Steve Mason is once again defying the odds — and daring to go against the advice of his wife — by plunging into a dilapidated forgotten block of NW 9 just east of Automobile Alley. Even local chef Ryan Parrott admits he was uncertain about Mason's proposed Mexican Iguana Grill when he was shown the proposed location — a neglected 1905 garage at 9 NW 9 surrounded by abandoned derelict homes. "I thought Steve was crazy,” said Parrott, who is now running the Iguana kitchen. "He's definitely got a vision that I think most would never see. He tries to develop off the beaten path.” Parrott was also able to survey Mason's last project — the renovation of century-old buildings along the nearby 1000 block of N Broadway that for years had frustrated a succession of previous owners. The buildings are not only renovated, but with the exception of 1007 N Broadway, which is due a new roof this fall, they are fully leased with a strong retail presence at street level.
Focus on familyMason, who owns Cardinal Engineering and Earl's Rib Palace restaurants, also has another unique approach that Parrott said was key to winning him over from the Deep Fork Group where he oversaw eight restaurants. "Steve has a strong focus on family and he's very dedicated to his employees and making sure that they have time for their families and to be a part of the community,” Parrott said. "He doesn't just want them working all the time.” Mason said what others saw as a detriment — an isolated block just off Broadway overgrown with big trees — he saw as an asset. "It was an ugly block until it was cleaned up,” Mason said. "It was neglected — something people drove past quickly. But it's also quiet, it has trees, and you're just a half block off from the hustle of Broadway. You're downtown, but you don't feel like you're downtown here.” The Iguana isn't new to everybody — Mason previously operated the restaurant along the Western Avenue entertainment corridor several years ago until nearby parking was eliminated by construction of a Panera Bread. The menu at the new restaurant includes specialty salsas and other favorites of the old location. So far, Mason's gamble is paying off with the Iguana meeting its performance targets just two weeks after opening. Not only are lunches busy, but Mason and Parrott are surprised at the restaurant's strong performance at night. "I thought dinner would be more of a challenge — not just to get people downtown, but also onto NW 9,” Parrott said. "But word of mouth has been great and we're getting a lot of great repeat business.” Mason is hoping to continue his gamble with the three adjoining homes that all date back to the 1920s. "Mentally,” Mason says, he has the houses leased to a pastry shop, a sandwich shop, a purse and accessories store and an old-fashioned 3.2-beer joint similar to the Red Rooster along NW 36. After spending $1.2 million turning the garage into the Iguana, tasks ahead with the homes include putting an I-beam under one home and abandoning the bad foundation altogether. "My wife advised last November to tear them down,” Mason said. "But I want to save them. I don't know — she might have been right. But I'm assembling the costs now ... My wife is smiling, saying ‘I told you so.'”
More Development Ahead?Mason isn't the only developer active just east of Automobile Alley. Bert Belanger also has been busy buying up former sex offender housing and an old nursing home at NW 12 and Broadway Drive. "This is just the beginning,” said Downtown Oklahoma City Inc. President Brett Hamm, who is working with Urban Neighbors to create a railroad "quiet zone” for the area. "There is a significant opportunity just east of Broadway that several developers are looking at for housing and retail,” Hamm said. "And just like in the rest of downtown, every developer is looking for hidden places like this to capitalize on our momentum.”
Combining old and newThe new Iguana Mexican Grill consists of two different buildings. The two dining rooms are inside a 1905 garage, where engine hoists, the original wooden sliding door, brick walls and windows have been kept in place. Robert Painter, general manager, said even the added lights were chosen to match what would have been used when the garage was first built. The front half the restaurant consists of an outdoor patio with shade provided by old Sycamore trees, a lobby, kitchen and bar decorated with paintings and light fixtures produced by local artists. Mason credits city planners for working with him on creating diagonal parking lot entrances that allowed for preservation of old Sycamore trees that surround the restaurant. The city also repaved the block of NW 9 and added street lamps.