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District Champs

Plan a day trip or a full weekend spent visiting local arts, entertainment, dining and nightlife options with the help of this guide to Tulsa’s downtown districts.

Article
Michele Chiappetta and Rob Harmon
Photos
Courtesy
Posted
July 28, 2018

Are you a fan of day-tripping? Love the idea of staycations where you make the most of where you live? Ready to get out of your everyday routine and explore all that Tulsa has to offer, far beyond your usual neighborhood haunts? We applaud you! These days, Tulsa has some awesome, amazing places to discover — and yes, that includes the many downtown districts with their own unique flavor and offerings.

Believe it or not, Tulsa’s downtown area isn’t your mama’s downtown. Efforts to revitalize the area have gone a long way toward fostering entrepreneurial growth and making the most of Green Country’s rich art and music scene. The number of pop-up food trucks, outdoor entertainment, bars, restaurants, art galleries, museums and more make spending time downtown worth hours of exploration.

All the new offerings are blended with historic art deco locations and buildings that retain their original flavor and are on the National Register of Historic Places, giving visitors a look at Tulsa’s oil-rich past as well as its entrepreneurial future.

To help you channel your inner explorer and forge into new territories without requiring you to cash in a ton of vacation time and fork over plane fare, we’ve put together a list of downtown districts worthy of investigating and playing in. Plan a day trip or a full weekend visiting downtown’s many exciting, eclectic, fun local arts, entertainment, dining and nightlife options with the help of this guide to Tulsa’s unique districts.

The Boxyard stays open late for First Friday Art Crawls, as well as during events such as the Blue Dome Festival and Tulsa Tough. (Photo: Marc Rains)
The Boxyard stays open late for First Friday Art Crawls, as well as during events such as the Blue Dome Festival and Tulsa Tough. (Photo: Marc Rains)

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Tulsa Arts District
One of the best known districts in downtown Tulsa, the Tulsa Arts District is anchored by popular and historic entertainment spots. Cain’s Ballroom was built in 1924 and once served as a garage, as well as a dance academy before being refurbished into a venue for artists from the Sex Pistols in 1978 to Umphrey’s McGee and Chase Rice this month.

The Brady Theater has an even longer history. Originally built in 1914, the Brady has hosted many concerts and theatrical productions over the decades. It’s rumored to be haunted by the ghost of operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, who performed there a year before his death. Catch a show there, and then grab a meal or a drink right around the corner at the many restaurants and bars in the area.

Choices for food are wide-ranging in the Arts District — Tex-Mex at Mexicali, comfort food at Caz’s Chowhouse, Caribbean-inspired meals at Sisserou’s, brick oven pizza at Sette, Medi-Eastern at Laffa, premium steaks at PRHYME, and other options. The drinking holes are equally intriguing — Chimera offers both coffee and cocktails; the Hunt Club features live local music and a full bar; Caz’s Pub is a laid-back neighborhood bar; and there are plenty of local brews at Prairie Brew Pub.

Do you have fond memories of buying penny candy as a kid? Do you love a good, fresh milkshake? Do you wonder where to take visitors when they want a locally themed souvenir, or maybe need to find a cute, kitschy gift for a friend? Then you’ll want to visit one of Tulsa’s favorite places to get nostalgic, locally themed gifts and more — the Ida Red General Store.

If you’re looking for outdoor events or fun-to-do-on-the-weekends happenings, the Tulsa Arts District holds its popular First Friday Art Crawl. If you’ve ever attended First Friday Art Crawl, then you’ve experienced the energy that lights up this part of downtown. People of all ages and walks of life stroll from gallery to gallery, curious about what new art they will discover in each unique venue. Performers grace street corners and pop up in unexpected places, adding to the ambiance of the evening. Restaurants and coffee shops brim with laughter and conversations while bars and clubs swell with excitement and live entertainment.

Guthrie Green features concerts, movies on the lawn, fitness classes and more all summer long and even into the colder months. Across from the Green, you can enjoy perusing contemporary art at the Philbrook Museum’s downtown location or get inspired to grab a guitar and fight fascists after visiting the Woody Guthrie Center. More than just a museum and gathering place for Woody Guthrie’s archives, the Woody Guthrie Center is focused on both giving back to the community and helping others carry forward Woody’s legacy of social activism.

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Cathedral District
In its early stages of development, the Cathedral District has great potential. It’s anchored by its historic churches. In fact, the area provides a great walking tour of art deco architecture. The Boston Avenue Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, First United Methodist Church, First Church of Christ, Scientist, and Public Service Company of Oklahoma are all within walking distance of each other and are an architecture lover’s delight with their historic facades.

Students young and old can enjoy the offerings at the Tulsa Community College Metro Campus, as well as the adjacent McKeon Center for Creativity, which provides art classes for both degree students and community members who simply want to add some artistic pursuits to their life.

For food and drink, the places you need to add to your list are Foolish Things Coffee and The Vault. At Foolish Things, customers get a wide, bright space in which to work and enjoy terrific craft coffee made-to-order. The Vault is housed in the building that was once Tulsa’s first drive-thru banking institution; enjoy the retro decor as you eat classic American dishes and sip craft cocktails on their happening outdoor deck space. Also housed in a historic building (a theme in downtown Tulsa), 624 Kitchen & Catering offers an elegant, artful event space for parties of 25 to 200 people, as well as a deliciously upscale Sunday brunch once a month.

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Pearl District
Around Sixth Street, you’ll find a budding, upcoming spot that has been undergoing serious revitalization in recent years. The Pearl District combines new bars, restaurants, locally owned businesses, residential homes, and enough green space to encourage both livability and walkability — the trend of the future.

At the heart of the Pearl District is Centennial Park, an attractively designed, walkable area where visitors can exercise, picnic, or enjoy one of the many events held there, such as the Big Om at Home Yoga Festival and Pearl Fest, both happening in September. Mosey across the street for yoga anytime at Be Love Yoga, a drink at hip art bar Lot No. 6, artisan coffee at Cirque, or fabulously down-home chili at Ike’s.

If you’re a music lover, be sure to browse the selections at Josey Records — 2,500 square feet of new and used vinyl, CDs, turntables, music accessories and cassette tapes. Then catch some live local music every night of the week (except Mondays) at Soul City Gastropub and Music House. Fridays and Saturdays feature a rotation of acts, while weekdays feature regular acts that you can count on to bring the fun.

Soul City has also become a sanctuary for music fans looking for someplace special to relax and enjoy music in a space that is equally welcoming to the artists and the listeners. To those who aren’t in the know, Soul City is likely that weird little pink building with the mural on the western wall, next to longtime 11th Street staple, El Rancho Grande.

True, Soul City is different, but that’s where its charm lies.

And if music is your thing, no visit to the Pearl District would be complete without checking out The Church Studio that’s been undergoing repairs over the last couple of months. The historic church was turned into a recording studio and home office to Shelter Records in the early 1970s. In the very beginning — circa 1913-15 — it started as Grace Methodist Episcopal Church and was one of the earliest churches built in Tulsa. Leon Russell purchased the church in 1972 and The Church Studio was conceived. The mysterious-looking stone structure served as a creative workshop for songwriters, musicians, engineers and singers. Successful and award-winning talent such as Russell, Tom Petty, J.J. Cale, Georgie Fame, Michael Bolton, The Gap Band, Kansas, Mary McCreary, Freddie King, Jimmy Markham, Dwight Twilley, Phoebe Snow, Peter Tosh, Jamie Oldaker, Walt Richmond, David Teegarden, Wolfman Jack and many more recorded in the studio.

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Greenwood Historical District
The site of a tragic historical event — the race riot of 1921 — the Greenwood Historical District is focused on remembering its past as the Black Wall Street as well as looking forward to future growth. The John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park does more than offer a memorial to the race riot and its consequences; it also highlights the vital role that African-Americans have played in Oklahoma history. Docent-led tours are available for visitors, and locals can become involved in the Center’s work through events such as the annual DNA of Reconciliation National Symposium (next one is May 2019) and the yearly Dinner of Reconciliation (scheduled this year for Nov. 15).

Of course, Greenwood offers some great food and entertainment too, just as you’d expect from a growing downtown district where people live, work and play. At ONEOK Field, catch the Tulsa Drillers baseball team or the Tulsa Roughnecks soccer team. Check their schedules for giveaways and fireworks. And stop in at Living Arts of Tulsa, which features art exhibits, fundraisers and events like the Day of the Dead Festival in November.

As far as food and drink go, you can opt for classic pub fare at Elgin Park Brewery or Lefty’s on Greenwood. Swing by for fabulously generous burgers and fries at Fat Guy’s Burger Bar, which makes gooey cheeseburgers a thing of magic. And don’t neglect a visit to Wanda J’s Next Generation Restaurant — this spot is run by third-generation restaurateurs who serve up grandma’s recipes for fried chicken, pork chops, catfish, chicken-fried steak, chicken strips, burgers, fried corn on the cob, fried okra and loaded baked potatoes that will make you cry because they are so delicious.

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Deco District
In the center of downtown Tulsa is the fabulous, historic Deco District. It’s where you can see well-known art deco buildings like the Philtower and the Philcade, both built by the money of oilman Waite Phillips nearly 100 years ago. With features such as decorative facades, gold leaf fixtures, elaborate chandeliers and more, these and other art deco buildings downtown take you back to the glorious 1920s.

In the center of downtown Tulsa is the fabulous, historic Deco District. (Sarah Eliza Roberts)
In the center of downtown Tulsa is the fabulous, historic Deco District. (Sarah Eliza Roberts)

This area of downtown also hosts much of the area’s best entertainment. The Tulsa Performing Arts Center features national tours of popular Broadway shows such as Phantom of the Opera and Wicked, as well as local theater productions, dance performances, concerts and more for both children and adults. And you can enjoy jazz concerts and memorabilia at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in a historic train depot.

The Deco District is growing and evolving, so it’s always interesting to visit and see what’s new. Artist William Franklin, who creates stunning murals and other works, also owns the creative shop Decopolis, which offers artistic endeavors for children as well as a collection of Tulsa-themed gifts, books and artworks. Decopolis also offers painting parties and other classes.

Eating in the area is a pleasure too. You can snag breakfast or lunch at the laid back New Atlas Grill in the Atlas Building — which is, yes, another historic spot. Grab fresh puffy tacos and catch some karaoke or lucha libre (wrestling) at Elote Cafe. Start and end your day with the smooth taste of coffee from locally owned Topeca Coffee. And cap a night off with drinks at the bar atop the beautiful Mayo Hotel that was modeled after The Plaza in New York City.

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Blue Dome District
Distinctive immediately for the small, historic, blue-topped building for which this district is named, the Blue Dome District is known for its down-to-earth, artistic feel. Hip without overdoing it, the Blue Dome District appeals to many with its great food, neighborhood bars and youthful urban vibe.

There’s plenty to do in this part of downtown. Visit the Dust Bowl Lanes and Lounge, a bowling alley aimed at adults with late night hours, retro atmosphere, burgers, beer, shakes made with Tillamook ice cream and more. Stop in at 1980s-themed Max Retropub to play some old-fashioned arcade games while you nurse a drink.

In terms of food and drink, this area is very reliable and practical. Opt for tasty burgers and fries along with a wide selection of beers at McNellie’s Pub. Enjoy farm-to-table haute cuisine at the bright, modern Juniper. Catch a view of the Tulsa skyline from the rooftop seating at El Guapo. Get some barbecue at Albert G’s or RibCrib. Or grab some locally-sourced eggs and an enormous cinnamon roll, even into the wee hours, at Dilly Diner.

For locally themed gifts, visit Boomtown Tees. Among their adult novelty tees, sweatshirts, hoodies, toddler tees and onesies — which are all screened in-house — you’ll find images and slogans that represent Tulsa’s past and present. The other spot to hit is the Tulsa Artery, where local and regional artists and authors display their wares, which range from casual and fun to serious investment pieces. And it’s on the same block as Hurts Donut, which is a great place to ease your sugar craving while you shop.

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Kendall Whittier District
Anchored by the historic (so much of Tulsa is historic) Circle Cinema, the Kendall Whittier District around Lewis and Admiral is undergoing revitalization these days. For Tulsans, that means there’s a lot to explore, and you can get in on visiting there now, before all the cool kids discover it. The Circle Cinema should be your first stop — this movie theater has been around for nearly 100 years and is now home to great art films, reruns of old classics, and showings of new filmmakers at the Tulsa American Film Festival every October.

As you walk the area, catch a view of the Whittier Square Clock Tower, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Then wander along the blocks surrounding it to check out the local businesses that are adding life and artistic inspiration to the area. At the corner across from Circle Cinema is Ziegler Art & Frame, which features local art, handmade frames, art classes and more. Down the street from Ziegler is the second location of the Tulsa Artery, which features up-and-coming artists among its eclectic offerings.

For food and drink, don’t overlook Pancho Anaya Bakery. Opened here in 1998, this bakery has its roots in 1912 Mexico, where previous generations of the family baked and sold fresh bread and other treats. Try the fresh cookies and other delectable offerings here, along with a tasty Americano from Fair Fellow Coffee across the street.

On second Thursdays during the summer, the Kendall Whittier holds an art crawl with vendors in booths at Whittier Square and at the Tulsa Artery. It’s a perfect night to try the $1 street tacos at Calaveras Mexican Grill. Finish off the evening with a brew from Heirloom Rustic Ales, or Marshall Brewing, which rides the edge of both the Kendall Whittier District and the Pearl District.

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East Village District
The up-and-coming East Village District is seeing a lot of growth, with a new hotel being erected in the area, more parking being added, and new businesses and event spaces drawing people to the area.

One of its highlights is The Boxyard, the shipping container shopping and service experience that rides the edge of the Blue Dome District and the East Village District. With its eclectic boutiques, science shop, jewelry makers, local bank, hip barber, comic book store, microcreamery, sweets shop and more, The Boxyard makes sure you’ll find something cool to buy. The businesses at The Boxyard share the “think small, buy local” mentality that has helped downtown Tulsa’s revitalization in recent years. You can catch live music occasionally on the second floor patio in the evenings and on weekends. Wedding pictures and prom pictures have been taken there too, since the backdrop of The Boxyard provides such an amazing view of Tulsa, especially at sunset.

The Boxyard stays open late for First Friday Art Crawls, as well as during events such as the Blue Dome Festival and Tulsa Tough.

The Bond Event Center is a spacious new spot, perfect for hosting weddings, parties, pop-up shopping, fundraisers and other events. For more everyday fun, visit Hodges Bend for all your artisan coffee and cocktail needs — it’s is cool, hip, and unlike any other coffee spot in town. Snag a pizza pie at East Village Bohemian Pizzeria, with a patio lined with lights, feeling a bit like a sidewalk cafe in Paris or New York. And finish the night off with a drink at laid back taproom, The Fur Shop.

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Arena District
At the heart of the Arena District on the northwest side of downtown Tulsa sits the singularly unique BOK Center. Designed by world-renowned architect César Pelli, who has also designed buildings in New York City, Osaka, London, and Kuala Lumpur, among other places, the BOK Center features a blend of Native American, art deco and contemporary design elements. Capable of seating over 19,000 people, the multi-purpose arena hosts the biggest names in entertainment, concerts, sports and more.

This summer and autumn, the BOK Center is hosting acts as diverse as Imagine Dragons, Chris Young, Bruno Mars and Fleetwood Mac. It’s also home to the Tulsa Oilers hockey team and the host of a stop on the Professional Bull Riding (PBR) circuit in August.

Events are also held at The Cox Business Center, home to happenings such as Tokyo in Tulsa, an anime/cosplaying convention.

For meals, there is the relaxed coffee and tea spot All About Cha, which also offers an amazing fruit plate and delectable sushi, and free Wi-Fi. Enjoy elegant dining at the Italian restaurant, Ti Amo, or tasty pub fare at Baxter’s Interurban Grill. Snag a drink before or after a concert at MixCo, which isn’t afraid to combine speakeasy cool with geek chic, or swing by Cellar Dweller for drinks and conversation with your pals.