The Cellar Restaurant
BY DAVE CATHEY
Published: June 9, 2010
Modified: June 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm
Modified: June 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm
When Frank Johnson Hightower took on a project, he not only aimed for the bull’s-eye, he refused to quit until he hit it."Frank Hightower didn’t see any sense in doing things unless it was going to be done perfectly,” said his widow, Dannie Bea.
You gotta have heartThe son of prominent businessman and civic leader Wilbur E. Hightower, young Frank was sent to New Hampshire’s Exeter Academy before heading to Yale. He married Dannie Bea James, whose father was Dan W. James, longtime owner of the Skirvin Hotel. The wedding, in January 1949, was described in The Oklahoman as "the social event of the season.” "Mr. Hightower had impeccable taste. He was born with it,” Dannie Bea said. "Then he worked for the State Department during World War II. He was stationed in Moscow and saw all of Europe. He saw all these old world treasures, and he wanted to share what he’d seen here.” He started with The Hightower retail store on the ground floor of the Hightower Building, which expanded from three stories to eight in the 1920s. "He thought it was silly for people to drive to Dallas to get things,” Dannie Bea said. "He used to always say that if a city doesn’t have a thriving downtown, it doesn’t have a heart.” About the time he opened the retail store, he changed the small restaurant he’d opened in the basement into a tearoom. "Frank Hightower had an obsession with fine food,” Dannie Bea said. "He flew to New York City to take cooking classes.” The teacher of that class was James A. Beard, America’s pre-eminent gourmand and instructor of French cuisine. Hightower brought Beard to Oklahoma City to do cooking classes at the YWCA for a benefit. Clearly, a tearoom would no longer do.
World-class dreamsFrom the late 1950s to the 1960s, as Hightower was developing The Cellar, Warren Ramsey was the city’s most celebrated interior designer. He’d done the work on The Hightower store, creating an ostentatious milieu. Ramsey was the only man Hightower considered to design his world-class restaurant. Beard was brought in to consult on the menu and restaurant operations. They also needed a chef. John Bennett had just returned from a trip to France with Robert Dickson. Both had finished studies at the fledgling Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. While there, Bennett worked the vegetable station at The Mermaid Tavern in Stratford, Conn. Beard owned a stake in the place. When Beard mentioned he was doing cooking classes in Oklahoma City, "I told him nobody there knew how to eat,” Bennett said. Nevertheless, when Beard was helping Hightower find a chef, he arranged for him to meet with Bennett. "Mr. Hightower had exquisite taste and had traveled all over,” Bennett said. "He’d visited all the finest restaurants and was determined to open one downtown.” When The Cellar at Hightower opened in 1963, diners entered via stairs or elevator into a foyer with black-and-white marble floors, which led to an 18th-century wooden table. After check-in, they entered a luxurious dining room lighted by custom-made wall sconces, crystal chandeliers and ornate tabletop candelabras. The red carpet with golden rings matched the custom-upholstered wooden chairs. The linen-covered tables were appointed perfectly with damask napkins, silver and dinnerware stamped with the Hightower family crest. "He brought opulence here when we had none,” Dannie Bea said of her husband. "We even had a fish knife,” Bennett said. "He might’ve been the only person in the city to know what a fish knife was, but he insisted we have them.”
Dinner is servedBennett was chef, then director. He brought in his Culinary Institute of America classmate Dickson as executive chef. The menu featured fresh fish daily and dishes such as Shrimp de Jonghe, Croque Monsieur, Shrimp Remoulade in Avocado, Cannelloni au Gratin, Carbonnade of Beef a la Deutsch, Escargots a la Bourguignonne, Crepe aux Duxelles, Crabmeat Ravigote, Celery Victor and New England Clam Chowder. "The New England Clam Chowder was very popular,” Dannie Bea said. "The office down there still gets calls for the recipe, and I loved the French Onion Soup.” Meals ended with a rolling dessert cart, featuring Mama Bennett’s four-layer cake, Trifle Chantilly, Oeufs a la Neige and legendary Chocolate Mousse. Chicken salad and Reuben sandwiches were favorites of the lunch menu, Bennett said. "Sometimes Mr. Hightower would sit in his corner booth and have lunch with the bishop,” Bennett said. "He sat in a spot where no one could see him, but he saw everyone.” Dannie Bea said her husband rarely ate dinner in the dining room. "His office was on the eighth floor where he could see everything,” she said. "The dishes for that evening were brought up to his office. If the food was off even the slightest bit, he would send it back and have it remade.” The Cellar earned four stars from the Mobil Travel Guide in 1968, making it the state’s only restaurant at the time to reach that plateau. But Hightower’s love of food wasn’t confined to The Cellar. "We had numerous cooking classes, which was unheard of at the time,” Dannie Bea said. "Mr. Hightower had an auditorium built in the building with a kitchen. Louise Liebmann-Berry conducted classes there weekly for many years.” Simone Beck, who co-authored "The Art of French Cooking” with Julia Child, conducted classes, as did Helen Corbett. Beard, who had done demonstrations in the early ’60s, returned in 1967 to conduct cooking exhibitions in the Civic Center Music Hall’s Freede Little Theatre and to be guest-chef in the Cellar. The restaurant held parties for Civic Center events and annual galas such as the Beaux Arts Ball, with which the family has a long-running involvement. Dannie Bea was among the first class of debutantes in Oklahoma City, while Frank’s father and Dannie Bea’s father were each bestowed the honor of king. The restaurant also included a Men’s Grill with leather chairs and wood paneling for movers and shakers to share a cocktail and make a deal. "The consistency of the staff really set the place apart,” Dannie Bea said. "At one point, Mr. Hightower hired the staff from a ship on the Cunard Line. Their French accents really added flair.” Leo Smith, who went on to open the iconic Leo’s Barbecue, was a waiter at the Cellar. Bill Cathcart, a local attorney and well-known gourmand and amateur chef, worked as a sous chef while in law school. "Larry Brannon was a bus boy there,” Dannie Bea said.
Closing timeBy 1984, Frank Hightower’s urban renewal goals were accomplished. Fine dining was represented across the metro area, so he felt comfortable closing The Cellar. The space was briefly used by The Woods restaurant, previously in the Sieber Hotel, but it closed within a year. "People were very upset about it,” Dannie Bea said. "But it was just a lot of work, and Mr. Hightower felt like he’d accomplished what he set out to do.” The Cellar space in the Hightower Building remains unused today, still bearing the sconces, marble entryway and a few other remnants of its rich past. The kitchen’s appliances have been removed, but the enormous stand-up chopping block is there, and the names of those with bottle bins where liquor and wine were once stored for regular customers are still tacked to the corkboard walls. Stacks of silverware bearing the Hightower crest were found on a recent trip along with a first-generation Cuisinart, likely brought by Beck during her demonstration. Hightower Building leasing agent Chuck Ainsworth hopes the Cellar space will again be filled because of the construction of the new Devon Tower, due for completion by 2012. While chef Bennett is certain a restaurant could thrive in the space, he’s equally certain it will never be The Cellar. "There was nothing like it then, and there still isn’t to this day,” he said. "Mr. Hightower probably never made a dime on The Cellar, but he didn’t care. He spared no expense to make it perfect. He loved it, and so did his customers.” Frank Hightower set out to build downtown Oklahoma City to prominence with the arts, but along the way, he created an iconic spot that became the setting for numerous intimate moments in the lives of his friends and neighbors. His other goal was to help his hometown become a destination. "We met Julia Child in Venice once,” Dannie Bea said. "He knelt before her and kissed her hand. Then he said, ‘Miss Child, you’ve brought so much joy to my life.’ She thanked him and said, ‘That’s very kind, Frank. Thank you. ... I’ve heard about your wonderful restaurant in Oklahoma City.’”