Samara a Celebrity Name in Tulsa
By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
LEGENDARY RESTAURATEURS: Mike Samara, left, with his son Nick Samara recently at the Celebrity Restaurant in Tulsa, formerly known as the Celebrity Club. Mike Samara founded the iconic establishment 50 years ago, and it continues to be a popular destination among area diners.
GTR Newspapers photos
An evening at Tulsa’s Celebrity Club is a gentle and refined reminder of a bygone era, an era of mink stoles and maitre d’s, handshake oil deals and champagne dinners by candlelight.
A conversation with Nick Samara, only son of Celebrity Club owner Mike Samara, is a wistful and easygoing return to Tulsa’s dining and entertainment past, of afternoon hamburgers and late-night cocktails.
The Samara surname has been synonymous with first-class eateries and top-shelf service for more than a half-century.
Nick is carrying on the family legacy established by an uncle and enriched by his father.
Older brother Jake introduced a young Mike to the restaurant business in Oklahoma City. Jake set the early standard for Oklahoma City restaurants with the Shangri-La, Jamboree Supper Club and Sussy’s Pizzeria, reportedly the first pizza restaurant in the state, in 1948.
“Jake was a class act,” Nick was saying the other day. “He was my dad’s idol and mentor. His inspiration.”
Mike struck out on his own in 1957, moving to Joplin, Mo., to join the group that opened and operated Mickey Mantle’s Holiday Inn.
Within a couple of years, Mike moved to Tulsa and established a Sussy’s Pizzeria on 11th Street, near the University of Tulsa, and the Stadium Liquor Store next door.
It was the beginning of a loving and lasting relationship between Mike Samara and the people of Tulsa.
In a career of landmark decisions that has defined the dining habits of the city of Tulsa, Samara’s most distinguished and enduring move unfolded in 1963 when he went out to the eastern edge of Tulsa, all the way to 31st Street and Yale Avenue, to take over a non-descript, hole-in-the-wall bar.
He set about immediately to refurbish the facility and added a menu that would appeal to an upper-crust clientele looking for a one-of-a-kind evening experience.
His Celebrity Club was an immediate success. Although not a private club, it did have a certain mystique about it. Without bright and inviting lights, the façade suggested “private.” With “Club” in the name, the place would seem to lean toward “private.”
Liquor was served through a process that involved “bring your own bottle.” Membership cards, required by law but free of charge, were mandatory.
A fire of unknown origin, but legend hints at arson perpetrated by competitors, destroyed the restaurant/club in 1965. Undeterred, Samara rebuilt quickly, missing only a few months.
He came back stronger than ever. The décor was elegant. The furnishings were luxurious. The food was excellent.
That was the interior. Inviting. Friendly. Cozy.
The exterior was another story. It was stark. No windows. A small sign introduced the “Celebrity Club.” Parking was directed to the rear.
This was a book, indeed, not to be judged by its cover.
The stand-alone building was seen as intimidating by passers-by. At the time, private clubs in Tulsa were plentiful. And not exactly beckoning.
Nick was 10 years old when his father opened the doors to the Celebrity Club.
Today, Mike is 90, Nick is 61, and the Celebrity Club, aka Celebrity Restaurant, is a mature and handsome 51.
Red velvet chairs and starched white tablecloths complement crystal chandeliers and etched-glass mirrors. The atmosphere is warm. Indulgent. Tasteful.
Dapper and suave, Mike Samara greets diners in a role that is part maitre d’, part concierge, part confidant, and all charm.
Bob Hope has dined here. Governors and mayors, musicians and athletes, too.
They came for the food. They came for the service. They came for the atmosphere. They came for Mike Samara.
And Nick Samara grew up here. Busing tables. Mixing the house trademark Caesar salad. Welcoming guests.
Just as Mike idolized his brother Jake, Nick’s life has been enhanced through the knowledge gleaned at his father’s knee.
The common thread that binds father and son is a multi-stranded one. It is comprised of unequalled people skills, dedication to food and service, and unmatched atmosphere.
The Samara touch has not been limited to the Celebrity Club. It has surfaced in an assortment of ventures, all from the hands and minds of Mike and Nick Samara.
There was Big Mike’s Hamburger Palace, an ahead-of-its-time emporium that made its debut in 1965 with the opening of Southland, the outdoor shopping center at 41st Street and Yale Avenue now known as Promenade.
Two more followed, one at 36th Street and Sheridan Road, and at 17th Street and Boston Avenue. All the while, Mike Samara operated a Big Mike’s on the Midway of the Tulsa State Fair.
Nick was growing into the family business, even while attending (and graduating in 1971) Memorial High School. Long before he was old enough to drive a car, Nick was setting tables at the Celebrity Club, busing tables at Big Mike’s.
He went off to Oklahoma State University to major in hotel and restaurant management and returned on weekends to do his homework under his father’s tutelage.
Armed with formal and practical education, plus years of hands-on experience, Nick launched his first venture, Le Café, a creperie at 3612 S. Sheridan Road.
Near the same time, Mike teamed up as a partner in opening and operating the Hilton Hotel and Copa club on Yale Avenue at Interstate 44.
A couple of years into that, in 1976, at the urging of another friend, Mike opened Utica 21, an upscale restaurant modeled after New York’s legendary 21 Club, atop the Utica Bank building at 21st Street and Utica Avenue.
While Mike attended to business there, Nick was doubling as maitre d’ at the Celebrity Club and waiting for his next move.
That came in 1978 when he and partners opened Pepper’s restaurant, 61st Street and Sheridan Road. One year later, Nick and close friends Billy and Sol Bayouth set up Hamburger Haven at 71st Street and Lewis Avenue.
When Hamburger Haven closed in 1983, Nick returned to the Celebrity Club and was there a year later when his father obtained the first license issued by the state of Oklahoma to sell liquor by the drink. He stood at the bar as Mike Samara poured that initial drink, essentially washing away the image, albeit false, of a private club.
Once again, Nick felt the urge and answered another business opportunity. With a partnership group, he opened The Brick, a music and entertainment venue in the trendy neighborhood of 18th Street and Boston Avenue, in the early 1990s.
Within five years, the siren call of Caesar salad and fried chicken reached the ears of Nick Samara. He returned again in the late ‘90s to his full-time position alongside Mike near the front door of the Celebrity Club.
The timing also was beneficial for another family member, Mike’s daughter Paula Osko, to join the operation. She has overseen the workings of the office for about a dozen years.
Some nine years ago, Nick hit upon a small-town concept and opened Nick’s Grill in Pryor. It had possibilities for growth and expansion, but the timing for Nick and his family was not the best.
With all his interests, with all his ventures, Nick never strayed far from his second home at the Celebrity Club. He always maintained a presence. His passion for the restaurant never wavered. His father was his touchstone.
“My dad always has been a big proponent of two things in the restaurant business: food and service,” Nick said. “He has always done that, and in this incredible atmosphere. It’s become kind of iconic.
“I’ve had this wonderful model. An awesome mentor. I respect him immensely. He’s a pioneer. A visionary. He’s old-school. The last bastion of style,” he said.
“He always told me one thing: First class.
“I’m happy we’ve made it to 50, and we’re still relevant.”
The Celebrity Club has been relevant since its first customer graced the entry way, back in the days of cigar smoke and black-and-white television.
Mike Samara might not see as clearly as he did back then, might not hear as well as he did then, his voice might have lost some of its volume, but his sartorial appearance has not faltered.
Suit. Tie. Polished shoes. Exquisitely groomed. Straight from the cover of GQ. With people skills to match.
He is a reminder of, the last link to Camelot.
Mike Samara is the one true celebrity in the Celebrity Club.