Walking in here, you’re not sure if you’ve entered a hole-in-the-wall kitchen or a five-star restaurant—or both. But the line of people wrapping around the building suggests you’re in for a treat. The owners know what they’re doing, and they promise a seat by the time you get your food.They’ve been around since 1929, and anyone who was anyone ate here—including the mayors and politicians.
It was the place to be, and although they changed locations, everything has stayed the same since the opening of the restaurant: the food, the service, the family and even the original vintage orange and green neon sign which reads “Nelson’s Buffeteria.”
Although the building appears rundown and old, the ambiance hints to its proud history as one of Tulsa’s original landmarks. Newspaper clippings hang in frames on the right side of the restaurant wall. The staff are familiar and loud while clanging dishes in the back and shouting orders at each other, but the chaos brings about a sense of family, even if it is your first time visiting Nelson’s Buffeteria. Twangy blue grass music is played by a live band performing old gospel hymns in the corner of the restaurant.
“My husband and I saw them playing at the flea market—just a couple of guys with a harmonica. They said, ‘well we belong to this little band.’ They’re called the Round Up Boys because they just round up guys who play. ‘Can you come down to the buffeteria?’ I asked years ago. They’ve been playing here ever since,” said Suzanna Rogers, second generation owner of Nelson’s Buffeteria.
Suzanne Rogers’ father-in-law started the business, and it was passed over to her and her husband, Nelson Rogers, Jr. in 1977. The business is almost 100 years old. Now it is co-owned by their daughter, Jody Rogers.
“I was laughing today because the line’s usually all the way out the door, and I’m always going into the kitchen to tell them. The staff always laughs and echoes my singing voice ‘it’s out the door,’” laughed Suzanne. “And so today I said, ‘It’s out the door, and all the way to the corner to the building.’ And they said, ‘It is not.’ And of course the head chef ran out and exclaimed, ‘it is out the door.’ It was so funny and everyone was all a panic.”
The first thing you notice about Nelson’s Buffeteria is the packed parking lot with a long crowd stretched passed the door, but it moves quickly. An aroma of spices drift through the breeze while making your stomach growl with anticipation for a good home-cooked meal. Nelson’s has four entrees on their menu. Their most popular item is their “world famous chicken fried steak” followed by the chicken fried chicken, pan fried steak and drip beef. There are also specialty items every day of the week you can choose.
“Everything’s from scratch in our kitchen. Our chicken fried steak is the most popular. It comes in a big piece of meat, and we cut it, trim it, tenderize it, and then we bread it by hand. Everything is made by hand because they are the original recipes,” said Rogers.
“When we were downtown and Nelson’s father was still alive, I was just there. So I started writing everything down so we could have the recipes. I thought, ‘We’re gonna need these someday,’ so I wrote them all down.”
You pick your food while an assembly line places it onto your plate. The piping hot chicken fried chicken is evenly battered with just the right amount of crispiness while also tender enough to slide your butter knife into it with ease. The peppery taste compliments the creamy mashed potatoes served with hot, thick gravy. It comes with a warm, fluffy roll accompanied by either a side of corn or peppered green beans which match the flavors of the dish wonderfully.
“We have repeat customers, and we know them by name. They usually order the same things since they come in during breakfast hours. They have their little favorites,” said Suzanne.Praising newspapers are hung on the wall by the front door of all shapes and sizes as a reminder of what they’ve always been—Nelson’s Buffeteria—a place where the food is worth the wait.