Travel

This So-Called Flyover City Is Having a Serious Cultural and Culinary Renaissance

Visit OKC
Flyover country, no more! Oklahoma City is where you need to be | Visit OKC
Flyover country, no more! Oklahoma City is where you need to be | Visit OKC

Since the 2016 election, much attention has been paid to the cluster of states in the middle of the US known condescendingly known as flyover country; it seems the more glamorous coastal sisters of the country forgot that so many people still lived in the middle. For years -- nay, decades -- a large portion of America’s identity has been clumped together in the unconsidered manner of the kitchen junk drawer: no rhyme or reason, no real pattern, just jumbled all together because it’s too much work to sort everything out. 

As a proud Minnesotan, I call BS. I’ve lived in this middle my whole life, and there’s a lot more to it than small-minded rural politics and country roads. My husband and I have a goal of visiting every state at least once. The best way to accomplish this on a limited budget and even more limited vacation time has been to take short weekend trips to wherever the price is right. That is exactly how I had the unexpected pleasure of falling in love with Oklahoma City last March. Between sips of hoppy beers on sunny 60-degree rooftops to sinfully flavorful eats to eye opening museums, we realized we were dead center in a city that's completely defying your typical Oklahoma stereotype: A place overflowing with art and culture and at the bleeding edge of a full-blown culinary renaissance. 

Not part of the Midwest, often excluded from the Southwest region, and too far West to be part of the Southern belt, Oklahoma as a whole has been easy to overlook for too long. It's the middle, defined. To the unknowing, it conjures dusty tumbleweeds, Pioneer Woman devotees, and Rodgers & Hammerstein pastiche. In reality, it's a place where a robust, thriving population of Vietnamese immigrants has brought a welcomely delicious, affordable treasure trove of Southeast Asia to this slice of middle America. Where cowboy-classic steakhouses live in harmony with upscale innovators. Where art and film history converge on the shores of a river alive with boats and water taxis. From cutting edge dining to great beer and a cultural renaissance that embraces forgotten histories, here’s why you should give Oklahoma’s quickly re-developing capital a fair shake. 

 Bricktown
Take the Bricktown Water Taxi along the Bricktown Canal | Bricktown

Oklahoma City's neighborhoods embrace the past while adapting for the present

From the infamously decayed facades studding Detroit to the quieter (but statistically higher) population desertion of former urban giants like St. Louis, much has been made of the decline of American industrial cities. But don’t assume the narrative of population atrophy and business communities slowly wasting away applies universally to all such cities. Oklahoma City is actively fighting back by shining a light on its unique history while redeveloping for the modern world. 

Take Automobile Alley, the oldest thoroughfare and one of the first to revitalize in Oklahoma City. This neighborhood began as a stretch of pioneer businesses but quickly transitioned into a bustling automotive industry hub shortly after Oklahoma became a state in 1908, even building automotive inspired designs into the brickwork on storefronts which are preserved today. The area is now a vital center of commerce with retail, art, exercise studios, restaurants, and a developmental blueprint that has been copied in other historic districts. 

Paseo Arts District
Who needs Rodeo Drive when we have the Paseo Arts District? | Paseo Arts District

This highly localized approach applies to the rest of Oklahoma City’s districts as well. Film Row, one of the hottest residential areas, was once the hub for offices of major Hollywood film studios like Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros, and MGM; the Oklahoma Theater Supply Company, headquartered here, was instrumental in converting theaters from showing silent to sound films. Today, Film Row is the place to stay to soak in old Hollywood history outside of California. And on the modern side of the arts spectrum, The Paseo Arts District began as a mid-20th century shopping center that has since transitioned into a vibrant creative hub, where a quick stroll brings you a bevy of art galleries, night clubs, self-styled “avant garde” businesses, and distinctive pastel “Spanish Village” style architecture. 

Formerly the hub for freight, industry, and the city’s first black-owned newspaper, Bricktown is now the culinary center of the city, the district with the most museums, and even a seasonal, faux urban beach with sports areas and a boardwalk in the summer months, plus a chance to catch a view of the Bricktown Canal Bricktown Water Taxi's fleet. 

Deep Deuce is historically the center of Black culture in Oklahoma City, with a legacy of hosting jazz musicians that is a veritable who’s who of the genre. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and many other luminaries performed in and loved this neighborhood decades ago, and modern-day Black residents are fighting to preserve this proud history as it continues to revitalize

Tucker's Onion Burgers
Feed your burger craving at Tucker's Onion Burgers | Quit Nguyen/Thrillist

OKC's fast becoming a culinary juggernaut

OKC is home to some true classics that shouldn't be missed, among them legendary steakhouse Cattlemen's and the many diners that specialize in Oklahoma's iconic onion burgers (for a full rundown of our national burger critic's best burgers, check out his rundown). So no, you shouldn't be skipping a signature chicken-fried steak. But it's where the past and present collide that Oklahoma City's status as a rising culinary juggernaut becomes clear. 

Here, restaurants are as unique as the districts that house them. Take Packard’s, named after the famous car company and housed in a beautifully remodeled Packard’s showroom in Automobile Alley. The stunning rooftop patio offers lovely views of downtown to go with the local-centric New American fare -- we recommend coming around late morning for a luxurious brunch of crab beignets, pimiento grits, and a cold brew old fashioned starring the locally brewed eôté cold brew coffee. Speaking of which, Oklahomans are particular about their coffee in addition to eôté, seek out fups from Vintage Coffee, Clarity Coffee, Classen Coffee Company, and Coffee Jerks

Jones Assembly is a popular modern restaurant on Film Row that also features traditional Oklahoma dishes: our picks include the tomahawk pork chop, okarche salad topped with spicy fried chicken and fried okra, and a dagwell dixie (featuring roasted pecan-infused george dickel rye, laird’s applejack, simple syrup and bitters) to wash it all down. For a taste of "Oklahoma caviar" --   a salsa-like mix of black eyed peas, black beans, corn and tomatoes and onions -- dip into the The Press in the Plaza District. And for a superb old-school steakhouse experience outside the go-to Cattlemen's, hit up Red Prime, where you can order your cuts with customized crusts like wild mushroom for your steak and order up unexpectedly luxurious sides like maple truffle gastrique, coffee toasted almonds, and chili marmalade. Since you’re in prime carnivore country, no visit is complete without a stop for some OKC barbeque like George’s Happy Hog Bar-B-Q, the best hole in the wall pig-out spot for ribs, smoked wings, and greens. 

Asian District Cultural Association of Oklahoma City
Hang out at the Asian District for delicious noodles and soup | Asian District Cultural Association of Oklahoma City

If meat-centric Oklahoman isn't your jam, don't fret. Midtown's Café do Brazil is a woman-owned taste of São Paolo with a caipirinha bossa nova lounge on the roof. It serves plenty of options for specialty diets and is a great place for seafood and fresh dishes in addition to the famous Brazilian meats; we recommend splitting one of the dinners for two so you can sample a full range of what they have to offer. In the Paseo Arts District, Holey Rollers is a vintage style cafe serving drool-worthy vegan donuts in flavors like Mexican hot chocolate and spiced chai. The real star of modern Oklahoma City dining, however, is Nonesuch. This 20-seat, tasting-menu only location was named Bon Appetit’s best new restaurant of 2018 for a reason. With a constantly changing menu often constructed of foraged ingredients, this is where you’ll find things available nowhere else. A recent tasting menu included items like squash blossoms stuffed with sorrel and toma cheese; bison tartare; beef liver pithivier; sweet potato bread with cultured butter and pickled flowers; and a smoked corn popsicle. Be warned: a 10-course dinner starts at $110 and it can be tough to get a reservation, but it’s totally worth it if unique dining experiences are important to you.

Another key component to OKC's culinary ascent is the robust Vietnamese food scene, the high quality of which has gained national renown. Visit the Asian District, aptly named Little Saigon after the influx of Vietnamese immigrants who settled after the fall of Saigon in 1975, for some of the country's best noodles and more. For pho, you’ll be hard pressed to choose between a number of hole-in-the-wall spots, among them Pho Lien Hoa, Pho Lan Asian Bistro, and Pho Ca Dao. Banh mi is excellent at places like Magasin Table (eschew the standard pork pate for the garlic fried tofu or pork belly with quail eggs... you’re welcome) or Rivière Modern Banh Mi, which moves beyond delightfully creative twists on the sandwich into banh mi tacos, Saigon ceasar salads, and Vietnamese street corn. For persnickety eaters, VII Asian Bistro has an endless list of Vietnamese and Chinese options that should exhaust even the pickiest palates. 

Fassler Hall OKC
Did you really go to OKC if you didn't get a beer at Fassler Hall? | Fassler Hall OKC

The booze and bar scene is also top shelf

Oklahoma City’s singular approach to entertainment and neighborhoods is even more pronounced when it comes to bars and breweries. Take The Sanctuary Barsilica. This church-themed bar in Film Row takes irreverence to the highest level, serving communion shots and choir-robe karaoke with a straight face. Neighboring Flashback Retropub is a 1980s-themed bar with 60 vintage video games for drinkers to play. Water’s Edge Winery not only makes their own wine on-site but helps guests to create their own vintage with a custom label to fly home with them. Sidecar Bar is the stop for cocktail lovers; while the original is located in Automobile Alley, you can enjoy their wares in three other neighborhoods around the city. The enormous list of liquors means there is truly something for everyone, but pay special attention to the custom-casked section, starring a cask-strength Maker’s Mark barrel that Sidecar finished for nine additional weeks with specially fitted wood-finishing staves.

Beer, too, is having a moment. If you’re a traditionalist, stop by Fassler Hall. This German-style brewpub has a curated but excellent menu of sausages, duck-fat fries and German sandwiches, as well as a strong line of German and Belgian-style beers available by the liter and half liter. Sit on the fresh air patio on a crisp fall day and you may as well be in Munich. An OKC outpost of Tulsa fave (and Oklahoma's very best brewery) Prairie Artisan Ales is an essential stop for craft brew lovers, with 30 custom beers on tap ranging from seasonal Christmas ales to the Pirate Paradise, a 13% ABV American Imperial Stout aged in rum barrels that tastes of toasted coconut marshmallow and cacao. And while you’re at it, swing by Stonecloud Brewing for a sampling of solid beers from a brewmaster trained in Colorado. And if you want to sample Oklahoma's best beers without bar hopping, lauded beer bar Tapwerks is a two-story den of beer worship that includes 200 taps from the Sooner State and beyond. 

Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum
Honor the victims and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing | Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum

Don't sleep on Oklahoma City's legit wealth of museums

A well kept secret about visiting Oklahoma City is that it hosts a truly excellent set of museums. Start with the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum, a stunning exploration of the Oklahoma City Bombing, the second-largest terrorist attack on American soil. In addition to a lovely memorial and overview of the bombing itself, the museum provides a riveting dive into the chase to find Timothy McVeigh. Few people remember that the case was one of the first uses of DNA and forensic tracking by local police departments, and the interactive exhibit provides visitors an opportunity to get hands-on with the evidence; think of it like a #truecrime, real-life CSI episode that you won’t soon forget. 

A lighter attraction (at least for the more macabre among us) is the Museum of Osteology, AKA the first-of-its-kind skeleton museum. Visitors can experience everything from the skeletons of ordinary house mice to humpback whales to creatures that haven’t yet been identified, all while learning about new technologies for analysis, like 3D imaging. If you’d rather dive into some history, there’s no better place to indulge your inner John Wayne than the National Cowboy and Western History Museum. Collecting westeren history since 1955,, the museum has exhibits on cowboys from North Africa through the “New World;” cowboy artistic artifacts like saddles and spurs; and cinematic exhibits like the current focus on the film True Grit. Consider staying in or visiting the 21c Museum Hotel, a two-for-one art museum and hotel that also appropriately hosts film screenings in Film Row. Visitors can enjoy a 14,000 square foot contemporary art gallery, rooftop eats and cocktails, on-site activities like yoga, and ogle the beautifully renovated, historic Ford Motor Company assembly plant the hotel is housed in all at once, a true bang for your buck. 

These attractions, like the restaurants and bars, speak to a wide-ranging cultural identity, one that meets at the convergence of the American east, west, and south; modern and historic; indigenous and immigrant; industrial and artistic; highbrow and low. And if you're willing to dismiss OKC's unique and immersive culture as simply "flyover country," well, you're truly missing out.

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Becki Iverson is a contributor for Thrillist.