Remembering Big Nick's Burger & Pizza Joint, Another Departed UWS Institution
On Monday morning at around 4 a.m. the Upper West Side was robbed of one of its last greasy spoons. Big Nick's Burger & Pizza Joint, the beloved Upper West Side restaurant, closed its doors to move uptown after years of massive rent hikes and failed negotiations. The doors themselves, which I saw with my own eyes on the way to work, were a particularly sad sight, since Big Nick's—a 51-year-old restaurant that operated 24/7—almost never kept them shut.
This isn't just a restaurant closing—it's the loss of a cultural landmark. Despite the cliché in calling it one, the place was, in every sense of the word, an institution. Many of us Upper Westsiders have eaten there, many of us are regulars, and almost anybody in the neighborhood will have at least one comment or memory about the diner-pizzeria, the comically lengthy menu, or Big Nick Imirziades himself.
A couple weeks back, Eater's Robert Sietsema attempted to pin down the definition of a greasy spoon. While his ultimate terms were fluid, he insisted that there's a difference between the standard Greek diner and a true greasy spoon. Big Nick's exemplified that difference. Sure, the staff was primarily Greek and the food resembled the diner staples, but the atmosphere suggested something a bit more distinct. To put Nick's in the same category of contemporaries such as Manhattan or City Diner would be to diminish its undeniable uniqueness as an eatery. Even New York City only has a handful of places where one could order a large pizza, two loaded omelets, fried pickles, and a turkey hero...at 4 a.m....for delivery...on a Tuesday.
Of course the pizza would be a little cold (they could never seem to time things right between the pizza and diner kitchens), the eggs a bit hard (burger-hot and egg-hot griddles are unfortunately not equivalent), and the hero roll somewhat stale (on-the-premises baking? Never), but the food quality was never the primary reason to dine with Big Nick.
My concerns regarding Big Nick's departure range from the trivial to the historical.
After New Pizza Town bit the dust last year, Big Nick's became the only serviceable slice in the neighborhood. Now, unfortunately, neighborhood kids will be left to fend for themselves at Europan, where the pizzas only taste marginally better than the cardboard they are served in. If a generation of schoolchildren has to grow up thinking that Europan pizza is, in fact, pizza, then god save the New York slice.
Big Nick's was also arguably the best 24-hour delivery in the neighborhood—again hungry masses will have to settle for chains and mediocre delis after midnight. And today, indecisive diners will have to settle with standard-sized menus as opposed to Big Nick's multi-page behemoth.
For decades, countless neighborhood kids (myself included) came to Big Nick's for the "Yakety Yak" on the radio, for the pizza slices the size of our prepubescent faces, for the paper menus and papered walls that amazed us with their history. Our ignorance of the cramped quarters—we just thought it was a child-sized establishment—made our time there that much better. And we knew we could return 10 or 20 years later and the find the same decor, the same menu, the same joint. Rent hikes have made these memories just that—memories.
Sure, Imirziades insists that he plans to relocate uptown—but the 77th street location will become, like many large storefronts throughout the neighborhood, a bank. Big Nick's forced departure speaks to just how inhospitable affluent neighborhoods can be for the aging restaurants that support them. That a landlord can gain more revenue from a bank is beside the point. I don't want to live in a neighborhood full of ATMs and Starbucks—though I'm unsure about the rest of the locals. I'll likely try out the new location, especially if I stay in its delivery area, but I will never forget the original Joint with its colorful walls and satisfying grub.
Do you have any Big Nick's stories to share? Post them in the comments!
Update: Our man Ed, also an Upper West Side local, adds:
Since I moved to the Upper West Side in 1973, Big Nick's has always been there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, serving up usually gargantuan servings of diner food that was sometimes prepared with care and always delivered quickly. The burgers were good, and at least at one time the grilled chicken breast sandwich must have been good, because I wrote it up in the Daily News years ago and damn if Nick didn't put up signs quoting my write-up all over the restaurant.
What's most disturbing about Nick's closing is not the loss of the one pound Sumo burger, which had to the exclusive province of teenage drunks on a Friday or Saturday night. Or any of the food for that matter. No, what's most disturbing is the closing of yet another neighborhood standby that you could rely on no matter what the weather was or what time it was. Goodbye, Nick's. We'll miss your huge if sometimes misguided menu, and we will miss your constant presence in our lives.
About the author: Sam Levison is a college student, food TV lover, and kinda wishes Big Kahuna Burger were a real thing.