We’re deep in the heart of old San Clemente, just steps off Del Mar, and the handsome joint is filling up. The clock says happy hour, but the mood is serene and laid-back. Open to the ocean breeze, the cool digs are beguiling and incite dallying. Just when you expect a blitz of bronzed surf-town revelers, the urbane bar loads up with mannerly adults, not beer-drinkers thirsty for a deal.
Yes, this is a happy-hour-free zone. Leave those late-afternoon wine-and-spirits specials to other restaurants. Nick’s, both here and in Laguna Beach, doesn’t ascribe to them. It’s a gutsy stance given that happy hours and their attendant discounts are nearly de rigueur for restaurants these days—or at least those with full liquor licenses. Heck, many observe it twice a day.
Nick’s can afford to defy the norm by mixing mighty-fine cocktails from a premium well at all hours, and backing that gambit with a menu of modern comfort food at reasonable prices. An ample list of enticing bar snacks kicks off a single-page menu crowded with familiar dishes, many with a contemporary twist. Attractive interiors and polished, welcoming hospitality bring R&D Kitchen or Houston’s to mind—both solid operations with a firm fan base. But these sibling Nick’s are the work of NickCo Hospitality Group, a team that initially succeeded with the Claim Jumper chain.
Fried deviled eggs have that come-hither allure of a naughty bar nosh—batter-frying an already lovable nibble is a coy ploy—but they’re not as dreamy as you’d expect. The whipped yolk mixture is piquant and tasty, but gets lost in the bland batter. Even so, I see them ferried to countless tables—clearly the signature appetizer. Also on the fried team: asparagus spears encased in a panko-Parmesan shell. The fresh stems beg to be finger food, but the (sometimes) tough stalks are lava hot, and not easy to handle. Dipping by fork into ranch sauce cools them, but also obscures the vegetable’s delicacy. Short-rib sliders are instant charmers, brawny buns full of tender beef jazzed up with a docile horseradish dressing and crunchy fried onions.
To steer clear of the deep fryer, go with the commendable ahi tartare of sweet sashimi-grade fish laced with faintly spicy soy, creamy diced avocado, and won ton crisps for shoveling. It’s more interesting than the broiled artichoke, which is more appetizing than the bland fish tacos. Housemade scratch soups, served nice and hot, deliver a high win ratio; standout efforts include succulent tomato bisque and a chunky chicken tortilla bright with vegetables.
Salads and sandwiches have great contrast, proportions, and flavors. And they’re impressively consistent between locations, suggesting tight recipe refinement and strong quality control in the kitchen. Roasted red and golden beet salad with creamy feta has become a mainstream offering, but here the ratios are spot-on. Bits of candied lemon peel and perfectly emulsified citrus vinaigrette unite things nicely. Grilled rib-eye sliced over bitter greens is a big seller and it’s no wonder—it’s a hefty pile of rustic flavors pushed along by ever-bolder extras such as warm potato salad and big croutons soaking up a robust mustard-bacon dressing. Add Swiss cheese, grilled onions, and toasted sourdough, and these rib-eye slices convert to a slammin’, if messy, sandwich; have the Teutonic tater salad on the side, or, switch out for crispy fries or the likeable mild peanut slaw.
Fin fans will fall for the superb blackened-halibut sandwich, a thrill-packed stack of spice-seared halibut, fresh cabbage, fried onion strands, and well-crafted tartar sauce on eggy challah bread. The hickory burger is distinguished by substantial bacon, a thick blanket of aged cheddar, and a heavy-duty English muffin, along with a patty bursting with beefy flavor and a restrained smear of house barbecue sauce. The puckery sauce plays a larger role on the luscious, spicy pork ribs, cooked low and long to a tender, juicy turn.
Along with the supersatisfying ribs, entrées include an expertly cooked sea bass with butter-chive mashers, a first-class top sirloin with blue cheese, and sensational herb-roasted Sonoma organic chicken.
But don’t overlook the daily specials. They’re classic dishes, one for every day of the week. Set aside Monday for the lilting meatloaf with maple glaze, Sunday for some old-timey fried chicken, and Friday or Saturday for a refined cioppino.
Desserts are too few to warrant a menu, so the typically well-versed server simply recites the choices: caramelized butter cake, raspberry-white chocolate cheesecake, or an extravagant ice cream sundae gilded with hot fudge from Helen Grace. The butter cake is heaven by the forkful, fluffy and crunchy in tandem, but it can be overbaked. We rebuffed a gracious offer to supply a replacement when one night’s cake was dry as sawdust. Play the sundae as a safe bet.
Breakfast is served until 11:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday in Laguna, just Sunday in San Clemente. Again, the menu is tuned and trim. Of the 10 dishes, four are ace omelets that arrive good and hot, with proper hash browns or ripe, freshly cut fruit. Chilaquiles, thick shards of crisp corn tortillas refried in red chile sauce and topped with two fried eggs, is tastier than many out there, and perhaps the lineup’s most exotic choice. House-made salsa is fairly meek, so request that Cholula bottle. Mainstays such as eggs Benedict, oatmeal brûlée, and Belgian waffles stand ready to please traditionalists. The bloody mary outshines the salty dog, but each weekend brings a new concoction inspired by the day’s farmers market just outside. Sign up to get the weekly show-and-tell tweet.
Confident, capable, good-looking, and earnest, Nick’s is for diners who crave yummy meals minus the gimmicks and ballyhoo. Nick’s keeps it simple, á la the KISS rule. And there’s nothing stupid about that.
Short rib sliders, ahi tartare, soups, beet salad, rib-eye salad, hickory burger, blackened-halibut sandwich, rib-eye melt, meatloaf, fried chicken, cioppino, pan-roasted sea bass, pork ribs, roasted chicken, top sirloin, hot-fudge sundae, omelets, bloody mary.
Lunch/dinner: starters, $4 to $9; entrees, $10 to $27. Breakfast: $6 to $13.
In Laguna Beach, patio table No. 36; in San Clemente, high tables Nos. 20 through 24 on wall opposite bar, or on fireplace patio.
The beyond-good veggie burger is house made from a secret blend of spices, reduced vegetables, and grains.
213 Avenida del Mar
440 S. Coast Highway
Photographs by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue.