In Boomtown, Sam Anderson’s brilliant, New York Times best seller about Oklahoma City, the author refers to this former “flyover” non-destination as “one of the great weirdo cities of the world.” As honorifics go, it isn’t the best, but start moving through the districts in the urban core, and you get a sense of what Anderson saw.Beginning in the mid-1990s, locals reinvested in themselves and their city, and what emerged from that series of urban renewal projects wasn’t just the NBA’s Thunder, it was a network of historic districts brim full of locally owned bars, restaurants, and music venues. Because the state has been so deeply religious throughout its history, good bars are nearly always attached to good restaurants (as if a bar inside an eatery didn’t really count as a bar).
Urban renewal spurred the growth of craft beer and serious cocktail culture in the late ’00s, and the Great Recession of 2008 dropped thousands of cases of high-quality wine in the state that suddenly couldn’t sell anywhere else. The state’s core industry—energy—had helped to delay the recession in Oklahoma City, and wineries quickly learned an eager customer base was prepared to buy up what had been denied them for a long time.Today, each district is home to unique mixtures of food and drink. But while each district is walkable in itself, getting from one to another requires transportation, because this weirdo city is also massive in terms of square miles.
A small stretch of Western Avenue inside OKC’s old-money community, Nichols Hills, was the city’s first real district. The Metro Wine Bar and Bistro has been the benchmark for wine and dining for more than 30 years. Have a flight from the exceptional by-the-glass list; it changes five times per year, with minor tweaks throughout to keep it fresh. If you want to kick things off with a snack, definitely choose the lamb pot stickers with house-made tamarind ketchup.
Directly across the street is The Hutch on Avondale, an upscale-casual restaurant with one of the best whiskey selections in the state. Co-owner and local cocktail legend Kyle Fleischfresser always keeps at least one private barrel bourbon selection on the list, so you’ll want a pour before heading to the Plaza District.
Once hipster central, the Plaza District has evolved into an even larger hipster district. Wide sidewalks and small plazas make it the most walkable of the districts, though, and the hodgepodge of consignment clothing shops, art studios, bars, and affordable restaurants attract waves of college students and young urbanites.
Pop into Oak & Ore for a sample of the local beer scene. Boasting the state’s only long-pour lager program, it’s a mecca for local beer nerds, and owner Micah Andrews only works with independent breweries. For a refreshing, mild IPA, try Everything Rhymes with Orange from Roughtail Brewing, or the Lively IPA from Lively Beerworks. Owner-master brewer Patrick Lively has been behind some of the state’s best beers over the past decade.
New State Burgers is the first burger joint in the Plaza District, but it’s also an excellent bar. Operating partner Jay Iaquinta was the first in recent memory to put a clarified milk punch on the cocktail list, and when he switched the base to buttermilk, the tang came through, a perfect complement to the Applejack and citrus. The Bourbon selection is small but excellent, and the featured cocktails are smart and creative.Want to see where the locals really eat? Just a block west you’ll find Empire Slice House, an 84 Hospitality concept that brought real pizza by the slice to OKC. Pair an OK Pils from Anthem Brewing with a slice of Brussell Westbrook—the local favorite both for pizza and point guards—a white pie with bacon, caramelized onions and pepper relish (three ingredients that help define Okie cooking).
Paseo Arts District
The Paseo is the heart of Oklahoma City’s local art scene, and in the past five years, it’s become a central hub for restaurant development among the city’s young-gun restaurateurs. The rule here is, “No businesses owned by out-of-town interests—none.” The 50 or so working artists have their galleries and studios in beautiful, early 20th century stucco buildings on a winding street that’s now home to Gun Izakaya, another 84 Hospitality concept.Executive Chef Jeff Chanchaleune oversees a menu of yakitori and yakimono, and the bar program, which is heavy on quality sake, also has the state’s only Japanese highball machine. The process combines filtered soda water with Toki, a blended Japanese whisky, to create a soda for grownups. Seasonal fruit juice can also be added.
Walk a block east and you’ll find Scratch Kitchen & Cocktails, which, as the name implies, features food from scratch and creative craft cocktails. While it’s not really a bar snack, the chimichurri fries with pork cheek makes a salty, fatty, protein-laden snack to help you soldier on in the crawl. The cocktails change seasonally, so it’s impossible to predict what will be on the list, but the classics and favorites section always includes the Whiskey Smash, made with Old Grandad Bonded, maple-brown syrup, lemon, and mint. The patio is expansive and designed to be shaded by the building most of the day.
Home to the historic Tower Theatre, this is rapidly becoming OKC’s bar district. Start at Pizzeria Gusto, a Neapolitan pizza joint with an excellent cocktail and wine program and the best “secret garden” patio in the city. A privacy fence, plenty of greenery, strung lights, and a flagstone surface make this patio the perfect place for a bottle of Barbolini Lambrusco, an Endless Skyway Bitter from Black Mesa Brewing, or a classic cocktail.
Right next door is the city’s most eclectic bar crowd at The Pump, a repurposed gas station with boozy cocktails, local beers, a huge patio, and a local favorite beanbag toss game, cornhole. Around the corner just a half block away is the Bunker Club, an ironic homage to the nuclear and Soviet propaganda art of the second half of the 20th-century. Some of the city’s best bartenders work at Bunker, so don’t be afraid to ask them to make you something off the menu.Midtown
A mile south is Midtown, an entertainment district with several of OKC’s favorite bars and restaurants, including Barkeep Supply. When owner Julia McLish decided to open a bar supply store, she included a small, four-seat bar in the back. That bar is now the hottest hotspot for bar takeovers and hospitality industry events. Most nights you’ll find up-and-coming bartenders, bar managers, and wine and spirits reps hanging out, buying bar tools, bitters or syrups, and sampling McLish’s remarkably creative cocktails. Her menu changes seasonally, but she can always go back to previous drinks, like her personal favorite Always the Sun, a zippy mix of Beefeater gin, an absinthe rinse, fresh lemon curd, lemon juice and banana liqueur.
R&J Supper Club is hands-down the city’s best day-drinking bar. Once the big metal door closes, the throwback to 1970s supper clubs is all dim lights, crushed velvet, black leather, kitschy art, and classic cocktails. With nearly 100 cocktails on the list, picking the right one can be a chore, so ask the bartender if you don’t have a favorite. Or try the cocktail of the week.
Film RowOn the way to Film Row, stop into Stonecloud Brewing Company’s taproom for a sample of its amazing sour program. Stonecloud is helmed by former Avery brewer Joel Irby, and his sours are balanced, fruity, and very quaffable. If sours aren’t your thing, the Turtlehead Stout is a local favorite, as is the Neon Sunshine Belgian Wit.
Stitch is a “crunchy” café in the West Village development in Film Row. Sommelier Megan Harris oversees one of the trendiest, quirkiest wine lists in Oklahoma, so if you’re a fan of good natural wine—not the flawed, stinky stuff—you’ll want to check out a few of her offerings.