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Legendary restaurants: Lady Classen Cafeteria PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steve Lackmeyer   
Thursday, 19 March 2009 03:21

         Without a doubt, Lady Classen Cafeteria is one of those beloved old landmarks that

         won't be forgotten anytime soon. Before we delve into the history of the restaurant,

         let's go to an old Lady Classen brochure to provide us the basics:



 The story continues on .... the cabinets were often imported from England, although by mid-century, Colonial craftsmen had become accomplished artisans in this work. This particular piece came to Lady Classen from one of Oklahoma City's early day mansions.

Contained in the breakfront are representative pieces of of Lady Classen's Mason Pink China Collection. Originally produced for use as fine tableware, this set is now considered to be a collector's item.

And now, a word about the food, again from the folks at Lady Classen:

Lady Classen's kitchen is designed to serve your food hot, fresh and well-prepared. Our staff is comprised of cooks specializing in all the basic food groups with a total of over 100 years cooking experience with Lady Classen. This insures you of enjoyable dining every time you visit Lady Classen.

All pastires are prepared fresh from scratch each day. In the same manner, all salads, vegetables and meat dishes are prepared daily from time honored recipes. The secret of our success - skilled people making the same fine recipes over and over again with quality ingredients.

The Lady Classen Cafeteria is open from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. each Monday through Saturday and from 11:15 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sundays.

So whatever happened to Lady Classen Cafeteria?

For Bill Geist, it was just a blink of time in what would be a long life as one of Oklahoma City’s leading restaurant operators. Visiting with Oklahoman reporter Jon Denton in March, 1989, Geist recalled the moment that the spirit of Lady Classen Cafeteria was born.

"It was 35 years ago that I came into this room and my uncle was sitting at the desk, and someone was talking to him," Geist said, nodding at a cubicle that still serves as the office. "I said "Where do I sit?' "He looked up at me and said, "You don't. I want you out there, with the customers.' "

And that was exactly where Bill Geist stayed until the end, starting as a manager under his uncle and then as owner with his sons John and Jim preparing to follow in his stead. Even in the depths of the 1980s oil bust, the family saw no end to what had become a community treasure and a family tradition.

Ralph and Helena Geist had started off with the Town Tavern in Norman and the Classen Cafeteria at NW 23 and Classen. The family then relocated the cafeteria to 6903 N May Avenue in what was then the suburban north fringe of Oklahoma City.

Bill Geist arrived as a young man, ready to learn the business. He expected hard work. And he was taught to “respect” quality.

"It would be ridiculous to claim we are the best," Geist said, "but when you start with high quality, it's what you do with it." That respected started with the recipes.

The taste didn’t change over 35 years. It was the same food product, Geist said, cooked and served much the same way. That consistency was especially true of the cafeteria's best-known dishes, among them lamb, chicken fried steak, beef tips and Austrian ravioli. Of course some changes did occur; lard disappeared as America discovered healthy eating. And oleo was switched to corn oil.

Even today, it’s not too difficult to find people not just in Oklahoma City but across the country who recall eating with their parents and grandparents at Lady Classen. Roast leg of lamb remained a favorite over four decades.

Lady Classen was truly a throwback to the past. As late as 1989 not a single microwave could be found in the cafeteria. Employees were trained to relate to customers and eagerly address any special requests. If a longtime customer could no longer eat gluten products, the kitchen would bake chicken without flour.

Silver flatware was twice-washed, and the Geists spent almost a dime for every roll of silver in the white cotton cloth napkins. Silver sugar holders, silver ice water pitcher tops and silver salt and pepper shaker heads were all shined every week. The Geists were proud of their cafeteria décor, and did some bragging in an illustrated booklet (part of which is shown above). Visitors were treated to fresh flowers, oil paintings, early American engravings, brass chandeliers, a cherry cupboard, a mahogany breakfront china cabinet and samples of the cafeteria’s early Mason pink china.

The Geists weren’t the only familiar faces. Many of the employees stayed on board for decades, including Maggie Brown, the head pastry cook; John Fields, directing meats; Winnie Nunnally, in salads;  and the head porter, Cleo Bryant.

It was a great American success story – and it was one that was coming to an end. Even as the Geists were celebrating their 35th anniversary in 1989, the Lakewood Shopping Center they had called home for so long was changing owners. General Electric Capital Corp., which held the mortgage, had taken the property back from owner Sam Hodges the previous year. General Electric then sold the shopping center to Dallas-based Oxford Commercial Management for $3.1 million.

Oxford president David Knust noted it was his first purchase in Oklahoma, but he was confident the oil bust was bottoming out. It was time, Knust said, to upgrade the 35-year-old strip and make it a “first-class” shopping venue.

Upgrades were made at Lakewood Shopping Center, and soon enough the Lady wasn’t as appreciated as much as she once was. The business was still an unquestionable success. Every day at lunch and dinner, the cafeteria would fill up to capacity. But neighboring merchants complained about diners taking up all the parking spaces. Cars of some cafeteria customers were towed.

With yet another Dallas company taking over Lakewood, the Geists found themselves with unsympathetic landlords. In 1994, shopping center owner Pilcher Property Partnership declared that the Lady would have to go. Geist looked into moving, but couldn’t come up with the required $250,000. His son John couldn’t come up with the capital either. Customers were devasted.

"What we're doing is interrupting their lifestyle on a permanent basis," Geist said of his many loyal longtime customers. As evidence of the caliber of Lady Classen’s patrons, customers mourning the cafeteria’s demise included legendary journalist and author Irvin Hurst.

As a statehouse reporter Hurst had covered Gov. Alfalfa Bill Murray. He covered Gov. E.W. Marland, witnessed the Dust Bowl days, and was the city editor who cranked out a special edition of the Oklahoma City Times when Will Rogers and Wiley Post were killed in a plane crash in 1935.

Oh what stories Hurst could have told while dining at the Lady. He passed away just one year after the cafeteria shut its doors.

No offense to Mazzio’s, but the pizza place doesn’t seem to be a worthy successor to such a landmark as Lady Classen Boulevard.

Oklahoma City was once known as the cafeteria capital of America. Now it’s down to just one original left. Upcoming additions to www.okchistory.com will include a post on the history that is still with us – Boulevard Cafeteria – and those that are just memories including Queen Ann, Anna Maude, O’Mealeys and more.

But next week we will bring a part of Lady Classen Cafeteria back to life. You say you miss the food, you wish you had those recipes? We’ll try to help out. Our next post will feature a few favorite Lady Classen recipes – and on oddity. From there, we’ll wait your requests and try to fulfill them as well. 

- “Lakewood Shopping Center Sold to Dallas Company,” The Oklahoman, Feb. 18, 1989

- “35th Anniversary Cafeteria Celebrates Serving City’s Tastes,” by Jon Denton, The Oklahoman, March 5, 1989

- “Diners Savor Memories of ‘Lady,’” by Penny Owen, The Oklahoman, Sept. 19, 1994 







Last Updated on Saturday, 21 March 2009 22:50