Nicks on Broadway
Making it on Broadway - With sleek — but not spacious! — new quarters and an expanded dinner menu, Nicks on Broadway gives the classic diner a chic West Side appeal.
By Karen Deutsch
Nicks on Broadway
500 Broadway, Providence
GENERAL INFO. Open Wed.–Sat. 7 a.m.–3 p.m.; Sun. 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Dinner served Wed.–Sat. 5:30–10 p.m. All major credit cards. Wheelchair accessible. Street parking. Reservations recommended for dinner but are not accepted for breakfast or lunch.
ATMOSPHERE Stainless steel abounds as do sleek wooden chairs and modern white dinnerware shaped like fluid triangles and protozoa. Napkins are still disposable, but the paper is now quadruple-ply.
SOUND LEVEL Mornings and afternoons are frenetic, but the dinner crowd is quite sedate. Tables are close together, so don’t plan on selling national secrets.
RECOMMENDED DISHES Spicy shrimp, sirloin with potato cakes, grilled yellow-fin tuna, white chocolate mousse.
WINE LIST A dozen by the glass, as well as a good variety by the half-bottle and bottle, most of which are under $40. Beer is also available.
PRICE RANGE Dinner: appetizers $5–$12; entrees $15–$23; desserts $6. A six-course tasting menu is also available for a pricey $75, but a duo of diners will receive twelve different dishes, making it an investment-worthy meal.
I, like many people, spend a good deal of my adult life trying to recapture culinary snippets of my childhood. Having lived in downtown Manhattan for more than two decades, I have a deeply ingrained affection for the modest — yet doggedly successful — diner. The restaurant world is notoriously fickle, but the corner hangouts, serving up thick sandwiches, eggs at all hours and bowls of piping hot soup, always seem to emerge intact. So I may be a bit impartial. Nicks on Broadway won my heart years ago when I first squeezed into a corner table, barely a hip’s width away from the next seat over and well aware that my meal would never cost more than ten dollars. It’s a city girl’s dream.
Granted Nicks is not really a traditional diner.
Purchased five years ago by Derek Wagner, then a recent Johnson & Wales grad, the menu elevates the expected fried eggs and bacon to a wild mushroom frittata with duck sausage; tuna with dried cherries and goat cheese replaces the standard turkey on wheat. These days Nicks serves dinner four nights a week in their new space (a few blocks down) at 500 Broadway.
The current location is far more glam although not nearly as large as expected; it holds only thirty (including the counter seats), and you’ll still knock elbows with your neighbors. Wagner, however, is now happily ensconced in a far more contemporary kitchen, with bright red tile and stainless fixtures. This, I must admit, irked me on my first visit. To be honest, I wanted the money spent on me. I wanted a little more space, a better chance of getting a table. Yes, I suppose that a chef deserves chic surroundings; he certainly spends more time there than I do. And I do concede that the design scheme, appealing by both modern and 1950s standards, does add a certain cachet to even a casual lunch. Aside from the cherry backdrop, black, silver and white dominate the eye from the sleek counter to the highly stylized (and unisex) bathroom with full speaker system. This newfound aesthetic has helped transform Nicks from a neighborhood diner to a dinner destination, a restaurant worthy of more than just a Hamilton.
Its recent transformation aside, Nicks still has the heart of a coffee shop, though it offers progressive (and classically executed) variations on time-honored favorites. Vegetable soup is served as a puree of roasted root varieties, doled out cappuccino style with foamed milk on top. The result is a little less sweet than expected given the scent of fresh cinnamon, but it’s soothing nonetheless. Where iceberg lettuce might have shown up twenty years ago, Wagner offers baby spinach with a touch of balsamic in several first-course adaptations: alongside wedges of orange with a mild goat cheese, underneath pan-seared duck breast with melted brie and mixed into a warm salad of spicy shrimp. The latter is an irresistible riff on Thai cuisine, complete with crushed peanuts and bright diced pineapple.
Because space is still limited, some ingredients show up on the menu time and again, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Exhibit A: bacon. Yes, I love pancetta; same goes for prosciutto. But this is Nicks, and if I can’t indulge my love for good old-fashioned American fat here, then patriotism is long gone. It’s decadent and smoky in a bowl of parmesan cream sauce with minced sausage and roasted peppers over (unfortunately tough) gnocchi. It’s a heavenly foil wedged into oysters on the half-shell, with microgreens and a dollop of the aforementioned Thai curry.
Dinner entrees range from a well-priced sirloin with potato cakes and horseradish cream sauce ($20) to a selection of fresh fish. There’s no retro-style cooking here, as salmon is cooked a delicious medium-rare, covered in herbs and served alongside a citrus-sauced couscous. Grilled tuna needs some more aggressive salting, but the just-seared fish is still worth ordering again. The meaty texture is complemented by a side of mashed potatoes, almost buoyant with the addition of parsnips and served in a fragrant but delicate sage jus. Meat and potatoes, indeed.
Not everything you get will be a clear winner. The antipasto salad, with its sliced salami and dressed greens, is staid, and an overabundance of celery in the chicken risotto reminds me of children fishing the same superfluous vegetable out of their afternoon soup. The fact remains, however, that nothing will make a sizable dent in your wallet and, in time, you can work your way through the whole menu to find your favorites. Nicks now has a liquor license as well, serving wine for as little as $5 a glass and many more affordable varieties by the bottle and the half-bottle.
Though the atmosphere gets a shade more sophisticated at dinnertime, this is still a relatively casual affair, and the service, though attentive, is not always perfect. Silverware won’t necessarily be changed after every course, and wine bottles might be left on the table long after they’re empty. On the bright side, kitchen and waitstaff are happy to oblige nearly every whim when asked. (An errant rind of brie lay on my table far too long, but the waitress seemed genuinely aghast when she finally realized it had escaped her gaze through two courses.)
As for the finale, ask anyone about the allure of midcentury coffee shops — did anyone else grow up hearing stories about Schrafft’s?— and the answer always ends with desserts. Back then, ice cream was the big draw in cups, cones and certainly milkshakes. As with the savory dishes, the desserts at Nicks are expectedly more mature but also, surprisingly, more precious. Miniature coffee cups hold a warm fruit cobbler (slightly sour to my taste) with vanilla ice cream, while clouds of white chocolate mousse topped with fresh cream and a drizzle of raspberry syrup are served in martini glasses.
Part of the appeal of this small enterprise (particularly for those seated on stools) is the ability to watch your meal come to fruition. I spied on a member of the kit-chen staff as he tried rewhipping the cream by shaking its container furiously. Mission accomplished with added entertainment for those who like to see the bustling — almost neurotic — nature of a professional kitchen in action.
I’d be remiss not to mention the meals that put Nicks on the map: breakfast and lunch. The hours between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. are quintessentially Nicks, with lines out the door and the smell of syrup and burgers in the air. The crowd is noticeably younger, and with them comes a welcome laissez-faire attitude (“Dude, what an awesome day for waiting outside!”). The clientele is more boisterous, but so are the conversations between tables (“Oh, you should totally get the French toast!”). Selections are deep and varied (there are two dozen ingredients for omelets including caramelized onions and blue cheese), and lunchtime sandwich options can be served as wraps, salads, entrees or (my preference) between grilled slices of rustic bread.
As for Nicks’ neighborhood, it hasn’t changed much. It’s an area more diverse (and sometimes more interesting) than the East Side, and, despite downtown developments, often more worthy of being referred to as “the city.” My occasional window seat has offered up a lovers’ kiss, lots of languid meandering and an impromptu dance from a preschooler looking for applause. Sure, some people might be put off by long lines at lunch and the occasional screaming siren at night. But what do I call it? Home.