It’s been nearly a decade since the Mayor of Flavortown himself, Guy Fieri, has appeared in Oklahoma City for his flagship program Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which includes more than 260 episodes over 26 seasons since its premiere in 2007.
Recently, many Oklahoma City chefs including Beth Ann Lyon (Beth Ann’s Black Cat), Shelby Sieg (The Pritchard) and Kevin Lee (Gogi Go) have appeared on Fieri’s game show Guy’s Grocery Games, but his original show — with its legions of fans — has an effect that is still drawing customers from all over the world to OKC.
Fieri catapulted to popularity after winning the second season of the reality competition The Next Food Network Star, which earned him a standard cooking show, Guy’s Big Bite, in 2006.
His breakout came later that year when DDD aired as a one-hour special, combining Fieri’s trademark flamboyant hair and appearance in the context of a show that is an ode to interesting food as well as a travel show. What was originally supposed to be a one-off was picked up for a full season and has gone on to become one of Food Network’s most popular programs, with blocks of the show airing multiple times per week.
Oklahoma City’s first appearance on DDD was in the show’s first year at Leo’s Barbecue, on an episode that focused on restaurants that are “local legends.” Leo’s was opened in 1974 by Leo Smith, who died in 1994, and whose son Charles continues to run the restaurant at its original 3631 N. Kelley Ave. location.
Smith received a call from the show’s producers while they were up in Minnesota.
“They asked if I wanted to be on a nationwide show and that it wouldn’t cost me anything,” Smith said. “I said, ‘Give me a second to think about it,’ being playful because it was free.”
The show’s production team filmed about 10 hours of footage a few weeks before Fieri arrived, and then he stayed for another eight hours. Smith admitted that he wasn’t really sure what to expect from the show because he doesn’t watch much television and he wasn’t familiar with Fieri.
“The producer said that me and Guy would click pretty good because of our personalities … [Fieri] comes in with spiked hair, sweatbands up to his forearms and with his Oakleys upside down on the back of his head and some flip-flops,” Smith said.
During the 8-minute segment, Fieri and Smith trade jokes.
“The filling pumps used to be out there,” Smith said, noting the location used to be a gas station. “Now they’re inside.”
Smith shows Fieri Leo’s process for smoking brisket, the methods used to produce its two signature sauces, and he constructs Leo’s signature strawberry-banana cake, which comes complimentary with every meal.
“When Guy left, the filming crew called about a week later and said they wanted to get a shot of me going up the state Capitol stairs with a cake because I told them we did catering for the Capitol,” Smith said. “I was on the 18th hole of the Lake Hefner golf course when they called me, so I met them at the Capitol in my golf shorts with my cake.”
In subsequent years, Fieri has become cognizant of the impact his show will have on the restaurant features on the show, telling owners to expect their businesses to increase and sometimes double based on the size of their restaurants. Leo’s appeared on the early going of the show, but Smith said he has had a women fly from Chicago just for the cake, and another man came from England while on his way to vacation in Florida.
“They’re still showing up more than 10 years later; it’s amazing,” Smith said. “Now I know the true meaning of busy; I thought we were busy in the beginning, but it was busloads of people when it first aired. When OU had a home game against the University of Miami and I looked in the dining room and we had a sea of [Miami Hurricane] orange. … People want me to take pictures or to hold their baby. They have those DDD booklets of places he’s been to, and people ask me to sign those. He has a loyal following.”
Leo’s remains going strong at its original location after a few years of hardship and ventures into multiple locations. The roof collapsed due to heavy rain, and Smith was forced to shut down the NE 36th Street location for about two years after he had surgery, but barbecue production never stopped. When crews came to film at nearby Mama E’s a few years later, it happened when the store was closed, which Fieri mentioned during the new segment.
“I’d like [Fieri] to see that we’re open and still flourishing,” Smith said. “We’ve had our share of catastrophes, and we keep pushing. We’re still here, and I’m thankful.”
According to Julie Chudow, who does publicity for Food Network’s parent company Discovery, the show’s producers do a lot of research to determine filming locations, using word-of-mouth in the city among the factors. Production shoots at multiple locations in the city before leaving town, as was the case when they returned in 2009 and recorded at Mama E’s, Nic’s Grill, Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, Ingrid’s Kitchen, Eischen’s Bar in Okarche and The Diner in Norman.
Nic’s Grill, 1201 N. Pennsylvania Ave., is an Oklahoma City mainstay for delivering juicy onion burgers from a 17-seat diner next door to owner Justin “Nic” Nicholas’ house. Nicholas said his restaurant’s star turn almost didn’t happen.
“[The show’s producers] tried to call us a few times, and I thought it was a buddy of mine making a joke,” Nicholas said. “They kept calling, and I found out that it was real. I almost messed it up by hanging up and thinking it was a joke.”
Nicholas said that he is one of Fieri’s biggest fans and joked that if the Food Network star needed a flat tire changed at 3 in the morning, he’d be on his way. He attended Fieri’s appearance last year at a Tulsa casino, where event organizers were able to arrange a meeting between the two.
“As soon as I walked in, he remembered my name and couldn’t have been more hospitable,” Nicholas said. “I’ve read different things about him and that he has a big ego, but he sure treated us golden. When anyone becomes as famous as him, there is always a group of people trying to tear you down.”
Because seating is limited inside Nic’s Grill, Nicholas said that he went from having a steady stream of regulars that ate at the diner two or three times a week to a much larger customer base.
Nicholas, along with investors, opened a second restaurant, Nic’s Place, at 1116 N. Robinson Ave. in September 2016, but he continues to cook most days at the original location, assuming his back allows him.
Even to this day, after all these years, there are people who travel that make it a point that when they go to town, they check to see if Guy ate somewhere and want to go to that place.David Egantweet this
“I wanted to put a place together that is beautiful but at the same time is comfort-fare food at a price point that anyone can afford,” Nicholas said of Nic’s Place. “I hope like hell we can get Guy down there at some point. I don’t know if we would’ve gotten [to open a second restaurant] without him or not, but I know that what he’s done for me is incredible.”
Ingrid’s Kitchen also opened a second location a few years after appearing on the show. Owner Lee Burrus said that the appearance on the show was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“The day [Fieri] left, he shook my hand and said, ‘Lee, I’m going to give you a heads-up. When this airs, it will double your business.’ He was right,” Burrus said. “We quickly outgrew the original place [3701 N. Youngs Blvd.]. Business increased to the point that we needed a larger production facility.”
The second Ingrid’s handles the majority of baking for both locations while the original manages its substantial catering business. Burrus has Ingrid’s Kitchen for sale but will only sell to someone committed to keeping both locations open.
“The second location has brought a lot of people that didn’t come as far south and maybe weren’t aware of us, so that’s been a big difference,” Burrus said.
Mama E’s Wings and Waffles was featured on DDD not long after it opened, based on word-of-mouth in the city for its take on fried chicken and waffles. Owners Keith and Stephanie Patterson took Fieri’s advice about preparing for increased business to heart and opened a second location not long after the segment aired, but it quickly fell into a state of being stretched too thin between new owners.
The trouble at the location earned a visit from another Food Network star, Robert Irvine, for his restaurant rehab show Restaurant: Impossible. The second Mama E’s has closed its location, but the original restaurant at 3838 Springlake Drive continues to serve its signature wings and waffles under the new moniker Mama E’s Soul Food.
“[Restaurant: Impossible] was a great experience, and it exposed us to a lot of things,” Keith Patterson said. “It helped us to streamline, and I’m enjoying it.”
Doubling the business at an OKC institution like Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, 1309 S. Agnew Ave., which serves thousands of customers every week, wasn’t really an option according to co-owner David Egan, but he said they’ve benefitted from a continuous stream of fans of the show.
Cattlemen’s appearance on the show wasn’t expected. Egan said that producers contacted him months before filming and asked if they had been featured recently on another Food Network show.
“They said they didn’t want to duplicate [something else on the network], but when they got onsite at another location, there was something about it that wouldn’t work,” Egan said. “They called us two or three days before the shoot and we cleared our slate.”
Egan said that over the years, Cattlemen’s has appeared on four or five television shows but DDD’s production staff remains the best with which to work.
“The most asked question we get is, ‘What is Guy like? Is he arrogant?’” Egan said. “My answer is that he is very approachable, kind and considerate. He’s not a blowhard know-it-all. Of course he’s a little flamboyant and sometimes those people are edgy, but he was very approachable.”
In total, production shot about 20 hours of footage at Cattlemen’s, and it has been used to create new segments on different Food Network shows. It is the gift that keeps on giving.
“You can’t buy that kind of advertisement,” Egan said. “Even to this day, after all these years, there are people who travel that make it a point that when they go to town, they check to see if Guy ate somewhere and want to go to that place. It’s a steady and gradual diet of people who stop in and mark it off their list.”
Over the last 10 years, Oklahoma City’s dining landscape has changed, with plenty of new restaurants that deserve recognition the next time DDD crews come to town, but there is also a long-standing institution they missed in 2009.
This is my list of restaurants that deserve some love from Food Network producers. Off the Hook Seafood & More would be a slam-dunk inclusion on the list, but the show only highlights restaurants that have one location. Scottie’s Deli is the only true from-scratch deli for hundreds of miles and would be a good fit for a show, but it appeared on The Cooking Channel (also owned by Discovery) late last year.
Jimmy’s Round-Up Cafe & Fried Pies
1301 SW 59th St.
jimmysroundupcafe.com | 405-685-1177
One of the main factors network producers are looking for is a dynamic owner with a good personal story. Look no further than Jimmy Collins, who has operated his from-scratch country kitchen for more than 30 years. Not only is the food at Jimmy’s good, but he also has the camera skills and personality to play along with Fieri. Jimmy’s giant yeast rolls with cinnamon butter have brought customers from as far away as Pennsylvania and Georgia just to get a taste of the food.
4200 N. Pennsylvania Ave.
lipsmackersokc.com | 405-604-9770
Located in an active gas station, Lip Smacker’s has quickly become one of OKC’s favorite burger restaurants since opening last year. Owner Jabbar Chaibainou has the kind of personality that is perfect to pair with Fieri, and I can imagine him preparing the apple and Brie burger with a slice of cheesecake drizzled in raspberry and white chocolate.
2425 N. Walker Ave.
pumpbar.net. | 405-702-8898
Located in a former gas station, The Pump Bar fulfills the drive-in part of the DDD name. With a host of colorful and memorable bartenders, The Pump is the kind of funky and popular place the show likes to feature. Although it’s a family-friendly show that doesn’t spend much time on booze, The Pump has a good and interesting kitchen that produces a lot of delicious items.
801 SW 119th St.
facebook.com/cornishsmokehouse | 405-703-1300
This is a speculative play on my part because the brick-and-mortar location has only been open for a few months, but owners Chris and Nicole Cornish have been turning out delicious barbecue for years. The couple has a great backstory and is very personable, and they have a secret weapon: jerk sauce made with ingredients shipped from Jamaica.
1630 N. Blackwelder Ave.
themuleokc.com | 405-601-1400
In many ways, The Mule represents the modern era of 16th Street Plaza District. It’s got the perfect kind of food to feature on the show — grilled cheeses — but its sister restaurant The Press, which offers a modern twist on Oklahoma classic fare, could also be a good option.