Elliot Nelson enjoys finding ways to bring the world to Tulsa in exciting, food-related ways.
The right concept at the right location can make for a successful restaurant. But Elliot Nelson of the McNellie’s Group of Restaurants will also tell you a restaurant that stays a success comes down to two things: “Ultimately, it’s providing really good food and really good service,” he says.
You may or may not recognize the McNellie’s Group name, but if you’ve been in Tulsa long enough, you’ll surely recognize the well-loved food joints that Nelson and his company have launched — El Guapo, Dilly Diner, Fassler Hall, Yokozuna, McNellie’s, The Tavern, Bull in the Alley, Dust Bowl, and Elgin Park. It might be surprising to realize that this restaurant juggernaut started just a little over 15 years ago.
That’s when Nelson got his inspiration to launch McNellie’s Pub in downtown Tulsa. At the time, downtown didn’t have much going on, and pubs weren’t exactly on people’s radar. Nelson, though, had developed a fondness for the local neighborhood pubs he’d enjoyed in Ireland. So, he launched McNellie’s in downtown, which wasn’t hip in 2004. Since then, downtown has been having a revival, and the McNellie’s Group has been a big part of it.
“Whenever you start something, you think, ‘This is going to be great; this is going to last forever.’ But I don’t believe you ever envision what that’s like,” says Nelson.
McNellie’s has become a fixture; it’s hosted many a first date, engagement party, and more. “People have met their spouses there,” Nelson says. “A lot of things have happened in that pub, and that’s cool.”
The sense of community is something Nelson loves, and it’s evident in everything he touches. “I still go to Ireland once a year to experience the pub culture,” Nelson says. “It’s a living, breathing thing where a community gathers, and it is part of people’s everyday life.”
In creating restaurants people love, Nelson is dedicated to things that draw people in, and it’s not always what you might think it is. While the restaurant business could seem focused on following the latest trends, Nelson believes it’s essential to find a balance.
“I think, so often, people have overthought this industry,” he says. “The reality is, people want a place where they feel comfortable, where they enjoy the food and can have a good conversation. They want a place to come back to over and over.”
In practice, what that means is finding the balance between Nelson’s love for food and creativity with Green Country residents’ need to feel comfortable and at home in the places they go to eat. Nelson enjoys traveling, and he likes finding ways to bring the world to Tulsa in interesting, food-related ways. But it takes finesse and a bit of luck to push the boundaries without going too far beyond the customers’ comfort zones.
“When we first built Yokozuna, we wanted a ramen bar, something I’d seen in my travels and thought, ‘This is going to be great.’ But we were too early,” he says. Yokozuna switched gears and became more about sushi in part because Tulsa wasn’t ready for a ramen bar yet.
“Whatever’s happening on the coasts takes a while to migrate in,” says Nelson. “If we’re going to go out ahead on something, we have to tailor it and educate people.” As an example, he points to Elgin Park, a sports bar with plenty of familiar menu items like domestic beers and chicken wings, but also with some things you won’t find anywhere else in town — like the thin-crust, parmesan-heavy New Haven pizza, and the thick, cheese-infused crust of their Detroit Pizza. Both are stellar meals, and both are not usual fare in Tulsa.
Bull in the Alley is another example of Nelson mixing his sensibilities when it comes to food with an understanding of what people want, to create a concept that is lively and inventive, yet still also relatable and classic.
“I like old-school steakhouses,” he says, explaining what inspired Bull in the Alley. “I like the throwback, classic kind of restaurant. A lot of fine dining now is fussy. Everyone is trying to get the next obscure thing, but people want the classic stuff. We put enough on the menu that people can choose something comfortable if they prefer it. Our porterhouse and the way we cook it is incredible, but we still serve a lot of filets. Our service is great, our martinis are great — there’s a simplicity to it that is beautiful.”
Nelson credits a lot of the group’s success in concept development to their executive chef, Ben Alexander. “A lot of times, we’ll have a space available and develop a concept for it, then give it to Ben and his team to develop the menu,” says Nelson, who also likes to take Alexander and other staff to visit restaurants in cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas, looking for inspiration they can bring back here.
Ultimately, though, a restaurant’s success comes down to knowing what your customers want. And it’s something Nelson keeps in mind and reminds his staff all the time.
“People have a lot of places they can go to eat,” he says. “We need to appreciate they came here. All our service at all our restaurants needs to feel warm. Tulsa is a friendly city, and no matter what we’re doing, we need to embody that — and greet them with a smile.”
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