My daddy, the late James R. May, truly enjoyed food. He was a big fan of dining out, as long as he was served quality food with excellent service. As a restauranteur before my time and during my childhood, he had plenty of experience in how to provide both, and was pleased when the favor was returned.
When I was a wee tot with a bowl cut and skinny legs in the early 80s, my mother had a job at Hammett House, which was still owned by the Hammett family. I remember spending time after school in the bar while she served drinks to the Claremore business crowd. (Before I cause a riot, please note: this is before the law of having to be 21 to be in a bar was in effect.) The restaurant was a dark, cozy joint, paneled in deep walnut with imposing red leather booths. Behind the restaurant stands a nearby building that serves as the bakery, and I have memories of my mom working some early morning shifts making those delicious, fluffy, made-from-scratch rolls that Hammett House still proudly serves today.
My parents were good friends with the Hammetts, and we ate there often, because they served quality food with excellent service. But there was another restaurant in town that my daddy frequented on a regular basis: Golden Corral. Now, the Golden Corral of the 1980s was a far cry from the establishment it is today. This was a time that predated the buffet and the Chocolate Wonderfall. This was a time of placing your order (I always chose chopped sirloin) at a counter, and being seated, with your food brought to you. There was a salad bar, as well. It was classic, with a good steak selection. No sneeze guards shielding brisket next to macaroni & cheese and meatloaf next to that and then a tray of hamburgers beside that. (Please let me say that this is nothing against the current Golden Corral; I just miss the old days. Although the Chocolate Wonderfall is pretty spectacular.)
The driving force behind the delicious food and superb service was the restaurant’s partner and manager, and good friend of my daddy, Bill Biard. For years, we ate at Golden Corral multiple times per week. In the meantime, Hammett House closed, and the building sat vacant for about five years. I continued to eat chopped sirloin, and my daddy continued to irk the servers by ordering his iced tea with an additional cup of ice.
Then, in 1991, something wonderful happened. Bill Biard of Golden Corral, and his wife, Linda, bought the empty restaurant, and were faced with a decision: which route should the restaurant take? Bill was obviously well-versed in the steakhouse world, after 20 years of corporate restaurant experience and his career with Golden Corral. Should it be Bill’s Steakhouse? Should it be something entirely different? While the Biards mulled over the options, Jim Hammett approached and asked for a job. That decided it. With a gifted cook and original Hammett on the team, Bill and Linda would recreate the Hammett House of its heyday.
Hammett House first opened in April 1969, a dream of LaNelle Hammett. The matriarch of the Hammett clan, LaNelle loved to cook and was full of creative and innovative ideas. She was also declared legally blind at the age of 19, but that didn’t stop her from baking homemade rolls and the made-from-scratch pies that put Hammett House on the map. The original idea for the restaurant was to have telephones at each table, and have diners pick up the handset and place orders to the kitchen. Phone jacks were installed at each table, but the equipment never arrived. The dark walnut paneling was installed in an effort to cover the jacks.
Speaking of LaNelle’s wild ideas, she was one of the first to get involved with Weight Watchers and serve healthy choices to patrons. She invented her “Skinny Soup” in 1970, and it is still a staple on the menu today. Another popular choice still on the menu is the Lemon Pecan Pie, the recipe discovered by LaNelle in an issue of Southern Living in the 1960s. Rounding out the menu with items that proved to stand the test of time are dishes like Pamper Fried Chicken and Matzo Ball Soup, all finished off with LaNelle’s signature homemade seasonings.
Back to the Biards in 1991. They had scrimped, saved and borrowed to purchase the long-vacant space. The first step was a renovation of the building, which took about five months. The walnut and red were removed, and brighter, lighter colors were introduced. The entry was redesigned, and the bar was transformed into an additional dining area.
Bill and Linda were determined to keep the tradition alive, in serving a “bountiful meal at a reasonable price.” Much of the menu was retained, minus a couple of dishes like chicken gizzards. Pamper Fried Chicken, navy bean soup, and the famous pies all stayed put. Bill added a couple of his own treats to the menu, influenced by his past. One of these is the “hot hamburger”, inspired by Murphy’s Original Steakhouse in Bartlesville. The hot hamburger consists of a burger on toast, with grilled onions and gravy. Pretty sure that’s comfort food at its finest. Bill also added his twist on Golden Corral’s Broccoli & Cheese Soup. And my mom and dad, who loved quality food and excellent service? They were the first paying customers at the newly renovated Hammett House.
Hammett House has been famous for its pies and seasonings for years, but the salad dressings are another item not to be missed. I admitted to Bill that I had heard of the “Pink Stuff”, but I don’t eat salads, so I had never had occasion to taste it. Without a word, he fetched a small container of the dressing with club crackers. Delicious. (It is cold, garlicky, and pink, and brings to mind the “Love Dip” at Central Market in Texas. And it’s fabulous.) The history of the Pink Stuff is an interesting one. Many moons ago, when Littlefield’s Steakhouse lived in town (at the curve near the Expo), Joe Littlefield served the Pink Stuff. Bill eventually was able to buy the recipe from him, and that is when he learned that the recipe was first discovered at the Pryor Cafe. In 1948, a traveling soap salesman stopped in, wrote the recipe down, and left it. The Pink Stuff has been around for a long time, and it’s easy to taste why. During Bill’s tenure, he has also concocted the “Green Stuff”, which is Cilantro Lime Ranch. Also delicious. Even without salad.
The historical restaurant stays true to its roots in the daily potluck specials. Each day, a lunch special is served, and it doesn’t vary. There is something comforting about knowing you can always get steak fingers on Wednesday, or fish & chips on Friday. Navy bean soup has been served on Wednesdays for as long as I can remember, and I’ve known since I was about five years old that Sunday is the day for matzo ball soup (still my fave to this day).
The pies, made from scratch daily, have caught the attention of more than local diners or travelers; Southern Living even published an article dedicated to the delectable desserts. One of Bill’s additions is the Apple Pie Delight, which is served on a hot cast-iron skillet and drizzled with brandy-butter sauce. And ice cream. Hammett House also serves Trisha Yearwood’s Key Lime Cake, with Trisha’s blessing. Traditional flavors like chocolate, coconut and the aforementioned lemon pecan are always available, but there are plenty of others to choose from, like German Chocolate, Buttermilk Chess, and my personal favorite, Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter. (Have you figured out that one of my all-time lifelong favorite meals is from Hammett House? Chicken Fried Chicken, matzo ball soup, and a piece of chocolate chip peanut butter pie. Of course, I’ve never actually eaten pie IN the restaurant; it goes home with me and is consumed over a four-day period.)
That being said, here are some fun facts for you. The Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter pie, as a whole, weighs THIRTEEN POUNDS. In average American restaurants, only 7 – 10% of diners order dessert. At Hammett House, that number is a whopping 38%. And of course, they have a booming to-go dessert business! If you want to attempt to make one of the sweet concoctions in your own kitchen, you can certainly try; a few of the favorite recipes are printed on the placemats.
Hammett House is a favorite destination of locals and tourists alike. There is something to be said about a restaurant that has essentially been in business in the same location for more than 40 years. Linda and Bill Biard have done a commendable job of carrying on LaNelle’s dream; they have made some adjustments to make it their own, but the lifeblood of the restaurant is still this: “We want to provide our guests with fine food, expertly served in a restful atmosphere, with plenty of “Southwestern Style” hospitality. Our menu is neither extensive nor expensive, but everything we do…we try to do extremely well!”
I’d say Hammett House is doing a fine job of meeting their goal.
Hammett House is open Tuesday – Saturday from 11a – 9p, and Sunday from 11a – 8p. Closed Monday. The landmark restaurant is located at 1616 W. Will Rogers, in the shadow of the Will Rogers Memorial.
Keep it local, Claremore!
-MCM Staffer Ashley,
who can never get enough chicken fried chicken. Or steak fingers. Or chocolate chip peanut butter pie. Or matzo ball soup. And now I’m hungry.