Pepper’s Grill serves a varied menu of popular cuisines 35 years later.
Pepper’s was one of the first Tulsa restaurants to add fajitas to its menu. The dish remains a popular menu staple.
It was a Friday night.
My friends and I popped into a south Tulsa restaurant and spent a few hours chatting over margaritas, chips and salsa, and some of those newfangled fajitas that had recently hit the local dining scene. The atmosphere was casual, and the place was packed with many families enjoying dinner together.
Although this evening occurred more than 25 years ago, Pepper’s Grill is still serving customers hearty American cooking, as well as its take on Mexican and Southwestern cuisines ... served with an Okie twist.
For those unfamiliar with Pepper’s, let me digress a bit. Thirty-five years ago Rick McFeely, Don Jones, Fred Zimmer and Nick Samara came together with the idea of opening a restaurant. They had recently visited the original Chili’s restaurant in Dallas (there was only one location at the time) and loved it. Chili’s served margaritas, beer, burgers and burritos, and Pepper’s Grill featured the same selections when it opened in March 1978 at East 61st Street and South Sheridan Road.
“Pepper’s in the late ’70s and early ’80s was a busy, busy place,” McFeely says. “It was back during the ‘liquor by the wink’ days. We went through the process of the laws changing.”
In 1979, Samara moved on to open Hamburger Haven on South Lewis Avenue, a popular spot that featured charcoal burgers, before eventually running his father Mike’s restaurant, The Celebrity Club (now Celebrity Restaurant).
The three remaining partners took on Rik Helmerich and opened Bahamas in the same center as Pepper’s. The new restaurant featured Italian cuisine with a beach theme and art deco décor — an interesting concept that didn’t fly with customers. They closed it, and Helmerich bought out Zimmer’s portion of the business.
Later, they opened a couple offshoots — Mac’s BBQ and Finn’s Chop & Chowder House. At the beginning of the economic downturn, however, the trio decided to focus solely on Pepper’s. Jones left the group nine years ago to open the Savory Chef, which he ran with wife Leslie for several years, and is now the owner of Café Ole in Brookside.
At one point there were five Pepper’s locations around town (including Claremore and Broken Arrow), but the group pared them down to two. The first of the two current locations opened in 1991 in Utica Square. The second location at East 91st Street and South Delaware Avenue opened first as Finn’s but changed to Pepper’s in 1999. The original southside location closed seven years ago.
“The building was beaten to death,” McFeely says of the 61st and Sheridan site. “It needed a complete remodel, but our landlord wouldn’t work with us.”
The Pepper’s menu, however, is far more flexible. It packs a wide array of choices from chimichangas to hot wings to pasta.
For a brief time in the mid-1980s, the restaurant was considered a sports bar and received national attention when Sport Magazine named Pepper’s the best place to watch sporting events.
“As far as the cuisine goes, people think of us as a Mexican restaurant because we lay down chips and salsa on the table,” McFeely says. “Originally, we only had one burrito on the menu, but now it features a wide array of dishes. It’s hard to put a finger on what we are — what we do know is that we can satisfy the entire family when everyone has different tastes.
“We have changed the menu a bit here and there over the years. Everything is still made from scratch as much as possible.”
One of the favorites, which has been on the menu since opening, is the salsa.
“Nick brought the recipe from his uncle, and we have never strayed from it,” McFeely says. “I’ve had former customers, now living out of state, stock up and ship it back home.”
Pepper’s Dynamite Burrito ($8.49), stuffed with homemade chili, queso and shredded lettuce, is another favorite from the original menu, along with the taco salad ($8.89), the half-pound burger ($7.29) and the cheese nachos ($6.29). The fajitas ($12.99) are still popular, too, especially for catering requests.
“We added fajitas to the menu back when nobody had heard of them,” McFeely says.
He says competition has been fierce in a market with Tex-Mex restaurants on nearly every corner. However, the success of Pepper’s can be attributed largely to its following of “regulars.”
“We play a different game than the chains — it is hard to compete with their level of advertising, so we rely solely on our loyal customers,” he says.
When a restaurant is 35 years old, it is almost a given that memories will be made there.
“I hear stories from customers and employees about them remembering eating at Pepper’s when they were young kids, or stories about married couples’ first dates at Pepper’s,” McFeely says.
Pepper’s has some fiercely loyal employees, as well. Some have been with the company for more than 20 years, and many employees have children who grow up to work for the company.
“We’re very proud of that,” McFeely says. “We always want to be family friendly — to keep the price of our kids’ meals down to give families a break — good portions for a good price.”
1950 Utica Square, 918-749-2163
2809 E. 91st St., 918-296-0592
Cuisine — American/Mexican/Southwestern
Prices — $6.29-$24.99
Credit cards — All major accepted.
Hours — 11a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m., Friday and Saturday (south restaurant closes at 11:30 p.m.)
Dress — Casual
Noise level — Moderate
Handicapped access — Yes
Parking — Lot in front of restaurant