Tulsa’s always had a healthy appetite for prefabricated fare, and diners abound. We lost longstanding breakfast staple Blue Dome Diner a few years ago, but downtown has rebounded with two new restaurants—both on the same street, both rising from the ashes of earlier concepts.
Within weeks of each other, Dilly Diner and Bramble Breakfast & Bar recently opened at the same downtown intersection, on 2nd and Elgin. Executive chefs Trevor Tack and Michelle Donaldson are good friends, and both told me their concepts were years in the making. The synchronicity is curious.
Just a few months ago, Dilly Diner was the sandwich shop Dilly Deli, and Bramble was an evening cocktail bar with a limited selection of small plates. Both previous incarnations closed for a conceptual overhaul around the same time this spring. Tack said his recent signing as corporate executive chef of the McNellie’s Group tasked him with developing Dilly Diner’s menu. Donaldson (who is also executive chef of Bramble’s sister restaurant, Tallgrass Prairie Table) said a breakfast concept was in the works even before Tallgrass opened. Neither chef seemed concerned about sharing real estate or competing for business.
"Before we closed down to do our diner, I caught wind that they were doing theirs," Tack said. "And I reached out to her in a friendly—very, very, I want to reiterate that, very friendly—phone call, in no way trying to bully, but just to tell her, ‘Hey, it’s in the works, we’re doing the same thing.’ They have been nothing but gracious and supportive during our opening. And I love them, and I love what they do."
Despite that the two concepts are of a piece, Donaldson stressed their differences.
"I think (Tack and Dilly Diner) are taking a much more straightforward approach to breakfast," she said. "And I think we’re a little off the beaten path. We’re not really a diner. We like to consider ourselves more short-order farm-to-table."
Dilly Diner // 402 E. 2nd St. // 918.938.6382 // MON-THURS 7 a.m.-10 p.m., FRI-SAT 7 a.m.-1 p.m., SUN 8 a.m.-8 p.m.
Since Dilly Diner’s hard opening a few weeks ago, Tack said he’d already seen repeat customers. (Confession: I’m one of them).
Despite the Diner’s retro aesthetic, Tack’s menu is impressively fresh and full of locally sourced ingredients. Plates like the Beets and Quinoa can satisfy greasy-spoon lovers and green eaters alike. Local craft-cocktail maestro Tony Collins developed the drink menu, and Topeca provides the coffee, including full espresso service. A robust pastry section includes an assortment of pies alongside a "farm-to-cone" soft-serve machine of rotating ice creams. At every turn, the Diner feels like an improvement over the Deli.
"When we opened Dilly Deli many years ago, we weren’t as big of a company, and we had an idea to do a deli because that was a hole that needed to be filled in the particular market back then," Tack said. "But (the company) matured, needs matured, and we thought it was time for Dilly Deli to mature with it."
Bramble Breakfast & Bar // 311 E. 2nd St. // 918.933.4495 // TUES 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; WED-FRI 6 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-midnight; SAT 8 a.m.-2 p.m., 4 p.m.-midnight
Donaldson said Bramble’s fare, helmed by Chef de Cuisine Madeleine Eller, is "an homage to breakfast everywhere," and the description fits: From the English Breakfast to Spanish skillet Migas and Georgian Khachapuri cheese-and-egg bread, eating your way through the menu is like eating your way around the world.
"I love to break things down and reconstruct them in a way that makes them my own," Donaldson said. "I don’t ever want to serve what someone else is serving."
Donaldson and her team are as creative as they are resourceful. At Tallgrass, she and her staff butcher whole steers. To honor their nose-to-tail ethic, they’ve used the excess utility cuts in Bramble items like the Smash Burger and Chili Colorado. Like its sister restaurant, Bramble partners with local farms for much of its produce. Tulsa-based Hoot Owl Coffee provides Bramble’s bean juice, and Donaldson plans to add a nitro system for their cold brew.
"Hoot Owl is definitely of the same ethos that we are," Donaldson said. "For every pound of coffee they sell, they donate a pound of food."
Everything from Bramble’s carefully curated selection of antique salt and pepper shakers to the hammed-up pig décor beckons to grandma’s kitchen. Despite its similarities to Tallgrass, Bramble’s lower price point and rustic atmosphere make it more accessible.
The best of both worlds
Former fixture: Dilly Deli
Power pastry: Don’t be fooled by the sneaky, nostalgic seduction of that Froot Loops-topped doughnut. Keep your eyes on the prize and order the piece de resistance of diner fare: a fat slice of strawberry rhubarb pie. It’s flaky, it’s perfectly latticed, it’s all that and a side of soft-serve.
Wildcard favorite: Try the Chicken and Waffles. The dish is having a moment, but Tack is giving it laudable longevity with Asian updates and a spicy kick.
Daily special: Look out for a daily grilled cheese and some blue-plates, which Chef Memo Zavala hopes to add in the future.
Boozy fun: The curious Cereal Milk cocktail begs for a taste. I didn’t try one because it was 2:30 p.m. and my boss was in the office, but house-made cereal milk mixed fresh every morning, laced with booze? Watch out, Sunday. (The Voice staff couldn’t resist; see boozeclues for details.)
Former fixture: Bramble
Power pastry: Although "pastry" might be a stretch, the Khachapuri is unlike any other dish I’ve seen on a Tulsa menu and better than anything I’ve tasted in a while. Grab a loaf of the cheesy pull-apart bread for your table, dunk it in the egg froth, and enjoy a taste of euphoria.
Wildcard favorite: The Cheddar Short Stack with jalapeño-infused maple syrup was the dark horse of the menu. The quirky cheddar, jalapeño and maple syrup-bathed flapjacks had a cornbread-like flavor with the fluff of a pancake.
Daily special: Bramble’s daily Blue Plate Specials feature age-old favorites like Chef de Cuisine Madeleine Eller’s family recipe for King Ranch Chicken casserole, and the beloved Matzo Ball soup.
Boozy fun: Pair the Smash Burger with a vanilla stout. Or, try the Sunnyside Up—a smooth, creamy bourbon cocktail with egg yolks and a pickled quail egg garnish. Plan C: the Porter Cinnamon Float, made with cinnamon ice cream and the surprisingly fizzy Tallgrass Buffalo Sweat.
Who does it best: Diner staples go head to head
Match 1: Burgers
In the southeast corner, we’ve got the Dilly Burger, a Mickeydee’s throwback featuring double meat (responsibly sourced!) and cheese, red onion, house-made pickles and Tack’s own fancy sauce on a freshly-baked sesame seed bun. It’s juicy, tangy, smooth and sweet, but be warned: This burger will change you. As someone who’s rarely compelled to order beef (or perhaps because of that), this dish has occupied my thoughts since the first bite. Consider this my entrance to the dark side.
Down the road, Donaldson butchers locally sourced, grass-fed beef and hand-presses her own patties for the appropriately dubbed Smash Burger. She adds local lettuce and tomato, local cheddar from Christian Brothers farm and house-made pickles, ketchup and sriracha for garnish. A pile of string-thin French fries dusted with vinegar and sea salt finishes the plate. Bramble’s is a smaller, more elegant dish, bursting with bright, clean flavors. But it’s hard to beat a classic diner burger. Dilly Diner wins out in this round.
Match 2: Doughnuts
Dilly Diner gets points for charm with toppings like whipped buttercream, fresh strawberries, candy sprinkles and fruity pebbles. But there’s a formidable opponent in Bramble’s pastry case, which presents a new daily doughnut concept each morning. With flavors like S’mores (toasted house-made marshmallow, chocolate streaks and crumbled graham cracker) and green apple and cheddar laid over what tastes like an apple cider-fried delight, Bramble’s doughnuts are in a league of their own. For this battle, Bramble takes the cake.