That uncle, Jim Elias, was the owner of Jamil’s Steakhouse, 4910 N. Lincoln Blvd. The year was 1976, and wanting to sell the restaurant but keep it in the family, Elias helped his nephew purchase the venue that first opened on June 1, 1964.
“My uncle always wanted a family member to own Jamil’s,” Gawey said. “He believed in the idea of passing it along in the family so much that he helped me buy the place.”
After 50 years, it still stands along Lincoln Boulevard in a repurposed two story house and continues to draw a loyal crowd, even a few celebrities.
Former University of Oklahoma and Dallas Cowboys football coach Barry Switzer has been a regular for most, if not all, of Jamil’s years in business.
“I go in as often as I can now because I love the food and the ambiance,” Switzer said. “When a restaurant has been in business for 50 years, it’s got to be good.”
On a recent trip to Jamil’s, Switzer was joined by OU greats Billy Simms and Joe Washington. The trio enjoyed a trip down memory lane as they looked at all of the football memorabilia on permanent display.
“I spent a long time just looking at the pictures on the wall,” Switzer said. “It’s a museum of football; so many players and people are depicted there, and tastefully.”
But Gawey isn’t entirely sure about the next 50 years at Jamil’s. He and his wife of 39 years have three grown daughters, but all three have careers outside of food service.
“That’s probably because they all worked here for a time when they were in high school,” Gawey joked.
Most restaurants don’t survive five years, much less 50, and Jamil’s has been busier in its semi-centennial year than in recent history.
“This was the first time I can remember that we were fully booked for three days for Valentine’s Day,” Gawey said.
When Jim (Jamil) Elias opened his restaurant, that area of Lincoln, including the former Lincoln Plaza Hotel, was a nighttime hotspot.
The house had sat empty since sometime in the 1950s, and Elias liked that it reminded him of the original Jamil’s in Tulsa. The house had two front entrances, and rumors were that it had been a distribution hub for liquor as well as serving as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
Fifty years later, the area is not a nighttime hub, but Gawey said Jamil’s still sees a steady flow of customers, many who, like Switzer, have been eating at the restaurant for three or four decades. In that time, there have been changes, but not many.
“We added lunches in 1994,” Gawey said. “That helped the flow of business. And our proximity to the (state) Capitol means that we’ve always had legislators in here. I have no idea how many bills have been discussed over lunch here.”
Gawey said the generational stories keep him going and turned a man who wanted to be in government into a lifetime restaurateur.
“People got engaged here, had first dates here, had their anniversaries here,” he said. “We’ve always been a special occasion restaurant, and I love those stories. It’s amazing to be part of stories and memories such as those.”
Gawey credits the quality and value of the food, as well as the consistency of his staff, for Jamil’s 50-year success. Dianne Moentnish has been at Jamil’s for 35 years; she is the general manager, and she calls the staff her family.
“We have two employees, Ralph Lowe and Mike Baldwin, who have been here since the ’60s,” Moentnish said. “Mike has been here since it opened. When we hire people, they’re either gone in two weeks or still here 10 years later.”
Jamil’s is one of the last Lebanese steakhouses left in Oklahoma, and that, too, is part of the appeal. Every entree comes with hummus, tabbouleh and cabbage rolls. Steaks are the bestsellers, but the smoked bologna, which Gawey calls his daily vitamin pill, has been on the menu since the beginning and remains incredibly popular 50 years later.
“We’re a quaint, candlelit steakhouse for dinner,” Gawey said. “The decor isn’t fancy, and we’ve only modernized a few things. People keep coming back because the food is good and the value is excellent. Even with volatile food prices, we rarely raise menu prices.”
Next up for Jamil’s is a new bar.
The old, argyle panes of glass on the back bar will be replaced, the bar top expanded and new lighting added. It’s a small makeover, but one that signals that Jamil’s isn’t done yet, even after 50 years in business.