Stroll down the drab and icy downtown street as the gloomy winter sky begins to darken and through an unmarked door. It’s summer inside. It’s the slack hour before the dinner rush, but in the brightly lit bar, with gleaming walls of white shiny tiles, a crowd of eager diners are attacking huge platters of lustrous orange shrimp and giant oysters fresh from tropical waters.
It’s light, it’s noisy and full of energy; happy hour here means more than drink discounts. You might want to stop and savor some rich, sweetly decadent Oysters Rockefeller, but if you walk toward the back, past a big neon-green clock that used to adorn the old Kansas City S&J Oyster Company (which closed in ‘89) and under an enormous brightly-painted wooden fish (“We saw it sitting in some guy’s yard in Oklahoma City and talked him out of it for 1,200 bucks”) to the spacious high-ceilinged dining area, chances are you’ll see co-owner Michael Denson at a corner booth hunched over a stack of account ledgers. This slow hour is the only time the hard-working owner can find to balance the books.
With his long and slightly graying, flowing hair and neatly trimmed goatee, Denson looks stern as a conquistador stepped out from a Velazquez portrait. But get him talking about the old Brookside S&J, which opened 30 years ago in a streamline-style Art Deco building that now houses Leon’s, and his face softens.
“When I worked there, I spent all my time there,” he recalls, “and it felt more like home than my real home. It was fun, lots of wild times, and some of the regulars became my best friends.
“It wasn’t just a job,” Denson reminisces, “but a way of life. And a damn good time.”
Denson worked for restaurateur Howard Smith, the founder of S&J, for most of his life, more than 40 years. You’ll never hear the full story of that fabled establishment. “It would take about three days to tell,” says Denson, “and there are some parts I’m just not telling.” But as Denson tells it, it all came about because Howard just loved New Orleans. He loved the lazy festive ambiance, he loved the little tiled cafes, and most of all, he loved those oysters. He wanted to bring all this to his hometown. S&J proved wildly successful, and soon there were four branches: Brookside, south Tulsa, Kansas City and Fayetteville. Michael worked at all four, but by 2004 all had closed down.
“I’ve been bugging Howard for years to open a new one,” he recalls. When rancher Bill Parkey, son of Howard’s old business partner, got rich in cattle and wanted to start a new S&J, it was natural for them to join forces. “It was a labor of love,” declares Denson.
The black and white tiles and spare wooden fish house-style chairs and tables are new, but they are exact duplicates of what you’d have found in the old Brookside branch. The menu, too, is unchanged (“except for the prices” Denson remarks, though by today’s standards, the new prices are very reasonable). You’ll find all the old favorites: Shrimp Louie Salad with rich creamy dressing; Etouffee with a Cajun roux, sweet and dark as molasses, hand-stirred for 20 minutes, sometimes by Denson himself; fried clams; oysters from Bon Secour, Ala.; jumbo shrimp with golden coconut breading, and perhaps Tulsa’s best-loved bread pudding.
So if you’re in need of the spiritual recharge that a trip to New Orleans can bring, consider S&J instead. It’s a lot closer, you’ll get a true Tulsa welcome, and you’re guaranteed not to meet Lestat de Lioncourt or Ignatius J. Reilly.