In 2004, Elliot Nelson must have been slightly nervous about the business he was opening. That business was James E. McNellie’s Public House (or simply “McNellie’s” to most Tulsans), and he was opening it to a fairly desolate downtown. Remember, these were the days before El Guapo’s Cantina, Joe Momma’s Pizza, and the Dilly Deli. At one end of the Blue Dome District sat another Irish pub, Arnie’s, and there was not much else. McNellie’s sat at the other end of the street, and it seems to me like the first days were a little dry.
Hitting the bar for happy hour now makes it seem like it’s been down there for years, though. The community has embraced it as a downtown Tulsa staple, and it has helped breathe life into the Blue Dome District that it calls home. On the morning I met up with Nelson for this portrait, he had quite a busy schedule. He was getting ready to leave for Norman to launch the third spin-off of McNellie’s, a bar called Abner’s Ale House.
And yet, the guy seems pretty down-to-Earth. All of his employees refer to him as a friend on a first-name basis. He also has an energetic sense of humor and fun. While I was setting up, he let me in on a popular prank I didn’t previously know of: the prank of unexpectedly handing somebody a Smirnoff Ice. By rules of the game, the recipient of the drink has 30 seconds to pass it on or they must chug it. He was telling me, he recently shipped a 22 oz. bottle of Smirnoff Ice overnight to a friend in Colorado with a note attached saying, “You’ve been Iced.”
But what makes Nelson a True Tulsan is that he took the risk to redraw the map of downtown. And it looks like he’s not only changed the map, but he’s created a new gravitational center. Since McNellie’s opened and won the crowd, Nelson has opened four other businesses, with two more on the way.
True Tulsa is a weekly project that highlights the people and places that make our city great.