Ruth Young ran Tulsa’s legendary lunch spot Queenie’s for almost forty years, but if you ask her if she recalls any interesting anecdotes about her fabled career there, she’ll say, “Well, nothing that exciting … except for the time a naked man fell through the ceiling.” But, in fact, she has quite a story to tell.
“I grew up under the shadow of the Golden Driller,” she begins. Her mother, active at 95, still lives there. In those days, Young recalls, “you could get sweet-and-sour pork at Pagoda and steak at a Lebanese steakhouse, and that’s what food was.”
But her mother had a huge garden and was a whiz on the Hasty-Bake.
“I learned to make sandwiches from her, and that’s what made me famous,” she says.
Young’s horizons were broadened on a trip to Berkeley, Calif., in 1972. From then on, she went to California every year to try restaurants, and she read cookbooks from front to back, eager to learn.
“One year, I met Julia Child and I just started crying,” she says.
Back in Tulsa, she “fell into a restaurant career” when the owner of the then Stonehorse Center offered her a room with a kitchen the size of a closet.
“One day I’d make egg salad, the next day I’d make chicken salad,” she says. “It was basic and homey and people started lining up every day.”
A few years later, she took an offer of a little spot on Utica Square – the place that would be Queenie’s for the next 35 years.
“It opened crowded right off the bat, and the rest is history,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about the business – about inventory, about taxes – and I learned everything the hard way. I know more about drains and plumbing and electric than any human being should be forced to learn. Everything was hard, except for cooking … that was easy.”
In early 2019, the lease was up for renewal and Young realized that a lot of the infrastructure needed major renovations. Like kismet, a bigger space a few doors north opened up.
“But I didn’t have the energy for that, and I didn’t want to risk all my savings,” she says. “I just wanted to retire. And then out of the blue, Brian Hughes phoned me. ‘Do you want to sell Queenie’s?’ he asked, and I said yes. He’d worked in Queenie’s for years long ago, he was so enthusiastic, and suddenly, I realized he was the right man for the job.”
It’s late now. Young has talked for hours and it’s long past dark outside.
“Oh … and I never told you the story of the naked man,” she says.
Long story short: He was a convict, and the police had brought him to a nearby hospital for treatment. He’d escaped, his gown fell off, and he’d hidden in a storeroom just above Queenie’s bakery, which is in a building north of the restaurant. He fell through the ceiling.
“The bakers all ran out as the police rushed in,” says Young with a laugh, and then she’s gone.
After she leaves, a short walk in the moonlight takes you to a bright, modern building in Utica Square, long since closed for the night. It has the same big bakery counter as the old space, the same homey feel. It’s the new Queenie’s, waiting to make legends of its own.
Go there earlier in the day, say around lunchtime, and you’ll see happy diners relaxing on the spacious sunny patio (and maybe soon indoors, too). Watch for the man who’s happiest of all, and it will probably be the new owner, Brian Hughes, back after 30 years.
“I’m thrilled to be working around customers,” he says. “Some of them I served when they were children, and here they are, back at Queenie’s with children of their own.”
Hughes makes it clear he isn’t making any drastic changes when it comes to the food.
“That menu has been what people wanted for 35 years, that’s what we’re known for, and we have zero interest in changing it now,” he says. “If you were here ten years ago for breakfast, you can still get the same things you ordered then. That Q-hop breakfast – pancakes, eggs and sausage all on one plate – it’s simple, it’s nothing revolutionary but it is, and always will be, one of my favorites.”
But, he says, “this new space – this big, grand, glorious space – makes us want to do things better. So we’ve added a few new things. There’s an espresso machine. We’ll get a barista and serve coffee locally roasted by Cirque. We have a liquor license, so we’ll have some beers, some wine, definitely brunch mimosas.”
Proudly hanging on one wall is a bright, sunshine-laden painting from the old Queenie’s that depicts several workers in the kitchen. In the middle is a woman in an apron carving a pineapple.
“My mother painted that in 1990,” says Hughes. “It’s the crew I worked with then, and many of them are still here. The one in the middle is Maria. She’s the prep cook, still working and still radiant.”