Those of us who were once “city kids” walk through New York’s neighborhoods today and see the story of our lives spelled out by the storefronts, or more often the banks and chain stores where our favorite spots used to be.
Big Nick’s Burger and Pizza Joint—just closed after hanging on all summer in the face of an exorbitant rent increase— was a major part of that story for many of us who grew up on the Upper West Side.
The venerable old joint on Broadway was classically New York, dirty and delicious. Pictures of celebrities and handwritten signs advertising buffalo burger specials smothered every inch of wall space. Along with Zabar’s and two other local legends that recently shut their doors, P&G bar and H&H bagels, it was quintessential Upper West. Quality, unpretentious to the point of shabby, and cozy: that’s what the neighborhood once meant, exclusively.
Big Nick’s served several functions. As kids, we’d go there with our families for low-key dinners. Years later we realized it was open late, so we wandered back in at two a.m. with our teenage posses, eager to drown our dramas in creamy mac and cheese, a soda, a burger. We’d call our parents on a payphone on the way home from a party and tell them where we were headed. They’d go back to sleep, reassured.
Big Nick’s late closing, its welcoming dimness, its status as a neighborhood institution gave us a safe place to huddle in the wee small hours. Crowded in booths or outdoor tables, sometimes sober, sometimes not, we perused the novel-length menu. Greasy food and laughter insulated us, and everyone left us alone.
Big Nick’s isn’t just symbolic of New York: it represents being a kid in New York before the city got sleek, and bank-overrun and terrorism-obsessed and full of artisan coffee shops and gourmet restaurants and parents tracking their teens on smartphones. We were ragamuffins, wanderers, city kids. And we ended so many of our nights by asking, “wanna go to Big Nick’s?”