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The Cellar Restaurant

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. To achieve perfection, Hightower needed vision and the means to see it through. He had both.
BY DAVE CATHEY Modified: June 9, 2010 at 2:15 pm •  Published: June 9, 2010
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.

To achieve perfection, Hightower needed vision and the means to see it through. He had both.

Frank Hightower was born in 1922 and died Oct. 10, 2000. He spent his life raising a family, maintaining and expanding the family fortune and trying to make the sleepy prairie town where he was born more cosmopolitan via fashion, arts, entertainment and fine dining.

The instrument he used to introduce the windswept plains to gourmet foods was The Cellar Restaurant at Hightower, 105 N Hudson.

That mission was accomplished between 1963 and 1984, leaving a legacy of fine dining along N Western and various spots between Edmond and Norman. But the profundity of his accomplishment was made clear when a Cellar retrospective hosted by Paseo Grill and original chef John Bennett in January drew nearly 250 people.

"Frank Hightower would’ve been overjoyed at the response,” his widow said.

You gotta have heart
The 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 dreams
From 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 served
Bennett 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.

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