More Memories of The Cellar Restaurant at Hightower
The Cellar Restaurant at Hightower closed five years before I moved to Oklahoma City, but thanks to the memories the historic restaurant left in the hearts of its devoted patrons, I’ve been blessed to view the city’s first fine dining establishment through their eyes.
Magical is the word that keeps popping up when I speak to those that remember the place, even those who spent enough time around it to get sick of it.
Dannie Bea Hightower, widow of restaurant owner Frank Johnson Hightower, told me that she could see things as they were in her mind as if it was yesterday.
“I remember when the Arts Festival was outside the Civic Center and we set up a Parisian-style sidewalk cafe along the perimeter. My father, who owned the Skirvin Hotel, even came over and helped us work.”
She told me the cooking classes and events they hosted were every bit as important to the community as the dining.
“Edith Gaylord never missed a class,” she told.
Johnson Hightower told me the thing he remembered most about his father’s relationship with food had more to do with dinner than dining out.
“I grew up thinking dinnertime was at eight o’clock or later. Dad closed up about 5:30, and he’d come after that and unwind with a cocktail for at least an hour.”
Then, Johnson said, he would prepare dinner pretty much every night. With help of a cook to do all of the prep work, Frank Hightower would make the sauced and the final preparations.
“By the time he was done, it was pretty late,” Johnson said as we spoke in his father’s old office, not far from a James A. Beard doll that looks like the progenitor to the Cabbage Patch Doll.
When chef John Bennett talks about The Cellar, he beams with pride. He still refers to his ex-boss as “Mr. Hightower” when he speaks of him. And anyone who knows John knows that to get him to say anything nice about an old boss is a Herculean feat. So the reverential tone he uses to discuss Frank Johnson Hightower is substantial proof that the man was truly one of a kind.
Has the city seen a more devoted patron of the arts than this man who served on the Mummers Theatre board, the Oklahoma City Symphony board while introducing the city to Baccarat in his retail store and Escargot in his restaurant?
If you’ve got a memory of The Cellar Restaurant or Frank Hightower you’d like to share, leave a comment below.
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