OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — “Girls!” For those who were in Grill on the Hill in old Capitol Hill it was a familiar shout often heard from owner Norma Ericson. It signaled the all-female wait staff that they were getting behind on picking up their orders from the kitchen window.
But, over time, Norma had perfected just the right volume so that she could be heard by those for whom it was intended without it being intrusive for diners — the art of work.
Friday was the last day that her voice would make the staff move faster, though. After, 14 years, the restaurant known for a higher quality of what most would call American café food is now closed.
People there to say goodbye and eat one more time started filling the place when I was there shortly after opening at 7 a.m. and it stayed that way right up to 1:40 when they stopped taking orders.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Valerie Cowherd who was among the breakfast crowd with her brother Jeffrey Christian. “They’re just like family.”
Having grown up on the south side and graduating from Capitol Hill High School, the old school memorabilia on the walls and display cases throughout seemed to be a comfort to her. “I gave them a drum majorette hat,” she said. It was a dynamic where once alums saw some memorabilia they wanted to add theirs, too.
It wasn’t just the food that drew people in.
Grill on the Hill was also a major meeting place, both formal and informal. Groups of friends would meet on regular intervals — some daily — around long tables in the main dining room and organized groups met in a back meeting room.
“It’s like Cheers, everybody knows your name,” said Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan. “From garage mechanics to bank presidents to civil and community workers to philanthropists, everybody comes here. It’s the great melting pot.”
It was one of the few restaurants left on the south side that could handle the size of breakfast and lunchtime crowds with so many meetings. Two side-by-side original retail spaces had been made into Grill on the Hill by locking the front doors on one and knocking out doorways between the two.
Rarely did I go there when the back meeting room was empty. Politicians of all parties were told by campaign staff — if they already didn’t know — that they better not miss an invitation by a group that met at Grill on the Hill, even if they normally dodged free-wheeling encounters with the public.
In the back meeting room I had one of the very rare opportunities to interview Senator James Lankford face to face. Such valuable chance encounters made Grill on the Hill a great place to frequent for our coverage of politics.
When David Holt was campaigning for mayor of Oklahoma City for the first time, he was invited to the Capitol Hill Civic Group in that back meeting room. It was where I first heard him say publicly, “I’m not running for mayor of downtown. I’m running for mayor of all of Oklahoma City.”
That statement especially was startling to hear especially after having covered Mayor Mick Cornett who spent so much of his term as mayor focused on downtown and seemed to listen the most to downtown big business interests.
The meeting room was where long-term political tail-twisters like former state legislator and OKC City Councilor Pete White had weekly “lunch-bunch” meetings. And, political hopefuls who were not invited showed up anyway.
After 14 years, owners Norma Ericson and Rory Carver decided to close the restaurant.
Rory, who ran the kitchen while Norma ran the front, had a serious injury that took him off his feet where he couldn’t stay in the harsh demands of the kitchen. Friday he was there to help but had to lean on his cane often to take a break.
COVID took its toll on both of them personally. Rory told me that neither of them went to the hospital but they were sick for a couple of weeks. And, like so many locally-owned restaurants, the slowing of traffic due to pandemic conditions took its toll on the business.
For Norma, it was just the constant march of birthdays and the sheer physical demands of the restaurant business.
“The manual labor — it’s hard and I’m getting older,” Ericson told me after they had stopped taking orders. “I mean, the hamburger I buy is 80 pounds a case, 40 pounds for chicken, and they put it way up, and you got to pull it down. I’m tired. My body hurts.”
Friday, it was still up in the air who might buy the business.
Commissioner Maughan pointed me to Oklahoma County Court Clerk Rick Warren and suggested that Warren was “the only one in here right now who has the money to buy it.” I talked to Warren about it. He said that he just has too much going on to think about buying the place but knew of someone who was thinking about it.
Will there be a next chapter for Grill on the Hill? Time will tell.
Last Updated April 3, 2022, 12:40 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor