A decade ago, Oklahoma City’s queer scene consisted of a few gay bars and longstanding gay institution Hotel Habana (since renamed the District) squeezed into the 39th Street Entertainment District. Then 84 Hospitality and Humankind Hospitality, two of Oklahoma City’s most prolific restaurant groups that just so happen to be queer-owned, went on expansive tears across OKC. While the city’s LGBTQ community hasn’t yet achieved the national recognition of loud-and-proud hubs like the Mission in San Francisco or Chicago’s Northalsted, these two groups have quickly grown into local powerhouses — and their rise could offer a blueprint for building queer restaurant communities elsewhere.
It started in 2009 when Humankind opened Picasso Cafe, which quickly turned into a veritable Cheers for vegan-curious queers. The group has since become synonymous with the gallery-filled Paseo Arts neighborhood, an enclave that’s come to feel like an approachable alternative to the clubbier gayborhood. The area now includes Humankind’s drag brunch go-to the Other Room right next door to Picasso, desert-chic Frida Southwest down the street, and Baja-inspired OSO Paseo around the corner in the Pueblo at Paseo development. Meanwhile, 84 Hospitality began their own streak in 2013 with Empire Slice House, a garage-like hipster haunt bedecked with Freddie Mercury posters and vintage movie art, eventually expanding throughout the city with buzzy Revolucion, grungy Burger Punk, and hip Goro Ramen, before coming full-circle with Neon Coffee, which serves peanut butter bomb iced lattes and BLT doughnut sandwiches across the street from the original pizzeria.
At their core, these groups have a simple, essential role to fulfill as queer-owned businesses in the region: providing shelter in a state downright hostile to LGBTQ rights. The state ranks as one of the worst in the nation for LGBTQ equality, where anti-trans legislation and discrimination are far too frequent. In April, the state senate filed a bill that echoes Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill, which would ban books from school libraries that focus on “the study of sex, sexual lifestyles, or sexual activity.” In a market that’s less dense and innately queer than, say, West Hollywood, there’s more of a need for queer refuge in spaces like restaurants, where diners feel seen by like-minded proprietors and employees. “On one level, [Oklahoma City] has always kinda been a haven for LGBTQ kids,” says Greg Horton, a seasoned local food writer at Oklahoma City’s 405 Magazine. “These companies have done a good job of making LGBTQ kids and their employees feel safe, and they’ve been vocal about it the whole time.”
But 84 and Humankind haven’t just survived in a hostile environment. They’ve thrived.
The late night scene in the city’s formerly dingy gayborhood once felt fragmented, narrow, and exclusionary. Alternatively, 84 and Humankind have focused on broad appeal, allowing them to create a dozen sturdy neighborhood cornerstones between them, even as scenes in more famously queer-friendly cities have buckled under financial strains accelerated by the pandemic. The places where queer people can comfortably convene over New York-style pizza, vegan meatloaf, or hot chicken are also restaurants where loyal regulars dine multiple times a week and employees recruit their friends to join the staff. “Everyone that walks in that door is family,” says Seth Lewis, Festival of the Arts director with the Arts Council of Oklahoma City and a regular at Humankind restaurants. “A lot of people struggle with feeling welcomed and appreciated and loved in life, and if you can get that sense of acknowledgement while you’re dining somewhere, that’s a warmth. It’s a sense of feeling like you belong.”
That impulse toward stewardship and community-building extends beyond their customer base to include the whole neighborhood. “Whenever we create concepts, I ask myself three questions: Is this something I’m passionate about? Is it unique? Does it benefit our community or neighborhood around us?” says CEO Rachel Cope of 84 Hospitality. “That’s what it’s really about: being a positive impact on the place where we are.”
“While we know we’ve been something special for over a decade, we try not to discount what came before us,” says Kindt Steven Myers, vice president of Humankind. “We consider ourselves stewards of the neighborhood. We’re caretakers there.” Myers says they always try to reach out to the neighborhood first with employment opportunities and keep the restaurants open for long hours so they become reliable pillars of the dining scene. “We joke that we’re like the post office, open good or bad, rain or shine, snow or sleet,” he adds.
When the group opened Frida in 2014 on a vacant lot, Myers says they worked to outbid other parties “who might not have the same vision of spurring good things in the Paseo,” securing the space before even deciding on a concept. The group eventually settled on opening an elegant new American Southwest chophouse inspired by the Spanish revival architecture of the Paseo and Santa Fe, another artsy city that has inspired Humankind leadership. The organic growth continued with the casual OSO and a soon-to-come bar called Flamingo Tiki. “We’re trying to be intelligent and trepidatious in a positive way, to take good care of our neighborhood. Investing in our people and our community is what’s most important,” Myers adds.
Despite Oklahoma’s anti-LGBTQ legislation, there are advantages to setting up shop in the capital, which is far more moderate than the rest of the state. There’s been a wave of broader interest in Oklahoma City, which has recently ballooned in population and popularity. Lending Tree ranked Oklahoma City as the American city most likely to make a full recovery from the pandemic, and out-of-staters moving in find Oklahoma City is far more affordable than urban centers on the coast, markets where gay bars have been getting priced out for years. The fast-growing metropolis remains malleable as it discovers its own identity and adapts influences from new — and more diverse — residents. The queer community has the numbers to guide that process; Myers notes that rural queer people have been gravitating to the city for the past several decades.
“The reality is that we have elected officials that are outright antagonistic to our rights to live freely and fully as we are. But at the same time, there’s this quiet but powerful movement building for and by the people, without the permission of our elected government, and in ways that demonstrate the limitations of our elected government,” says Allie Phillips-Shinn, former executive director of Freedom Oklahoma, deputy director of ACLU of Oklahoma, and wife of Elemental Coffee’s Laura Phillips. “The things that make it so challenging to live in Oklahoma also make it so special; they make these spaces a necessity, and allow them to be so successful and operate so sustainably.”
For Cope, building strength means aligning with as many LGBTQ organizations as possible, including OKC Pride Alliance Youth Nights at Factory Obscura, and being a headlining sponsor at OKC Pride. Empire also delivered free pizzas to Julius Jones supporters holding ground at the Oklahoma State Capitol. “I think that people underestimate the impact that being a community player can have on your business,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be a financial donation. It can be your time, or spreading the word about things. That’s been key for us, just getting out there and getting to know people, and that’s something that everyone can do.”
“84 is always doing something for the community,” echoes Phillips-Shinn. “Thinking of these moments where we have activists camping out in the capitol, relentless in their pursuit of justice, and the thing that allowed them to stay and demand what we need was the pizza that kept showing up from Empire, or the coffee that came from Elemental, or the food that Humankind is bringing for these spaces.” Ultimately, she explains, these restaurant owners remember their roots, acknowledge the value of giving back, and help pave the way for further progress.
“A healthy city has a safe and flourishing queer community, and spaces for that community to grow, interact with one another, love one another, and find community with one another. They’re not just an integral part [of a city]; they’re essential to it,” Phillips-Shin says. “This is something we’ve desperately needed, and they had the vision to know that when they built it, we would come. The community was there. We just needed the physical space to fill.”
The right factors may have been present in Oklahoma City for the queer community to flourish, but the city isn’t unique. Empire Slice House just opened another location in Tulsa, marking 84’s first foray outside of OKC, with another slice shop planned for suburban Edmond. The state’s largest city — and its political epicenter — has served as the perfect launching pad for the queer restaurant community. Oklahoma City is just the beginning.
A recent transplant to Oklahoma City, Matt Kirouac is a food and travel writer whose bylines have appeared in Thrillist, Condé Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, and Tasting Table.