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Haunted House news adds to what stands to be a landmark year for local dining

When rock god Jack White’s guacamole fetish isn’t the biggest food story in the local food scene’s first few months, you know you’re in for the ride of your life.

Chef Jonathon Stranger has purchased a farm that will become one of the state’s premiere dining and entertainment venues in Carlton’s Landing. On top of righting the ship at Vast, chef Kurt Fleischfresser has piloted the first Turning the Tables on Hunger event at the Homeless Alliance (story April 5) and will soon act as celebrity chef for the upcoming Wine Forum of Oklahoma. Cafe Kacao will open a new concept in downtown Oklahoma City. West is opening a second location in the space formerly occupied by Nonna’s. A Good Egg Dining Group will expand Tucker’s to Norman and open The Drake, the city’s first new independent seafood restaurant in decades. Bleu Garten, Fassler Hall, The R&J Lounge and Supper Club and The Dust Bowl have filled the void in Midtown between the 10th Street circle and the east side of Automobile Alley. Guernsey Park has opened its first spinoff restaurant with Covell Park.

And I know of at least three other developments not quite ready for their reveal that will rank in the year’s top 10 biggest news events for Oklahoma City dining.

All this despite crude oil prices going into free-fall last year.

But progress comes with a cost. The passage of time always wins as proven by the loss of Local wine and spirits pioneer Wayne Hirst passed away last month, but leaves behind a legacy of well-stocked wine bars, restaurants and liquor stores. He’s also the namesake of the state’s annual hospitality and service awards ceremony.

We lost VZD’s, though chef Eric Smith is on the verge of reimagining the concept. Local closed in Norman, Kyle’s 1025 closed, ending a long line of successful restaurants to run out of the former Kentucky Club. Then, last week, word spread that The Haunted House was going on the auction block because co-founder and owner Marian Thibault, 89, had fallen ill. Marian, like Florence Jones-Kemp, is one of the city’s restaurant survivors. Now, she must concentrate her considerable tenacity on her health, which won’t be busy after spend the better part of a half century in the spooky confines off Miramar.

News about the tenuous future of the restaurant will no doubt draw nostalgia from the city’s dining public. My favorite memory was the first story I ever wrote about the place. Meeting Marian and Vidaree King, who reigned in the Haunted House Kitchen for almost all of its 51 years before she passed away, was way more treat than trick. Former colleague Tanner Herriott did a terrific video, and I dug deep into the history of the restaurant to tell the macabre and titillating tale of the Haunted House on its 45th birthday.

Here’s hoping a local restaurateur steps up to extend the shelf-life of this ongoing ghost story.

Speaking of extended shelf-lives, here’s also hoping Nani, the Choctaw-Japanese supper club, can work with the Oklahoma Department of Health to find a way to continue to operate. Chefs Andon Whitehorn and Collin Stringer have their hearts and minds in the right place and the passion and technical skills to be key contributors to Oklahoma City’s fast-improving culinary reputation.

To see that potential through, they’re going to have to settle they’re ongoing jousting tournament with the folks responsible for protecting the public and protecting restaurants from liability. In a story written by Graham Lee Brewer, the chefs and their lawyer argue they shouldn’t be subjected to state health department regulation because they’re not a restaurant but a private supper club without advertisement or walk-ins. But the Nani website solicits reservations and advertises their concept, which doesn’t help their argument. Essentially, Nani operates as a chef’s table — a concept common to many restaurants. The problem is, it operates out of a residence, which puts the Health Department in a precarious position.

Whitehorn and Stringer are trained professionals certified for safe food-handling. I have eaten at Nani, enjoyed it and never feared for my health. However, allowing them to continue unregulated sets a dangerous precedent. It brings to mind a restaurant I once dined in that operated out of an apartment in south Oklahoma City. It was run by an El Salvadoran woman with a menu handwritten in Spanish taped to the wall. The food was great, but the operation was completely illegal and potentially dangerous — just like the kindly fellow trudging around the same complex with a stolen shopping cart outfitted with assorted flavors of ice cream and a bell. Good stuff, just not sustainable.

Nani is nothing like that at all, and their plight certainly raises the question as to whether the state should consider a different kind of license for those that operate out of their home. Something akin to the Safe Food Home Manufacturing Act before the state legislature right now.

The Nani quandary is just one more story that’s making 2015 take such potentially historic shape.

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Dave Cathey

The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene. Read more ›