This Quirky Midwest City Claims to Be the Center of the Universe (2024)

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After you see all the art, food, and culture here, you’ll think so too.

By

Matt Kirouac

This Quirky Midwest City Claims to Be the Center of the Universe (1)

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Any state willing to woo potential movers with $10,000 checks is bound to be a little quirky. And the fact that such an audacious remote worker incentive program—something that sounds like a Bravo-worthy reality show—actually turned out to be a smashing success says a lot about the town of Tulsa’s underrated charms. The zig to Oklahoma’s zag, Tulsa has long been a more eccentric, artsy, and offbeat urban bubble in the state’s northeast region, known as Green Country. Sandwiched between the Ozark Mountains and the Osage Hills, with the Arkansas River cascading through it, the city is as unexpectedly lush as the name suggests, but the surprises here go well beyond the greenery.

As singular a city as they come, Tulsa is the kind of place that differentiates itself at every turn. Like an amalgam of different cities and cultures smooshed together, it’s a city where you can find a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame, a Lord of the Rings-looking cave house, a museum inspired wholly by a Tom Cruise-starring film, enough Art Deco architecture to rival South Beach, and a skyscraper designed as a near-exact replica of New York City’s World Trade Center—albeit precisely half the size. Oh, and Tulsa is apparently the center of the universe, no biggie.

Unlike its bigger Oklahoma sister city, which feels decidedly modern and metropolitan in comparison, Tulsa is more like the Portland of the Great Plains—endearingly weird and unconventional, unafraid to color outside the lines and take risks. Those aforementioned $10,000 checks to transplants (known as the Tulsa Remote program) proved a smashing success, contributing $62 million to the local economy since its inception in 2018 and retaining more than 90% of new Okies. There must be something about Tulsa. Perhaps it’s the city’s abundant greenery and rolling hills, its myriad James Beard-worthy restaurants, or its easy cost of living. Or perhaps it’s just hard to say no to a city that proudly wears its quirks on its sleeves. Here are all the wonderfully oddball activities to get into.

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Pay homage to cinematic lore

At first glance, Oklahoma’s second largest city may not seem like the kind of place to have a starry-eyed Walk of Fame, or a booming movie business, or a museum dedicated to a Francis Ford Coppola film. But this former “Oil Capital of the World” has evolved into quite the movie buff.

Circle Cinema is an indie arthouse theater and art gallery that’s been screening flicks since 1928, making it the oldest movie house in town. Now a non-profit theater (the only one of its kind in Tulsa) that also features guest speakers, educational events, panel discussions, and community conscious programming, it’s the kind of place where you can feel good about seeing Top Gun: Maverick for the fifth time.

Then there’s the Circle Cinema’s Walk of Fame, a Hollywood-esque ode to actors, musicians, and filmmakers who have connections to Oklahoma in one vague way or another. Located on the sidewalk outside the hallowed cinema, honorees run the gamut from the expected (Kristin Chenoweth, Reba McEntire) to the… less expected (Gary Busey, Ron Howard). Bet you didn’t know Brad Pitt was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma!

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One of the most famous films ever made in Tulsa, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders was such a big deal that the 1983 movie now has its own museum. A kind of Oklahoman Lord of the Flies, the film tells the story of a gang called the Greasers who clash with the Socials to the point where someone is killed and the teens go AWOL.

The dramatic movie, from one of Hollywood’s most lauded directors, has gone on to accrue quite the cult following—so much so that a museum opened in 2017 in the house that served as a primary filming location. Nowadays, The Outsiders House Museum lets diehard Coppola stans go behind-the-scenes in an intimate setting filled with memorabilia and rare photographs. Between this and Twister The Movie Museum in Wakita, Oklahoma really has a thing for preserving its cinematic lore.

In that case, we can’t wait to see what Tulsa does with Killers of the Flower Moon, the Martin Scorcese blockbuster adaptation of the nonfiction novel from David Grann about murders of Osage people in the 1920s. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brendan Fraser, Robert De Niro, and Jesse Plemons, the movie was filmed entirely in and around Pawhuska, near Tulsa. With a budget of $200 million, it’s one of the biggest movies made in America in recent memory, and looks to be one of the splashiest blockbusters of 2022.

Coupled with the hit FX series Reservoir Dogs and the Sylvester Stallone-led Tulsa King, the mega-movie is cementing Oklahoma’s role—and Tulsa’s in particular—as a new epicenter for film.

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Marvel at architecture all its own

Tulsa is low-key one of the most epic cities for Art Deco architecture, with 63 listed buildings—from houses and hotels to theaters and towers—spanning the metro. But beyond that staggering fact, this is also a place for other forms of, shall we say, unique construction.

Case in point: the Cave House. Nestled alongside a tree-lined hill, looking like something Hagrid would haphazardly build while drunk off butterbeer, this architectural oddity originally served as a restaurant and speakeasy in the 1920s (side note: this sounds very cool, please bring this back). Now the building acts as a by-appointment mini-museum offering tours of its funky confines, absurdly steep stairs, and narrow hallways seemingly designed for hobbits. It’s also reportedly haunted by a ghost who steals keys, so keep an eye on your pockets.

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On the opposite end of the spectrum is the BOK Tower, a 667-foot, 52-story skyscraper that bears a striking resemblance to New York City’s World Trade Center. That’s because it was designed by the same architect, Minoru Yamasaki & Associates, and stands exactly half the height of the Twin Towers, steel columns and all.

Originally known as the One Williams Center, the skyscraper was the vision of John Williams, CEO of Williams Companies, who wanted a decadent tower for his brand and sought to replicate the splendor of the World Trade Center on a slightly more modest scale. Completed in 1976, it was the tallest tower in Oklahoma until Oklahoma City’s Devon Tower usurped it in 2011. From its exterior facade to its interior use of marble walls and bi-level lobby, the parallels between the two towers are striking. Eerily enough, Williams and co. happened to visit the World Trade Center on September 10, 2001.

Then there’s the ironically named Abundant Life Building, a giant windowless concrete cube, bedecked with diamond-shaped marble and gold, that looks more like a gigantic gilded anvil than an office space. Long since abandoned and left devoid of “life,” the seven-story building just south of downtown initially debuted as a boundary-pushing architectural achievement in 1958, used as headquarters for the Oral Roberts Ministries televangelists (that tracks). It got its name, Abundant Life, from founder Oral Roberts’ biblical obsessions, eschewing windows for innovative fluorescents, vibrant paint, and a television studio. Who needs natural light when you’ve got brainwashing to do! Since Oral Roberts moved out of the building in the ‘60s, Abundant Life has sat empty ever since—a bejeweled concrete box in the heart of Tulsa.

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Indulge in edible wonders

Nowadays, Tulsa has emerged as an up-and-coming foodie wonderland. Though its earned accolades from the James Beard Foundation and dazzling dinners at lesbian-owned tasting menu restaurants, modern bakeries, and breweries that look more Austin than Oklahoma, the city still has plenty of culinary quirks.

Steakhouses are nothing new in this chicken-fried part of the country, but how about a Lebanese-owned, supper-club-style steakhouse? One where you can order a rib-eye with a side of tabouli, za’atar-spiced barbecue sauce, and bologna, with baklava for dessert. Jamil’s Steakhouse was the homegrown vision of Jim “Jamil” Elias, who opened the restaurant in 1945, during a time when Lebanese immigrants were still widespread in Oklahoma and the Tulsa region was teeming with Lebanese expats working in oil fields. By the 1950s, many of them moved into city industries, resulting in numerous Lebanese steakhouses, of which Jamil’s is the last remaining. Though the restaurant has since changed locations, it remains preserved in time and charm, and any steakhouse good enough for Zsa Zsa Gabor is definitely worth visiting.

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While more contemporary, one of Tulsa’s buzziest new-school steakhouses is no less inventive. Nestled in the alleyways of the eclectic Arts District, Bull in the Alley takes a speakeasy-style approach to steak. Instead of the typically sprawling and flashy steakhouse template, you’ll see no signage and no social media presence, just a minimalist website as secretive as a Beyoncé music drop. Despite being shrouded in mystery, it’s one of the most coveted reservations in town, which you can only make by phone. To find the clandestine restaurant, just look for the moss-green door with a copper bull ornament hanging overhead. Inside, it’s like falling down a swanky rabbit hole to a bygone era of decadent, dimly lit decor, superlative steaks, and high-end shellfish towers. In a steak-loving state like Oklahoma, Bull in the Alley is in a whimsical category all its own.

Trading steak for grog, Tulsa is also surprisingly home to one of the coolest, real-deal tiki bars in the country. Saturn Room has the masterful mixology and immersive kitsch of the best of them, minus the heinous wait times and crowds of, say, a Three Dots and a Dash. Capped by an enormous thatched roof, the tropical bar looks like a misplaced slice of Hawaii in the Arts District, decorated with pufferfish lamps, carved totems, and—leaning into the space-y name—a mural of a mermaid in an astronaut suit. Open since 2015, in the midst of the nationwide tiki boom, the drinks here are as legit as the decor. Look for well-balanced Mai Tais and Caipirinhas alongside seasonal novelties like Planet Chaos, made with bourbon, lime, lemon, blueberry syrup, mango, coconut water, Falernum, and Jamaican bitters. Or go for the Abeja, a salted mezcal medley with Irish whiskey, honey, grapefruit, lime, and ginger.

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Immerse yourself in music and museums

Along with its architecture, food, and film, music is in the DNA of Tulsa’s culture. It’s a city rich with rock & roll lore, and home to both a Woody Guthrie museum and the new Bob Dylan Center. Heck, Rolling Stone even thinks Tulsa’s got the musical mettle to become the next Austin.

That toe-tapping credit can be traced back to historic roots like Cain’s Ballroom, a mecca for live music that transformed a garage into a dance academy in 1930. American Western singer Bob Wills put the venue on the map in the ‘30s, and while the ballroom fell into disarray for a few decades, it emerged anew in the ‘70s with performers like Elvin Bishop and the Sex Pistols. The bassist for the latter, Sid Vicious, infamously punched a hole in the green room wall, a moment in time that has since been framed and preserved.

While musicians may or may not still be punching holes in walls here, Cain’s Ballroom is a storied setting for live music. The 1,200-capacity venue is one of the top concert halls in the world for ticket sales, attracting big-name acts like Spoon, Fleet Foxes, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Jack White.

This Quirky Midwest City Claims to Be the Center of the Universe (10)

For a deeper, more intimate dive into Tulsa’s musical pastimes, swing by The Church Studio, a historic stone church-turned-recording studio for Leon Russell and Shelter Records. The building itself dates back to 1915, serving as a series of different churches until Russell purchased it in 1972 and turned it into a workshop for musicians, songwriters, and singers, including the likes of Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett, and Tom Petty.

Today, the stone-clad relic is a kind of museum, open to the public for historic tours that showcase the origins of the Tulsa Sound. This singular musical genre—credited to the likes of Leon Russell—fuses elements of rockabilly, blues, country, rock & roll, and swamp rock.

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Find the heart of the Mother Road and the center of the universe

For a modest-sized city as humble as Tulsa, it certainly takes a lot of gumption to lay claim as the center of the universe. With the Route 66 “Mother Road” running directly through it and a mysteriously acoustic concrete circle downtown, these are sure signs that Tulsa is a lot more integral to the cosmos than one might believe.

For starters, there’s Buck Atom’s Cosmic Curios, a wonderland of odd sundries and larger-than-life figurines in an old gas station on Route 66. Looking more like an over-the-top art gallery in Marfa, the cheeky pitstop is an elaborate homage to Route 66 and the all-American road trip.

Buck’s features an extensive gift shop stocked with jewelry, clothes, and souvenirs that run the gamut from Bigfoot to the Blue Whale of Catoosa (IYKYK). Reigning over it all is Buck Atom himself, a 21-foot-tall Muffler Man/space cowboy, a kind of Oklahoman Buzz Lightyear whose image shows up on knickknacks throughout the museum-like store. If you’re looking to linger, the shop has an on-site Airbnb, Buck’s Cosmic Crash Pad, behind the shop.

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As if being the heart and soul of the Mother Road wasn’t enough, how about the fact that Tulsa is purportedly the center of the existence as we know it? On a nondescript walkway downtown, marked by a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it concrete circle, you might inadvertently trod on the epicenter of the universe.

So what makes this random concrete pattern special? It’s the fact that, if you stand in the middle of the circle and speak, your echo will reverberate back at a much higher pitch, while anyone outside the circle supposedly wouldn’t hear a thing—it’s like being in your own private recording studio in a defunct church, you might say. Whatever the unexplained reason for this weird acoustic vortex, and whether or not Tulsa is indeed the center of the universe, it’s clear that this is one city not lacking in quirks waiting to be heard, seen, tasted, and discovered.

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Matt Kirouacis a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG@matt_kirouac.

This Quirky Midwest City Claims to Be the Center of the Universe (2024)
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