Downtown Restaurateur Expands His Empire

After months of boarded windows and suspicious construction noise at the corner of Second Street and Detroit Avenue, the latest restaurant concept from the mind behind James E. McNellie’s Public House, El Guapo’s Cantina and Dilly Deli has emerged and been serving downtowners since late last month.
Yokozuna, named after the sumo wrestler who has achieved the sport’s highest rank and occupying the space formerly home to Tsunami Sushi, is Elliot Nelson’s fourth restaurant in five years and a two-block radius.
“This concept rounded our our neighborhood strategy,” said Jim O’Connor, McNellie’s director of operations. “This way, if someone is headed to the Blue Dome District, there’s options for dinner. No one has to know what they want to eat before they head downtown.”
Each concept represents a different slice of the stomach share in downtown dining — pub food at McNellie’s, Mexican food at El Guapo’s, breakfast and deli fare at Dilly Deli and now, at Yokozuna, Asian-inspired cuisine.
Emerging favorites at Yokozuna are the Chicken Chili Ramen ($10), Homemade Gyoza Dumplings ($6), Yokozuna Steamed Buns ($6), Meiji Mignon ($28) and Pad Thai ($9), a surprisingly Tulsan dish.
“The manager of McNellie’s has a stepmother who is Thai, and we had some great Pad Thai at her house one night,” O’Connor said. “So, we put it on the menu. People really love it.
“People feel like they have real ownership and that they’re bonded to these restaurants,” he said. “So much of our dining scene is homogenized. They want something unique to the town and can’t get anywhere else, and people embrace that. People want to know their money isn’t going to some corporate headquarters a thousand miles away.”
As McNellie’s is to beer and El Guapo’s is to tequila, Yokozuna is to sake. Available at the bar is a sake menu that starts with a house sake served hot or chilled ($7.50 for a large) and goes through 12 other varieties, priced $7 to $25 per bottle. Bar patrons can also buy their choice of two sake flights, each of which comes to the table as three two-ounce tasters. The cocktails menu is nearly a dozen strong, featuring selections like Rising Sun (the Asian version of the Bloody Mary, $7), Silk Kimono (Hendrick’s gin with fresh cucumber puree, $8.50) and Yoko Saketini (chilled vodka and house sake, served chilled and straight up, $7.50).
Thanks to Chris Girouard of Girouard Vines and Eric Marshall of Marshall Brewing Company, the new restaurant is the only place in Tulsa where oenophiles can get Tulsa-blended wine on tap.
“We’re one of the first restaurants in the country to do this (serve wine on tap),” O’Connor said. “We read about it in The New York Times, and we decided Tulsa needed to have that.”
The wine, though made from Napa Valley grapes, is blended in Tulsa. Marshall helped Girouard figure out how to serve it on tap.
John and Sherri Duvall of Duvall Architects served as architects for the project. The plan for the space was a clean look that caters to both the lunch crowd looking for a fast-casual meal and couples eating dinner before a show at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center or BOK Center.
A highlight of the space is the 1,600-pound bar top made of bubinga, a Brazilian hard wood. The restaurant, boasting a decidedly high-end, contemporary look, measures about 6,000 SF with seating for 250.
Matt Leland, general manager at Yokozuna, and Chef Tony Fialo, along with several other employees, spent time at various other Nelson establishments before they were tapped for the project at Second Street and Detroit Avenue.
“We have some talented people, and we want to keep those good people here with us,” O’Connor said. “At a certain point, we know there can be only one GM and a few managers. That’s when we know it’s time for another restaurant, because there aren’t enough management positions for our great people.”
The upscale nightlife that will feed venues like Yokozuna is growing in downtown, O’Connor said.
“We think The Mayo Hotel is a great addition to the offerings here, and the Marriott hotel going into the Atlas Life Building will be good, too,” he said. “Sometimes we’re asked if we’re afraid of more restaurants downtown opening, but really, the more the better. That’s just more people being drawn to downtown who haven’t experienced it yet. The energy and momentum is beneficial to all of us. The BOK Center has been really good for our business, especially on weeknights when business would traditionally be slower. It’s nice on a Tuesday night when some random concert brings 18,000 hungry people downtown.”
Just because a new Nelson concept opens its doors doesn’t mean the planners are lounging in a back office with their feet up. The gang is hard at work on more than a few other projects, including a McNellie’s in Norman, which should open in about four months.
The third iteration of the Tulsa bar that famously offers dozens upon dozens of beers on tap (the second is in downtown Oklahoma City) is being built into a 1920s building on Main Street in the town that’s home to Oklahoma football.
After that, the Nelson crew is planning to bring a bowling alley to the Blue Dome District — an eight-lane location of Lucky Strike Lanes & Lounge with a Tulsa feel — a concept planned to appeal to the after-work crowd while simultaneously catering to moms planning Saturday morning birthday parties.
“We’re trying to find that middle ground,” O’Connor said.
Hours at Yokozuna are Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., for lunch service and Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight. Yokozuna is closed Sunday, except when an event at the BOK Center brings hungry droves downtown.
Sonic Founder Dies
Troy N. Smith Sr., founder of Top Hat, which later became Sonic, America’s Drive-In, died late last month. He was 87.
Smith is survived by his wife of almost 70 years, Dollie; Leslie Baugh, his daughter; his son, Troy “Butch” Smith Jr.; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren. The memorial service was Oct. 30 at the First Christian Church in Edmond.
Smith grew up in the oil patch in east-central Oklahoma. After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, he returned to his home state.
Between 1948 and 1953, Smith tried his hand at operating various restaurant concepts in Shawnee. His first was a small diner, The Cottage Cafe. A year later, he sold the Cottage Cafe and opened a larger restaurant, Troy’s Grill. A Troy’s customer asked Smith to co-own with him a root beer stand and convert an old log home into an upscale steak house, both on the same property. In 1953, Smith and his partner opened the Top Hat root beer stand and the Log House Restaurant.
In 1955, Smith ended the partnership to focus on Top Hat, pioneering angled and covered parking and an intercom speaker system to turn Top Hat into a drive-in diner.
The Top Hat motto, “Service with the speed of sound,” gave way to the new name for the restaurant concept, Sonic, in 1958. The first drive-in bearing the new moniker opened in Stillwater.
Today, nearly 3,600 Sonic locations operate in 42 states, including Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Arkansas.



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