will and his wife, Betty, bought for a retirement ranch, visitors will find thousands of artifacts and memorabilia dedicated to this most famous Oklahoman. There is a theater where one of Rogers’ 71 movies is shown each day plus a larger theater where a 45-minute movie on Rogers’ life is offered repeatedly. The museum sits atop a small hill, with a breathtaking view of Oklahoma. Rogers’ beloved portable typewriter, which went down with him in the plane crash that took his life at 55, is on display. The world was so enamored of Rogers that when he died, newspapers around the world dedicated their entire front pages to his life and untimely death. The museum’s bookshop is a gem and be sure to find Dorothy Willman, the nicest and most knowledgeable museum volunteer ever. The museum is free and open 365 days a year. The Will Rogers Birthplace Ranch, about 15 miles away, is a nice complement to the experience and is also free. ()

Tulsa’s newest thrill, and the reason for our recent visit, is the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. Formerly the Cherokee Casino Resort, the Cherokee Nation made a management deal with Hard Rock Cafe International Inc., which then spent $155 million to renovate the resort. You can’t miss it as you drive east from downtown. It is the largest building on the horizon, sprouting up along I-44, offering more than 2,300 slot machines, 70 poker tables, a 19-story hotel, a Hard Rock gift shop and a 2,500-seat theater for concerts and events. The Cherokee Hills Golf Course sits invitingly on the property. There are numerous restaurants and bars at the resort, none more anticipated than the just-opened Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill. The menu, according to the restaurant, includes “the Keith household staple, steak and potatoes, along with chicken fried steak, fried bologna sandwiches, freedom fries and BBQ ribs.” Artifacts worth more than $2 million are on display at this seventh Hard Rock Hotel & Casino including cool stuff from Elvis, The Eagles and Houston’s own Beyonce.

Tulsa has lots for families to enjoy. Don’t miss the Tulsa Zoo, rated as “America’s Favorite” in 2004 and raved about on Web sites everywhere. Affordable and not overwhelming, guests love the mostly cageless experience, not to mention the 2,800 animals.

While Texas may be glowing over its new Cowboys Stadium, the $198-million BOK Center is quite spectacular and the showpiece of the Vision 2025, a major renovation project of downtown Tulsa. Paul McCartney played the BOK right after we were there. Other artists coming this fall include Def Leppard, Taylor Swift, Dave Matthews, Creed and Miley Cyrus. The BOK offers free outdoor concerts before each of these megashows.

The Gilcrease and the Philbrook museums are must-sees. Who knew such amazing collections were at home in Tulsa? The Philbrook is the Italian villa built by an oilman and, according to its Web site, its “greatest strength in its 19-century American painting and sculpture collection is its landscapes and the prevalent theme of the Westward American adventurer.”

The Gilcrease features an impressive range of American Western art, more than 10,000 pieces by more than 400 artists, and is surrounded by the Gardens at Gilcrease with 10 lovely outdoor sculptures.

Enjoy the F-14A Tomcat Fighter Jet, a Aeromet AURA spy plane, jets, sailplanes and ultra lights at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium which also offers interactive exhibits the kids will enjoy. Want to see guns owned by Bonnie and Clyde and more guns, knives and swords than you can possibly imagine? The J.M. Davis Arms and Historical Museum (free!) is home to the world’s largest private collection of firearms, with 50,000 artifacts.

Other sites worth visiting include the stunning Boston Avenue United Methodist Church, with origins dating to 1893. The current property was built debt-free by church members in 1946. The campus of Oral Roberts University, where the worlds’ largest praying hands command attention from passers-by, has a new president, a new board and revitalization from the owners of Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby.

 

The Oklahoma Sugar Art Show and Grand National Wedding Cake Competition takes place in October. This year’s theme is “design and styling inspired by sea and shoreline.” I’m sure all the calories will be removed for judging!

Live music is everywhere, no doubt part of the reason the city is known affectionately as “the Austin of Oklahoma.” There are plenty of favorites, like Joe Momma’s, Cain’s Ballroom and the early 1900’s-circa Brady Theater. Chic suburban neighborhoods offer fantastic shopping such as Utica Square and the Cherry Street District.

Oklahomans love their barbecue and country cooking just like Texans do. When you are visiting the Will Rogers Museum, you must stop at the Hammett House. Owner Bill Biard greets everyone like family. The chicken fried steak is a specialty. Biard pointedly puts his gravy under the steak.

“We’re not ashamed of ours so we don’t cover it up,” he jokes. Hammett House also makes all its breads, salad dressings and 14 different kinds of pies each day. He and his wife, Linda, have been dishing up great cooking for more than 17 years – you will love it.

Over at the casino, we enjoyed the Sky Room, a more than 5,000-square-foot banquet facility enclosed with floor-to-ceiling Chevron glass on the 18th floor. One floor up, McGill’s on 19 is a fine-dining penthouse restaurant (get it? ... on the 19th floor.)

The panoramic view of Tulsa was perfect, as were the walnut, apple and mixed green salad, grilled shrimp and asparagus and a tasty little poached pear dessert. A must.

It’s hard to stand out in cattle country as a steakhouse, but you won’t be disappointed by Mahogany Prime Steakhouse (). In fact, you will be thrilled and delighted. Joseph, our waiter, was attentive and charming. Our starter was a duo of plump, crispy crab cakes served atop a corn and black bean relish. Crab and lobster bisque was creamy, light and perfectly seasoned with tiny lumps of the seafood floating in each spoonful. The steaks are seasoned only with cracked pepper, Kosher salt and drawn butter. The Mahogany sears them under a 1,000-degree broiler. Our bone-in fillet, accompanied by lobster and crab meat, was perfect. We chose wild mushrooms and fresh sauteed spinach for sides, each large enough to serve four or six people. While the Mahogany is an adult, upscale restaurant, we saw a range of attire – from suits to khakis. Our dinner ended with a pink diamond martini and a crispy cookie shell cupping fresh berries. Outstanding!

Perhaps the best thing about Tulsa is that you can get to all of this within minutes, and park. The city is incredibly inviting, with most parking free and admission to most sites either free or a tad above the donation level.

We didn’t even begin to get to all Tulsa’s charms. Why, the historic Route 66 is nearby. Hmmm, perhaps our next trip! For complete information, visit or . 

Cynthia Calvert
Author: Cynthia CalvertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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A trained journalist with a masters degree from Lamar University, a masters from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, as well as extensive coursework toward a masters of science in psychology from the University of New Orleans, Calvert founded the Tribune Newspapers in 2007. Her experiences as an investigative, award winning reporter (She won Journalist of the Year from the Houston Press Club among many other awards for reporting and writing), professor and chair of the journalism department for Lone Star College-Kingwood and vice president of editorial for a large group of community weeklies provides her with a triple dose of bankable skills that cover every aspect of the journalism field. Solid reporting. Careful interviews. Respect and curiosity for people and places.