Step into Empire Slice House, 1734 NW 16 St., and you half expect to be part of the live studio audience for “Wayne’s World,” circa 1995. No, not the big shiny, big-screen adaption of the “Saturday Night Live” sketch, the actual fictional basement occupied by two teens in love with whatever was spilling from their speakers and the musicians responsible.
But neither Wayne nor Garth will be there to offer you a slice of gourmet pizza and an ice-cold beer because, well, they’re fictional. And Empire Slice House is not only for real, it’s about the hottest restaurant in town.
Empire landed in the Plaza District last fall, and response has been downright devoted.
Following in the footsteps of The Mule and Saints before it, Empire Slice House is a pizzeria with the heart of a neighborhood watering hole operated by seasoned professionals unafraid to flex their pop culture muscles. Now the cool kids and urban sophisticates disguised in ironic T-shirts have expanded weekend options.
But Empire isn’t just for those on the bright side of existential crisis. Whether 24 or 54, who wouldn’t enjoy a slice topped with chicken, jalapenos, onions and sriracha named after a stuttering, Southern cartoon rooster? The Rocksteady carries bacon, red onion, capicola, gorgonzola and balsamic reduction as cargo for delivery open to all demographics. The daily slice menu contains more than a dozen choices with equally intriguing toppings both classic and unexpected with monickers like Notorious P.I.G., Doug E. Fresh, Captain Planet, Teflon Don and Fungus Among Us.
I’ve tried at least half the slices since Empire opened last fall, and still haven’t found one that doesn’t rock like the pop stars plastered across the walls. When you’re not seeing pepperoni stars from the hammer blows of flavor at Empire, you’ll no doubt be scanning the walls for your favorite pop band, vintage television star, movie star or video game. Fitfully inclusionist, the walls allow unlikely neighbors like the Chainsaw Kittens, Black Keys, Farrah Fawcett, “The X-Files,” The Allman Brothers, Chuck Norris, Jane’s Addiction, Boz Scaggs and Alf. Behind the bar, mixed in with the bottles of spirits, you’ll find a Capt. Kirk doll nose-to-nose with The Joker or a Power Rangers helmet.
The creative force behind the menu and the KB Toys-Suncoast Video-Guestroom Records mash-up motif is chef Avery Cannon, previously of Pachinko Parlor. His partner and general manager is Rachel Cope, previously of Cafe Nova, The Blue Note and VZDs. The dynamic duo offer wonder twin powers uniquely balanced to form this monument to pizza, pints and pop culture.
When they began spit-balling ideas for a new concept more than a year ago, pizza wasn’t the first concept they had in mind and the Plaza District wasn’t the only area they considered.
“We looked all over the place at properties,” Cope said. “Broadway—anywhere from (NW) Sixth to (NW) 23rd to (NW) 36th Street.”
But it was NW 16 Street, the main artery of the Plaza District, where they landed.
“I love late-night dining,” Cope said. “Oklahoma City doesn’t really have a whole lot of that.”
“We had a lot of ideas in the beginning, but they were kind of abstract and never really came together,” Cannon said.
“We really thought we could fit that late-night niche,” Cope said.
That niche is one part pizza-and-beer and one part attitude. There is no pizza shortage in Oklahoma City, nor is their a shortage of tasty, independently owned gourmet pizza like Hideaway, Papa Angelo’s, Humble Pie, Pizza 23, The Wedge, Upper Crust, Joey’s Pizzeria and Jo’s Famous Pizza. Each of those places has its strengths, but none of them are open until 2 a.m. daily nor do they offer the largest selection of canned beers in the city. And none of them have a life-sized cut-out of Ernest Borgnine in full “McHale’s Navy” regalia on the men’s room door or a like cut-out of Bea Arthur in her “Maude” garb to direct ladies to the privy.
Cannon did the majority of the decorating, Cope said, but much of what you see on the walls, behind the bar or populating a nook or cranny was donated by diners.
“People just started bringing stuff in,” Cope said.
Those donations helped fortify the atmosphere Cope and Cannon sought.
“We wanted the place to look like it’s been here, and it’s gonna continue to be here,” Cope said.
Mission accomplished, but all the concert posters on Amazon.com wouldn’t help if the pizza wasn’t any good. So, Cannon and Cope went about sourcing the highest-quality ingredients they could and spent months perfecting a crust with plenty of crunch without losing its identity as pastry.
Because they wanted to emphasize pizza by the slice, Cannon and Cope decided on a one-size-fits-all pie.
“So, we arrived on ‘Pizza as big as your face,’” Cope said.
While that phrase is memorable, it’s not terribly accurate unless your face happens to be etched on the face of a mountain or on a stone memorial. Whole pizzas are cooked in 20-inch pans, which could conceivably feed eight people.
To show they were intent on avoiding stagnation, Empire hosted its first special beer dinner on Tuesday, and Cope said they intend to offer at least one every quarter. Brunch is also in the planning stages.
For now, Empire Slice House is open daily until 2 a.m.
It opens at 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday and at 4 p.m. on Sunday. There is seating inside and out.