Tulsa: Like Wichita, but on a bigger scale

The Sushi Train restaurant in Tulsa offers a unique delivery system for your food.
The Sushi Train restaurant in Tulsa offers a unique delivery system for your food. The Wichita Eagle

When Wichita families think of quick, weekend getaways, Kansas City or Oklahoma City often come to mind.

Both of our major-metro neighbors are less than a three-hour drive away, and both offer a change of scenery along with big-city amusement parks, water parks, kid museums, shopping and restaurants.

But I recently discovered a weekend getaway that’s just about the same distance from Wichita as Kansas City and Oklahoma City and offers big fun on a scale that will feel more familiar to Wichitans.


The city of 398,000 sits about 175 miles southeast of Wichita, and in some ways, it’s similar.

Tulsa is the country’s 47th biggest city. Wichita is the 49th.

Both have junior-sized skylines. Both sit on the Arkansas River.

But everything in Tulsa is just a little bit bigger, a little bit greener. Its metro-area population is Wichita’s and a half, and it sits on the foothills of the Ozarks, resulting in more trees and rolling hills.

Tulsa has two big art museums, an aquarium and a whole lot of art deco architecture. The city offers enough to see and do to comfortably pack a weekend with activities – but not so much that you feel like you just can’t fit it all in. Recently, the New York Times Travel editors placed it at No. 47 on a list of 52 worldwide destinations.

I’ve lived in Wichita for 18 years and have been a mom for 10 of those, but it had never occurred to me to visit Tulsa until recently. Wichita native and “The Voice” star Chris Mann, who I had interviewed frequently throughout his career, had landed a role playing the lead in the touring Broadway production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” and I wanted to see it. I had loved the musical as a teenager and thought my 10-year-old would enjoy it, too.

I bought tickets, and my husband and I decided he and the 4-year-old should tag along for a family weekend.

Through the years, I’d heard mostly favorable things about Tulsa, if you don’t count those series of “Friends” episodes from the early 2000s when Chandler falls asleep in a meeting and accidentally volunteers to lead the company’s Tulsa office – a fate wife Monica considers worse than death.

“Chandler I don’t even want to see the musical ‘Oklahoma,’” she shrieks, despondent.

“You don’t know,” he says. “It could be like Paris. You could still take a cooking class ... at Oral Roberts University.”

Hrmph. New Yorkers. Tulsa might not be Paris, exactly, but it’s definitely a nice – and I might go so far as to say beautiful – place to visit.

The Tulsa Performing Arts Center, where “Phantom” was playing, was our first stop. Built in 1977, it’s Tulsa’s answer to Century II and is home to the Tulsa Ballet, Tulsa Opera and Tulsa Symphony. Like Century II, it also gets traveling Broadway shows, and they’re extra fun to attend in Chapman Music Hall, a 2,365-seat venue with three tiers of Continental-style seating, red seats and dramatic burgundy-colored ruched acoustic drapes. Though the lobby was crowded both before and after the show, Chris and Co. sounded great and our seats, which were on the back row of the orchestra level, had more leg room than perhaps any theater seat I’d ever occupied.

While the 10-year-old and I took in the show, my husband took the 4-year-old to the Tulsa Zoo. Though they enjoyed it – particularly the sea lions – this is an area where Wichita has Tulsa beat. The zoo was hard to access. Mid-afternoon on a Saturday, it took them 45 minutes just to get through the line to enter the parking lot, where it costs $2 to park. Once inside, they said found the zoo lacking in the marquee attractions they’d gotten used to at the Sedgwick County Zoo, particularly the penguin, lion and gorilla exhibits.

We had dinner, then dessert and decided to make one last stop before returning to our hotel. The kids weren’t excited to hear that we were going to see a giant statue of an oil driller. But their attitudes changed when we pulled up to the towering, 76-foot-tall figure in front of the Tulsa Expo Square. The statue of an oil driller was originally built in 1953 for a petroleum expo in Tulsa. The city put it up again a few years later, and it was so popular, they decided to leave it. It’s now the official Oklahoma state monument and is used in a scene-setter in the aforementioned “Friends” episode. He really is a sight, even at night, and the girls enjoyed crawling around on his shoe. They begged to return the next morning.

Instead, we headed to Utica Square, an upscale, beautifully landscaped shopping center in Tulsa’s midtown. I’d heard that Utica Square, which also boasts a Pottery Barn, Saks Fifth Avenue and Anthropologie, had good restaurants. It was a Sunday morning, and we found a beautiful patio table for a quiet Sunday brunch. While we waited for our food, the girls were able to play in a nearby green space and explore a vintage London phone booth fitted with an actual working pay phone while we waited for the food to be delivered. I ran into Bath & Body Works next door and used a gift certificate on our way out.

We finished our whirlwind trip to Tulsa with a stop at the Oklahoma Aquarium, which opened in 2003 just off the Arkansas river in nearby Jenks, a southern Tulsa suburb. The aquarium houses several Oklahoma species of fish along with kid favorites like sting rays, jelly fish, turtles and best of all sharks.

The shark exhibit is the highlight of this aquarium, and it’s walk-through tunnel of a tank holds a half-million gallons of water and several menacing bull sharks. It’s such an awesome exhibit, it was featured during the Discovery Channel’s famous “Shark Week” in 2003. I could have spent hours watching the majestic sharks swim beside me, behind me and over me, but there was too much to see for the kids to stay still.

Among their favorite features was a tank that allows kids to crawl through a tunnel underneath it and stand straight up in a clear cylinder that puts them right in the center of the fish habitat. The aquarium also has several touch ponds, and at designated times, visitors also can pet the stingrays. My favorite part of the aquarium was its modest size. Though we felt like we got our money’s worth and saw hundreds of species, we made our way through it in an hour and a half – just the right amount of time.

On the way home, I sang every song that mentions “Tulsa” I could think of, especially Don Williams’ “Tulsa Time.”

The girls begged me, alternately, to stop singing and to take them back to Tulsa as soon as possible.

See the sights in Tulsa

Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. Second St., 918-596-7122, http://tulsapac.com/: Shows over the summer include “West Side Story” in June and “Spamalot” in August.

Tulsa Zoo, 6421 E. 36th St. N., 918-669-6600, www.tulsazoo.org. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission $10 adults, $6 ages 3 to 11, $8 ages 65 and over.

Oklahoma Aquarium, 300 Aquarium Drive, Jenks, 918-296-3474, Open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily and late on Tuesdays until 9 p.m. Admission $15.95 for adults, $13.95 for seniors, $11.95 for children ages 3 to 12.

Golden Driller, 4145 E. 21st St., outside the Tulsa Expo Square. It’s a public piece of art, so it’s free to view.

Utica Square, 1437 S. Boulder Ave. 918-742-5531, www.uticasquare.com.

Dining in Tulsa

The best part about traveling is eating, and before we left for Tulsa, I spent hours researching where we should eat. Somehow, I managed to put together a list that was perfect for our family, and there wasn’t a miss among them:

Hideaway Pizza, 1419 E. 15th St., 918-582-4777, www.hideawaypizza.com: We rolled into town late on a Saturday morning ready for lunch and stopped at Hideaway Pizza, an Oklahoma pizza chain that started in nearby Stillwater, Okla., (home of Oklahoma State University) in 1957. Today, there are also Hideaways in Oklahoma City, Edmond, Bartlesville, Norman and Tulsa.

Hideaway has a college-town-restaurant feel, mostly because it’s reminiscent of the famous Shakespeare’s Pizza in Columbia, Mo. The location we visited was in the Cherry Street District, a near-downtown neighborhood full of shopping, antiques and restaurants that itself has a college-town feel. The dining room was spacious and clean, and the menu was huge. So were the pizzas. The kids had a pepperoni, which was served on thick, chewy dough. I ordered The Tulsa Hurricane (of course) on thin crust, which expertly blended more mature toppings like Canadian bacon, smoked bacon, diced green peppers, pineapple, jalapenos and both mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. The kids loved the coloring pages and the art gallery near the restroom where they could hang their signed masterpieces.

Sushi Train, 3300 E. 51st, 918-747-9931, www.sushitraintulsaok.com: That evening, the pizza wore off and we were ready to eat again. I’d read about a restaurant called Sushi Train at 3300 E. 51st that seemed custom-made for kids. (At least for kids who like sushi, and lucky for us, ours do.) That dinner was one of the highlights of our weekend. Sushi Train is fitted with a toy train traveling a huge circular track. Inside the track, an army of sushi chefs are busy at work, preparing rolls, sashimi, appetizers and more. Outside of the circle are booths and bar stools butting right up to the train track.

The chefs put small servings of the various dishes on color-coded plates (each color signifies a different price point) and cover them with plastic lids. The description of what’s inside is printed by hand on a small sign made of construction paper and scotch tape. As the sushi chugs by, diners are invited to grab what they want. At the end of the meal, the waiter computes the bill by tallying how many empty plates of what color are on your table. Full rolls and teriyaki meals also can be ordered from the kitchen.

Though the restaurant looks a little questionable from the outside (it’s inside what looks like a dingy, re-purposed diner), it was bright and cheerful inside. The sushi tasted fresh, and the pre-schooler was happy because we allowed her to grab three $1.99 servings of edamame off the train. Both kids are still talking about the Sushi Train.

Freckles Frozen Custard, 5138 S. Harvard, Tulsa, 918-749-5663, www.frecklesfrozencustard.com: After dinner, we noticed another recommended Tulsa eatery just across the street from the Sushi Train. Freckles Frozen Custard is Tulsa’s answer to St. Louis favorite Ted Drewes. It’s a little hut with a walk-up window and a long line that starts in early spring and lasts until early fall. Tulsa has two Freckles, but we went to the one at 5138 S. Harvard. The store serves chocolate and vanilla custard plus a rotating flavor of the day, and customers can have the custard mixed with all sorts of fruit and candy. It also can be made into floats, malts, freezes, shakes and smoothies. We tried several creations, but our favorite was the Chocolate Allie, made with chocolate custard blended with hot fudge and chopped up Snickers bars and topped with whipped cream and chocolate chips. It takes quite a while to get your order at Freckles, especially on weekend nights, but if the weather is good, the wait on the adjoined patio is pleasant. (The newer Freckles location at 8011 S. Sheridan Road also has indoor seating.)

Queenie’s Cafe & Bakery, 1834 Utica Square, 918-749-3481, www.queeniesoftulsa.com: Sunday morning, we headed out in search of brunch, and I decided we should go to Utica Square, where I’d heard there were several good restaurants. We saw a couple of not-too-crowded patios but settled on Queenie’s, a quaint but tiny restaurant with colorful tables set up on the front walkway. The inside of the restaurant was tiny, with just a few tables crammed up against a pastry case. The menu was full of breakfast classics, and I chose cheese grits topped with an over-easy egg and served with a side of bacon. It was simple and delicious, and the girls liked their chocolate milk and plate-sized pancakes, too.