By Tracy Kaler
Thousands of restaurants have come and gone on the Upper West Side in the past fifty years since Big Nick’s first opened its doors. But few have won their way into the hearts of locals like the little greasy spoon on Broadway and 76th Street.
This past February, Big Nick’s celebrated its 50th year anniversary with original 1962 prices, including burgers for 60 cents, grilled cheese sandwiches for 50 cents, and French fries for 30 cents. Lines stretched around the block from noon until midnight.
“I started as a dishwasher at 76th & Broadway in a 24-hour coffee shop, remember that place? I worked from 6 am until 6 pm, and went to the City College in Brooklyn in the evening. It took me ten years to finish, but I did it.” He spoke proudly, “I got my degree in Restaurant Management.” It sounded like a decade of too much work with too little sleep to me. “It was hard, but everything is hard. I just did it.” Much in the same way, he still does it every day, fifty years later.
Nick came to New York City from Athens, Greece in 1961 on a student visa. Through years of hard work in the restaurant business, he established a collection of burger and pizza eateries in the city, including Big Nick’s Pizza Joint at West 71st Street and Columbus Avenue, and Big Nick’s Burger & Pizza Joint on Broadway, between West 76th and 77th Streets.
Over the past five decades, Nick has developed a loyal following at the Broadway location. The spot is known for its burgers, and especially the legendary “Sumo Burger,” which boasts more than one pound of meat. Nick was eager to explain how his burgers differ from others. “Our meat is ground daily on the premises. We use a machine to measure the amount of water and fat content in each burger, and cook on a charcoal broiler. The fat drips down, creating a juicy, plump burger like no other.” My mouth watered while listening. Nick has never compromised quality or quantity when it comes to his menu.
Also famous for its 27-page assortment of pizzas, salads, gyros, souvlaki, desserts and more, Big Nick’s portion size feeds both the hungry and the hungover, for lower-than-typical New York prices. Although divey with a 1970s kitsch-style interior, this classic diner oozes character, and a certain seediness from the Manhattan of the past.
In addition to locals and tourists, the round-the-clock joint has attracted its share of fame and fortune from the entertainment industry. It’s not uncommon for a celebrity to make a late-night stop for takeout after shooting a film. According to Nick’s wife, often the stars aren’t recognized. A variety of regulars and newcomers have kept the crowd interesting throughout the years.
Dedication to his customers has always been Nick’s first priority. Although he doesn’t sleep at the restaurant any longer like he did in the old days, Nick is there on a daily basis, “yelling and screaming” at everyone. Apparently, he keeps his staff on their toes and runs a tight ship.
At 71, Nick has no plans to retire. When I mentioned the potential of his family managing the business, he responded, “They’re all women, and they have no interest in the restaurant. I am surrounded by women. Even the dog and cat are women!” Decades since opening, the boss manages to keep things running smoothly. “Everything is under control for the next five minutes,” Nick assured me.
What does the future hold? Passersby will continue to smell those juicy burgers coming from Nick’s kitchen. Referring to the Upper West Side as his home, he stated, “My friends are in this neighborhood. I live and work here. This is where I spend my money. I’ll be here until they kick me out. I’m not going anywhere. Big Nick’s is 24/7/365.”
2175 Broadway, New York NY, 10024
This is the third article in a West Side Rag series about the most essential eateries on the Upper West Side. Spurred by the sudden closure of H&H Bagels last year, we asked ourselves the question: what other restaurants, markets, and bakeries are absolutely essential to the neighborhood? This is not a list of the “best” restaurants; it’s an homage to the places that define the neighborhood, the spots where we hope and expect our grandchildren will be noshing decades from now.
Tracy Kaler is an Upper West Sider, who was a cool kid back in the 70′s, when everything was cool and a little scary. Now she’s a writer/blogger, dancer, interior designer, amateur cook/foodie, fashionista wannabe, and overall creative soul. You can read more of her writing at Tracy’s New York Life.
Photos by Tracy Kaler.