Memories of The Cellar at Hightower
Haute cuisine below the downtown ground
Photos courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society
Fifty years is a pretty long time in the life of a city, especially if that city is only around 126 years old to begin with. Consider Oklahoma City in the 1960s: The clothes were different, the cars were different, the politics were different … and dining out was about to reach new heights by going underground.
In 1964, Chef John Bennett took a small tearoom in the basement of the Hightower Building at 105 N Hudson and turned it into one of Oklahoma City’s premier dining establishments. The Cellar at Hightower introduced Oklahomans to fine dining unlike anything they had seen before.
“We set the standard,” Bennett recently told 405 Magazine. “There was nothing like it in Oklahoma City then. It was elegant, it was pricey and it was a totally new experience.”
Diners entered via stairs or an elevator into a foyer with black and white marble floors. Down the hall was the main dining room.
“Mr. Hightower wanted everything to be opulent,” Bennett says. “He owned The Store at Hightower, which was next door to the restaurant, and it carried Waterford china and Baccarat crystal. Downstairs in The Cellar, the red carpeting had gold wreaths, the tablecloths were snowy white and the damask napkins complemented the china and silver, which was stamped with the Hightower family crest.”
The menu was equally elegant. Cellar specialties included New England clam chowder, Filet of Beef Lucius Beebe and Chicken sauté with Scotch whiskey, morels and cream. The dessert cart featured Mama Bennett’s four-layer coconut cake, luscious chocolate mousse and Cellar three-layer chocolate cake with fudge filling and White Mountain icing.
Notable patrons included everyone from Boston Pops maestro Arthur Fiedler to legendary Broadway star Carol Channing.
The Cellar closed in 1984, but Bennett says it remains today just as it was when they turned out the lights.
“It is really like a time capsule,” he says. “The fine paintings that hung on the walls are still in storage there; the stock pot remains, and on a recent trip back, I opened a cabinet and found about 150 fish knives,” he laughed. “Those were good days.”