Like a lot of children who grow up in a family-owned business, Dino Christ knew it was only a matter of time before he and his brother, Tom, took over their parents’ restaurant. But unlike many second-generation owners, Dino knew better than to change much at Nick’s Restaurant on State Street. A local institution since 1959, Nick’s is famous for its old-fashioned booths, celebrity sightings, and the smell of made-from-scratch food.
“As a kid, I got to meet so many famous people because everybody knew Nick, and they all ate here when they came to town—I’m talking about everybody, from a U.S. Senator to Johnny Cash,” says Dino. “My mom stayed at home, so we kids had the best of both worlds—we could be at the restaurant a few nights a week with our dad, and at home with mom after school. I grew up working in the restaurant and loved it. After college, I came back and never left.”
When co-owner Nick Kristakos passed away in the 1980s, Dino’s parents, co-owners Arist and Anastasia Christ, took sole ownership of the restaurant. Today, Nick’s looks nearly the same as it did 40 years ago. The same starving-artist prints are on the walls, the lights are still dimmed, the kitchen is still in the basement, and a dumbwaiter still brings food to the dining room. The biggest challenge facing wait staff is to learn what food gets cooked downstairs and what food gets made in the small prep area in the dining area. “Our servers have to essentially submit two orders for every table—one order goes downstairs and one stays upstairs—but it doesn’t take too long for them to get the hang of it,” says Dino.
Famous for its Reuben sandwich and Patty Melt, both made with freshly grilled pumpernickel bread, Nick’s is home to many a customer who has eaten at the bar for decades and never ordered anything else. The menu features dozens of traditional dishes using original recipes from Dino’s mom, such as Homemade Spinach Pie, layered spinach and feta cheese wrapped in filo dough and served with a boiled potato. However, Dino is always on the lookout for new menu items. A recent addition is Dino’s Arugula Burger, topped with provolone and organic arugula. He got the idea from watching a famous chef make a much fancier version on television. “Sometimes simpler is better,” Dino says. “Now everybody orders it.”
Another popular item is the Chicken Gyro, made with grilled chicken strips on a pita, topped with grilled vegetables, and served with fries. A side of Nick’s famous Tzatziki sauce is the secret ingredient, and is a stellar reflection of his family’s Greek heritage. And almost everyone orders the Feta Cheese with Kalamata Olives as an appetizer. Served with pita bread and cucumber slices, it’s the perfect precurser to any meal.
While Dino knew that running a restaurant was probably always his destiny, he took time away for a few years to work for other people. He started washing dishes at Nick’s when he was a kid, but his first “real job”—one with a paycheck— was at Poole’s Cuba Club, a famous old-school supper club on University Avenue torn down in 1992 and now home to a strip mall housing Panera Bread. “I wanted to work for someone other than my father—I wanted to work somewhere where I wasn’t the boss’ son. It was a valuable learning experience. By my mid-30s, I was ready to take over Nick’s.”
And while many a celebrity still comes in the door, these days Nick’s is becoming better known as a destination restaurant for folks going to shows at the Overture, Orpheum, and the Comedy Club. “I think people know they’re going to get real food here, made from scratch, and we’ll get them out the door in time to get to their seats. We’ve got service down to a science,” Dino says.
So what makes Nick’s so special? “I ask people that all the time,” Dino says, “because I’ve never really been sure. Nothing’s changed over the decades. We’re still the original restaurant we’ve always been. Maybe in today’s world, real food in a classic setting means a little more to folks.”
While Dino isn’t planning on closing Nick’s anytime soon, he says he thinks more about the future than he used to. He knows there are fewer days ahead of him in the restaurant business than there are behind him. And with no third-generation person in the family identified to take over, Dino suspects that one day Nick’s will be no more. But until then, Dino says, “We’ve got plenty of good days ahead of us yet. I still need something to do and some place to be. Where else would I go every morning?”
Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.
226 State Street
Madison, WI 53703