Note: This story was written for The Dallas Morning News’ Texas & Southwest — Southwest Spotlight section.
By Dennis Whiteman
Special to The News
NORMAN, Okla. — Take one jigger each of “punks, drunks and just plain folks.”
Mix liberally with an around-the-clock reading of Moby Dick. Leaven the concoction with Bette Maffucci’s best desserts.
And for the real gourmet, you still wouldn’t capture the full flavor of one of Norman’s most famous landmarks, the Town Tavern, 50-year home of academic debate and vigorous Monday-morning quarterbacking of University of Oklahoma football.
The cafe is across from the University of Oklahoma campus.
Many students and faculty members gather at the Tavern daily to discuss the issues of the day, read a newspaper or simply watch the traffic go by while en- joying a hot meal. Old-timers remember that since 1934, when the restaurant was founded, many of those hot meals have been gratis for deserving and struggling students.
But Town Tavern is also the place where Oklahoma Sooner football fans gather to remember national championships and dream of future gridiron glories.
Prior to OU home football games, Town Tavern fills up with a standing-room-only crowd of diehard, bloodthirsty Sooner fans. Outside, employees busily sell cans of beer for $1 and discuss the team’s chances for this day.
Conrad Jackson, 44, who usually works as an aerospace engineer in Oklahoma City, has been serving up suds on game days for four years. He has two sons who are working their way through school at the cale. “I do it more for meeting the people and having a good time than for making money,” Jackson says. And besides, he adds, “It’s just plain fun.”
Town Tavern’s decor is strikingly simple. Some might call it plain. Crimson booths and white tables conform to the outside walls. A long counter provides a surface for the pies and cakes that are baked daily. An old-fashioned cook stove and refrigerator sit along the inside walls.
But the sight of the large oil painting of place kicker Uwe von Schamann’s game-winning 41-yard field goal in the final seconds of OU’s 29-28 victory over Ohio State in 1977 quickly dispels any notion that this may be just another Oklahoma restaurant.
On days when the Sooners are playing away from Norman, punkers with Mohawk haircuts, old men with bulging stomachs, and preppy types all huddle around the television set to watch the action and just talk. There’s a certain fraternal togetherness that goes with being a Sooner, they say.
During the late 19S0s, owner Ernie Wilson began the tradition of painting football scores for each season along the walls to highlight Bud Wilkinson’s years as OU’s head football coach.
During evenings at Town Tavern, student poets sometimes gather to share readings of their work over coffee and pastry. On Wednesdays, a group known as the Cake Eater’s Club gathers to sample desserts topped with free ice cream. And on weekends, a lone aoustic guitarist might share his particular talent with the “punks, drunks and just plain folks” found at the Tavern.
In July, Town Tavern staged its first summer solstice celebration with a non-stop 24-hour reading of Moby Dick.
Five years ago, the Street Player’s Theatre, Oklahoma’s only touring professional theater group, gave its first performances at Town Tavern. The Street Player’s group now performs in Dallas, Tulsa and Oklahoma City, but the first and last performances of its five-month season are always reserved for Town Tavern.
Town Tavern can even boast having an honorary Oklahoma attorney general as an employee. J.B. Benton, who has served students at the cafe for 27 years, was given the honor by former state Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright, who remembered Benton serving him while he was an OU law student.