We sat down to dinner at Nick's Chops and Chasers with a sense of happy expectation, and we were not disappointed. Nick's is an inviting restaurant of the old style and, while some of the smaller menu items seemed somewhat outdated or lackluster, on the whole you're going to eat very well there and soak up some great atmosphere.
We found it hard to pick a good-looking appetizer. Riblets? ($7.95) Shrimp cocktail? ($8.95) Eh. We ended up going with the meatballs ($3.95), which looked cute enough in their little ramekin but tasted spongy. Not auspicious, but not depressing, either. We each enjoyed our salads: My guest's was a heartening green color (without too much of the dreaded iceberg), and my Caesar tasted fine, although the cheese was Monterey Jack, not Parmesan. Hmm. I didn't think one could fiddle around with Caesar salad's ingredients, but whatever. The cream of spinach soup was redolent with cream and butter. My god. Very tasty but not overly spinachy.
(Neither of us felt like drinking, but the wine list looked impressive, and my friend approved of the toney port selections.)
The entrées were great. My guest got the Chicken Normandy ($14.95), which looked and tasted lovingly prepared: The apples were still crunchy, and the chicken breast was extraordinarily moist and tender. Very nice. I got the house special, a Pork-Chop Sampler ($16.50), which featured three gargantuan chops, each slathered, respectively, in BBQ, Normandy and Jack Daniels sauce. While I thoroughly enjoyed eating them -- they really were delicious -- I wonder about the wisdom of serving such different tastes on a single plate.
The combined aromas didn't do justice to the good flavors of the meat. (OK, to be frank, my plate's smell took me instantly back, the way only smells can, to when I was 5 and had to have dental work done in England. The odor of a dental office -- molten metal and chemicals -- is seared on my brain. Childhood dental experiences should not come to mind when one sits down to a lovely meal.)
For a side dish I chose sweet potato and received a perfectly baked one, also of lavish proportions. Too much food. Too much good food. The chops at Nick's are justly famous -- moist, thick and tasty as all get-out.
Nick's menu features a wide array of pork-chops and ribs, as well as yummy-looking steaks (A diner at the next table exclaimed, "My husband just cut his steak with the butter knife!"), seafood and pasta. Everything you could want (except few veggie options), served in a basic and comfortable style.
We loved the desserts: homemade apple pie ($3.75) (they must have given us half the pie, the piece was so big) and tiramisu ($4.50). The latter had a good flavor, except you couldn't taste the marsala at all, which disappointed me a little. Fresh decaf finished up the satisfying meal.
The service was fantastic. Every single person -- the hostess, Nick himself (who busily manned the reservations desk), the waiters, bussers and waterboys -- was relaxed, professional and disarmingly kind. This is the kind of service you expect in a four-star restaurant. Absolutely first-rate.
The décor of Nick's just about defies description. Imagine walking onto the set of a movie about Dino and Frank's early days, and you'll get the picture. The rooms are snug and hushed. They've swathed the walls in dark wallpaper and covered the tables in maroon vinyl, decorating them with a bottle of wine and those old candle covers made of multi-colored pieces of square glass -- you know the kind I mean. The main dining room is decked out with a horseracing theme.
When asked about it, the grave yet personable Nick ushered us graciously into the crowded bar with a sweep of his arm and said, "Yes, I love horses. There's lots of horses here, in the bar. Lots of horses ... and lots of horses' asses." The last remark caused a wave of good-natured noise from the group of happy-looking, cozily-seated regulars. One of them shouted right back, "Hey! I resemble that remark!" I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't having a Rat Pack-era dream.
I'm actively looking for an opportunity to go back to Nick's. It was that pleasant. Just don't expect nirvana from every little old-fashioned side dish and appetizer.
It's clear they pour their energy into the entrées and the spirit of relaxed and professional hospitality. I can't imagine a warmer or more genial place to have dinner on a cold winter's night. ©
Nick's Chops & Chasers
Go: 3355 Madison Road, Oakley
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Red Meat Alternatives: Hey, it's a chop house. A few vegetable sides and one pasta dish.