The Last Days of Big Nick

I was digging through my files over the weekend and found this article I did in February of 2012 on the 50th Anniversary of Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint, formerly at West 77th Street and Broadway. The first time I went to the place was back in 2005 when I was visiting the city over the weekend, and a friend and I were hungry after a late movie. Big Nick greeted my friend–who frequented the place when he went to high school at La Guardia.

The tight labyrinthine place conveyed a cozy sense of claustrophobia. The decades-old tables and chairs did not expand concurrently with America’s waistline, and instead of paint, nearly every square inch of space was colored by signs vaunting menu items–special or standard, signs with declaratives (Big Nick’s is not a library, or a place for open laptops. It is just a SMALL STORE and a good place to eat! SINCE 1962) and signs with imperatives (PAY YOUR CHECK AT THE REGISTER ONLY.). There were enough neon lights to garnish Times Square and a jukebox that played only oldies.

I wrote this thinking I could get it into the local community paper. I was wrong, but now I like to think of it as a primary source that can be used to learn about a vanishing city. After over 50 years of being open 24/7 at 77th and Broadway, Big Nick’s closed in 2013 due to a rent hike. Its loss was mourned near and far, and left many an Upper West Sider wondering where the heck to eat at three in the morning–definitely a legitimate question in a city that never sleeps.  

Big Nick’s Turns 50

While time travel remains impossible for most, patrons of Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint were able to step into the past on Wednesday, when the restaurant celebrated its 50th anniversary by offering its renowned fare at 1962 prices. Patrons enjoyed quarter-pound hamburgers and a side of fries for less than a dollar. Most people expect to receive gifts on their birthday, but Big Nick’s birthday was a present to the people.

“I wanted to return a favor to the people who came to my place for so many years. I wanted to use this day to say thank you to them,” explained Big Nick, the restaurant’s namesake and founder. In response, people came from near and far to help celebrate.

Cristian Duarte of Washington Heights sat contentedly in front of three recently emptied plates. “I waited a half an hour to get here. I used to come here at least once a week.”

For his loyalty and patience he was awarded a bargain dinner. “Today I had a cheeseburger, fries and coleslaw. I usually spend ten to twelve bucks. Today I spent a dollar and some change.”

Dozens of people stood outside waiting to take his place.

“There was a two block line from 11 o’clock in the morning until now,” said Big Nick himself as the clock approached midnight. He had already been there for over twelve hours, but that man showed no sign of fatigue.

The usual din and bustle of a busy diner swirled about him, but Big Nick was never too busy to offer a warm salutation to his customers. “I never get tired when I talk about restaurants, you know? It’s part of my life. That’s why I succeeded so far for so many years. I’m never tired of it. It’s in my blood after all these years.”

Big Nick’s is now also part of the genetic makeup of its Upper West Side home. Longtime resident Zack Hample, a baseball writer and collector, was indoctrinated at a very young age. “I remember having my sixth birthday party here with my entire first grade class. I’ve definitely been to Big Nick’s more than 1,000 times over the years. There was a time when I was going there so often that Nick gave me a free dessert whenever he saw me.”

Big Nick’s renown is not restricted to the Upper West Side, or even this side of the Atlantic.

“I came all the way from Germany for this,” joked a tall middle-aged German national who divides his time between Munich and New York City. “I have been here many times, the first time in 2007. I ordered a cheeseburger with cheddar.”

Now he comes in every morning for coffee and a croissant.

“I feel at home when I come here, because Nick and all the guys say ‘Hi, great to see you again.’ I was away for two years and when I come back they said, ‘Hey, where have you been for so long?’ The guys here remember you. I send all my friends here. This is, in New York, a unique place. As a European guy, this place to me is like American Graffiti.

American Graffiti takes place in 1962, the same year that Big Nick’s opened. The interior has not changed since then. If the walls could talk, they would have many stories to tell after all these years.

But Big Nick likes to tell his story himself. He came to New York fifty-one years ago from the island of Stamos in Greece, starting as a dishwasher.

Big Nick’s the restaurant also had humble beginnings. “We were here during a bad time on the west side, when the west side was a jungle all around. They used to throw people out of hotel windows. Seventy-second Street was a needle park, with all kinds of junkies.”

Despite the gritty backdrop, Big Nick’s has flourished long enough to enjoy a more Apollonian West side. Since 1962 Nick started six more restaurants in Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens. As Big Nick’s businesses grew, so did the menu. What started out as a two-page menu offering standard diner fare is now a 25-page tome.

“It’s one of the biggest menus in New York City. We cater to all different kinds of people. We have breakfast, we have late snacks, we are open twenty-four hours a day. We don’t even have a key for the door,” said Big Nick. “The main thing is to keep people happy, you know?”

And that is just what Big Nick has been doing for fifty years.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said. It is also in the burgers, the pizza, and the line of customers that spilled out the door and around the corner ten minutes before midnight.

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2 Comments

Filed under pesonal essay

2 responses to “The Last Days of Big Nick

  1. A tear of quiet joy was shed….bravo for this heartwarming feast. The story is really an epitaph for what has passed away and been eclipsed by corporate “speed-eating” feedlots.

  2. Great article, but damn, this makes me miss Big Nick’s sooooooooo much! And whaddaya know — it’s 3:30am, and I’m starving. Wish I could run over there now for a slice of pizza.

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