For the throngs who’ve impatiently waited for The George Prime Steakhouse to open atop Founders Tower, the wait is over.
The 20-story Googie-style cylindrical building at 5900 Mosteller Drive packs plenty of history, none more prominent than its role in local dining lore.
Queen Anne Cafeteria occupied a space in the building from 1965 to 2006, but it was a restaurant that opened in 1964 tucked between the folded-plate roof and the 19th floor that drew national attention for its space-age ability to rotate like the Space Needle in Seattle.
Fifty years later, that same space is poised to grab national attention, but not for its view or its ability to rotate.
“We want to be known for our food. We want to be a restaurant with great food that happens to have a great view,” said Kevin George, owner and acting general manager of The George Prime Steakhouse, which opened last week.
The space-aged space
When the Chandelle Club opened, it was the second restaurant in the world that rotated. Back in the day, a window-side diner could expect to take in the entire 360-degree view in about an hour.
In 1979, the Val-Gene restaurant group took hold of the space and rebranded the twirling restaurant The Eagle’s Nest. Holloway Restaurant Group owner Peter Holloway was on the Val-Gene team in those days.
“We have a lot of great memories of the Eagle’s Nest,” Holloway said. “I wish those guys the best.”
The good times lasted until 1996, when the restaurant was bought by a new group. Current Opus Prime Steakhouse owner Bill Wilson installed Nikz at the Top with plans to take hold of the world’s dozen or so rotating restaurants one at a time — starting with the one atop Founders Tower.
Wilson enjoyed sustained success until the 10-sided building changed hands for the umpteenth time and renovations began to make the Jetsons-esque structure condominium-friendly. Nikz lasted until 2007, when a dispute over remodeling efforts and faulty air conditioning between its ownership and the new landlords couldn’t be solved.
The space sat vacant until recently.
It was as a 20-something, fresh-faced in the restaurant business, that Kevin George began dining once a year at The Eagle’s Nest.
“We were young and didn’t have any money, so we could only afford to go once a year,” George said.
George said it was during one of those annual spins atop Founders Tower that he dared to dream what he’d do with the space if he ever found himself in a situation to have a say. Little did George know that one of the primary decisions he would make would be to do away with what made the restaurant unique.
“We decided not to rotate the restaurant,” George said. “Initially, we thought about maybe doing it for special occasions, but we just think the cost of maintenance would be prohibitive.”
A choice like that didn’t come lightly, but two decades as a partner in the ultra-successful Interurban group with Robert Rosser and Rusty Loeffler has afforded him the means and experience to make such a tough call. Considering the prolonged renovation that initially looked like it would be done in time to open by Thanksgiving 2013, you can’t blame George for looking to eliminate potential obstacles.
The dining room doesn’t rotate, but there are tables around the perimeter. On the north side you’ll find intimate two-tops with a view of Lake Hefner and a chef’s table that offers a view of the kitchen through a window.
An exclusive section of horseshoe-shaped booths faces downtown. Those booths are built a little lower to the ground to maximize the view and are sure to be a popular spot for the city’s movers and shakers. The wine room is a section of the dining room surrounded by wine walls, sure to appeal to slaves of the vine. The bar offers an open view to the city’s south, plus enough television muscle to make it a prime spot to watch the Thunder, Cowboys, Sooners and whomever from Oklahoma City’s restaurant kitchens next might compete on “Top Chef.”
While naming the restaurant “The George” fit Kevin George’s dream restaurant for obvious reasons, it also suited the restaurant’s chef, Josh Valentine. The ex-wrestler with facial hair worthy of its own Facebook page is fueled by the desire to take care of his wife and three daughters, but also is inspired to make the most of life by the loss of his father, whose name was George.
As Valentine mourned the loss of his dad in 2012, he couldn’t have known fate was at work bringing him together with Kevin George, who was just starting plans for his first solo project away from the Interurban Group.
“There was a question about the availability of the space — it was available, then it was unavailable, then it was available,” George said. “Once I found out the space was available for sure, I moved quickly.”
While George began the long, slow journey to opening his eponymous restaurant, Valentine was a whirlwind of activity, opening his first restaurant and becoming a television celebrity by competing on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” Valentine returned from the competition with confidence and the spiraled signature mustache to prove it.
After graduating from Del City High School, Valentine first went to culinary school in Minnesota before returning to Oklahoma City and joining The Coach House Apprenticeship Program. From there, Valentine circled down to Dallas for spells at Stephen Pyles Restaurant and Stephen Pyles’ Samar before his father’s failing health brought him home in 2011. After a quick stop back at The Coach House, Valentine opened The Divine Swine, but it only lasted about eight months when he got word he’d been accepted onto “Top Chef.”
After finishing third on the show, Valentine worked as pastry chef at FT-33 in Dallas before moving back to Oklahoma City in the spring of 2013. As fate clearly had it planned all along, that’s when George was ready to hire his first chef.
Dining, by George
When he secured the Founders Tower space, Kevin George always planned to open a signature restaurant for the city. But finding a chef with his own national appeal appeared almost too good to be true.
“Josh was the perfect fit for what we wanted to do here,” George said. “All along, I had wanted to open a place where we offered the best of everything.”
Together they arrived at offering only beef rated prime by U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. But when the opportunity arose to offer beef even better than prime, they jumped at the chance.
“Wagyu rates above prime,” Valentine said. “It’s the best we can get, and that’s what we want to feature.”
The menu showcases both prime and Wagyu beef, but the chef who goes by Chef Pork Belly on Twitter wasn’t about to live by beef alone.
“I’m all about sourcing the best ingredients possible,” Valentine said. “We’re using as many local ingredients as we can find, and the highest quality proteins. The way I see it, if I start out with the best ingredients, I’ve won half the battle.”
Josh’s signature candied bacon is present here and there, like on the spot-on interpretation of the classic wedge salad. The beet salad is a beautiful, colorful play on what’s become a popular trend at upscale restaurants. However, instead of delivering the beets in tiny cubes, Valentine and staff serve them whole and dappled in citrus to balance their earthy nature. Carolina gold rice with lobster, pecans and cauliflower is a rich, decadent play on risotto.
The bacon and onion tart was undoubtedly the next great dish Valentine’s Divine Swine would’ve offered if he hadn’t closed to compete on “Top Chef.” And the crabcakes, aided by a perfect sliver of fresh radish, are the first I’ve had that would even be invited to play on the same field with those that’ve made Rococo famous. The foie gras aroused my palate so boldly I’m afraid it could be banned. A rack of lamb with heirloom carrots might just be the thing that regularly lures me back.
But steak is the centerpiece of the menu, and you’ll find those prime cuts ranging from a 7-ounce filet to a 32-ounce Cowboy rib-eye with various sizes in between. Wagyu is offered in a New York strip, rib-eye and hangar steak.
Joining Valentine in the kitchen is veteran chef Chad Willis, most recently of Saturn Grill. Willis spent nearly a decade as kitchen maestro at The Metro Wine Bar and Bistro, where he developed an outstanding reputation for precision and consistency. Both are graduates of The Coach House Apprenticeship Program, but theirs aren’t the only faces regular guests of The Coach House will recognize. Enis Mullaliu was hired to be staff manager at The George.
Shelby Sieg was hired as pastry chef. Her house-made doughnuts, ice cream and caramel might be the most “ooh-and-ahh” provoking sweet I’ve had since Valentine’s legendary candied bacon sticky bun from the Divine Swine. (Brace yourself, that delicacy is NOT on the menu). After sampling my way through several of Sieg’s desserts, it’s clear why Valentine allows her free reign to create.
Mindy Magers is in charge of beverage service, including the cocktail menu. I’ve only sampled three of The George’s signature cocktails, but the early returns are promising.
So what makes the promise of The George so profound? Vast is 40 stories higher, The Coach House has a body of work more than a quarter-century-old and prime beef can be had at The Ranch, Boulevard, Red, Opus, Mahogany, Mickey Mantle’s and the Blue Ribbon Menu at Cattlemen’s.
About three weeks ago, George and manager Vivian Wood started inviting small groups up to the 20th floor for previews and parties. All went so well that The George began taking reservations for June 20 while quietly welcoming walk-up business on June 16.
Shortly after the soft opening, a Florida couple happened into town, delighted to learn they could come in for dinner and sit essentially in the same spot where their engagement began when the space was home to the Chandelle Club more than four decades before.
“We’ve had so many calls from people who want to come in because they’d had first dates here, gotten engaged here or eaten here for prom and other special occasions,” Wood said. “It’s been amazing.”
The personnel alone would make The George a major addition to the local dining scene, the commitment to premium ingredients intensifies its promise, but the built-in history can’t be bought, sourced, foraged, fished or hired. Sentimentality is the only thing in the restaurant sweeter than Sieg’s dessert menu. It’s the secret ingredient that positions The George to become a beacon to the nation’s foodies in a way other restaurants can’t. But it’s success could ultimately be a boon to the local dining industry if it’s able to fortify the market’s reputation as a food destination.
The George is open Monday through Saturday. The bar opens at 5 p.m., the dining room at 5:30 p.m. Walk-ups are welcome but a reservation is probably the best way to ensure seating for the foreseeable future. George said lunch service will be added most likely toward the end of summer. For more information, call 242-4761.