When Bruce Rinehart opened Rococo Restaurant and Fine Wine in the space long occupied by Tony's Italian Specialties about 10 years ago, he truly was a fish out of water.
A decade later, he's just signed another 10-year lease for his original space, which he calls North Penn Island, and upgraded the kitchen, changed out the heat and air, repainted, redid the vestibule and added a beautiful fish tank between dining rooms.
On an afternoon between lunch and dinner services, Rinehart invited me into the newly expanded and refurbished kitchen at the original Rococo location while he made lobster bisque from a recipe he's used 30 years. The lobster in his pot came in just days before for a weekend clambake, the first he's hosted in Oklahoma City.
No matter where Bruce is in Rococo, he is the focal point. In the kitchen, employees ask and stand awaiting his instructions, delivered in the kind of deep, rich baritone that makes you want to dispel everything you've ever heard about karaoke bars and invite him to Cookie's Cocktails on Friday or Saturday night.
But it's not song I sought on my most recent trip. I came in search of collected wisdom, and Bruce, who spent his youth living like Jack Kerouac, has a rucksack full.
In the 10 years since Rinehart opened the first Rococo, he's met and married his wife, Amber, who subsequently bore him two sons: Will, 7, and Brak, 4. He's also opened a second, larger Rococo concept in Northpark Mall and even toyed with the idea of a third location before deciding his money would be better spent fortifying the foundation rather than building another addition.
Rinehart's restaurants are a reflection of his culinary journey and his wife's good taste, whom Rinehart credits for the easy-breezy artful ambience at both locales. Bruce was born on the East Coast but spent much of his youth cooking on the West Coast. The chef/restaurateur carries himself with confidence and panache, and so do his restaurants, clad in red tablecloths, black iron with flourishes of brick and rock. There is a whimsy and decadence at Rococo that makes it feel OK to loosen your tie or discard it altogether. Just like Bruce would.
This sanctum of style doesn't scrimp on substance. Rococo is still king of local crab cakes. The rest of the menu represents Rinehart's wide-ranging experiences, from a great Hawaiian Poki to New England clam chowder with plenty of steaks, chops and pasta dishes in between.
Part of what Rinehart did as part of his exercise in introspection was to streamline the menu, which was one of the broadest in the city. Rinehart said if you see a favorite that's no longer listed, that doesn't mean the kitchen can't recreate it.
“All you gotta do is ask,” he said.
When asked what he's learned in the past decade, that big Bruce smile rewound on his face. Whether he's stretching out a pregnant pause before dropping some wisdom or firing a heartfelt “Gooooood morning, everyone!” via social media, Rinehart delivers it with a touch of showbiz. He recognized the kinship between the hospitality business and show business, and that is performance and consistency. So, it's impossible to separate Bruce Rinehart from chef/owner Bruce Rinehart. That's why his restaurants come off as comfortable in their own skin as their owner does.
I've learned to ... CALM. DOWN. I've grown so much as a person it's unbelievable.”