Walking into Tommy Byrd’s kitchen, there is that familiar energy of walking into an old friend’s house for a special meal. Everyone is moving and helping and wants to get you a drink while you catch up. This vibrant sense of hospitality is a natural extension of the Byrd family, who owns and operates the newly re-opened Tommy’s Italian-American Grill at 5516 W. Memorial Road in Oklahoma City.
Tommy and Lori’s two kids had come into town the day before to celebrate the success of the new renovation of Tommy’s restaurant. Their daughter, Emily Brewer, helps Lori set the table, while their son, James Byrd, and son-in-law, Austin Brewer, focus on keeping everyone’s drink glasses full. It was like the family had never spent a moment apart..
As Lori ripped handfuls of romaine into a big bowl for the Caesar salad she shares, “My mom always taught me that you have to hand-tear lettuce—it just doesn’t taste right cut with a knife.” Lori then tells me that the Caesar salad served at Tommy’s doesn’t come with the typical Caesar dressing—because Emily cannot eat fish, they don’t use anchovies. (This is all she would divulge on the popular dressing.)
“I think I’m going to give us a little color here, just for fun,” Tommy says as he adds some sauteed peppers to the meatballs and Pomodoro sauce. Both recipes came from a 25-cent cookbook, Recipes from an Italian Farm, which also inspired the Bolognese sauce and almost all of the basic sauces that are prepared fresh at Tommy’s. “Everything is prepared on-site,” Tommy said. “Nothing is brought in.”
“Most of our recipes actually come from the staff,” Tommy said. “Since they’re the ones who are there the most, eating our food, we’ll try running their ideas as specials first. If the customers like it a lot, it’ll become part of the menu at Tommy’s.” His favorite lunch—a Caesar salad with two meatballs on top— was the brainchild of a visiting food representative.
“I had honestly never thought about [opening restaurants] growing up,” Tommy said. He was set to possibly go into the oil and gas industry after college, but a group of his friends from college started the Interurban Restaurant Group—Tommy’s start in the food industry. “I did that for seven years and then went out on my own in 1990,” Tommy said. “We are all still great friends.”
His first solo venture was opening Bellini’s in 1990, and then opening Tommy’s at North Park Mall in 1992. Tommy has since sold Bellini’s to the Buthion brothers, who own La Baguette. After he closed Tommy’s in North Park Mall he joined Emerging Brands, who own Henry Hudson’s and Poblano Grill.
After a decade, Tommy found it hard to go back to a corporate restaurant group after being out on his own. “It’s hard once you’ve already [gone out on your own], to go back to a group and not have that autonomy,” Lori explained. After being bought out at his request, Tommy opened his own restaurant and, in his words, is now “happy as a clam.”
Tommy chose to reopen his namesake restaurant in the spring of 2014 because people were constantly asking him to. “It was really very flattering,” he said. “They would say that they missed Tommy’s and loved the menu, so we went with it.”
He continues to stir the meatballs in the cast-iron pan and checks on the Bolognese sauce for the spaghetti that bubbles away in another pot. The Bolognese sauce was made with venison sausage from Griffith Taxidermy in Burnett, Texas.
An interest in good food runs in the Byrd family. “Emily and Lori share a foodie mentality,” Tommy said. “Lori loves to relax while cooking and Emily is always finding a new recipe or cookbook to try. We love all having this in common.”
As the food is kept warm on the stove, everyone gathers outside to enjoy a beautiful cheese platter and white wine as the first course. Finishing touches are then made to the main course, red wine is poured and the family sits down at the beautifully set table. Before they began eating, Emily raises her glass to give a heartfelt toast ending with: “as we toast to this year, remember our cheers, to your fine store, it’s true, but above all, to you being you.”
The main course includes the perfectly cooked meatballs and Pomodoro sauce that Tommy had been working on, whole-wheat spaghetti, and Bolognese sauce that tasted like it had been simmering all day, drawing out all of the flavors of the venison. There was also Lori’s wonderful take on the Caesar salad, plus fresh and vibrant green beans with slivered almonds, and the toasted house-made bread from the restaurant, which made the perfect vehicle to soak up any excess sauce on your plate.
“Emily had a lot of influence on the interior and the ambiance of the new restaurant,” Tommy said. “The dark wood and brick give it a classy but casual feel. We wanted people to be able to come in from the golf course or be going out to the ballet and all feel comfortable. It’s really meant to be a neighborhood restaurant,” Tommy explained. He did his research on how he wanted the feel of the restaurant to take shape, by traveling to similar-concept restaurants in other states.
The family clears the table to get ready for dessert. Lori has made a caramel apple pie, a recipe from a family friend, and she now works on preparing brandy ices for everyone. The combination of caramel, apples, brandy, nutmeg and vanilla ice cream take a classic American flavor to another level of nostalgic elegance.
As everyone sat around enjoying dessert outside under stringed lights on the patio, one could see where Tommy gets his inspiration. The evening was lovely, casual and centered around enjoying great food and time with family.