By CHRIS BARNETT
Nick Nickolas could be the poster boy for a happy retirement. A tanned 78-year-old who looks and sounds 20 years younger, he built and ran a fine dining empire of 30 restaurants that stretched from Honolulu to Miami, is madly in love with his new fiancee and has all his hair and his buttons.
But he simply can’t stop working.
For the last four years, Nickolas has been managing, maitre’d-ing, setting and bussing tables at Dino & Santino’s at Fillmore and California, spelling his nephew, Dino Stavrakikis, on Thursdays and Saturdays so the single-dad owner could have time with his young son, Santino.
Now, with Santino turning 5 and heading to kindergarten, Dino might be expected to spend more time at his pizza palace, with his Uncle Nick backing off to take a cruise for two and play couples golf. But Nickolas isn’t one to sit on the sidelines.
In fact, he is taking the reins of the 28-year-old restaurant and ramping up to five days a week. Stavrakikis has given him carte blanche to change the menu, with some exceptions: Uncle Nick can’t touch “Mama’s meatballs or her spinach pie,” he says, or a few other house signature items.
Meantime, Stavrakikis is willingly taking a backseat, but he’s not hanging up his apron. While recently cooking his own dinner of penne, spinach and mushrooms with a marinara sauce, Stavrakikis claimed: “I’m trying to pull back from six days, 50 hours a week to spend more time with Santino. Hey, I’m one of the few restaurant owners on the street who even works in his place. Me and Massimo of Via Veneto and maybe one or two others. Yet nobody’s got an Uncle Nick with his experience and talent. I’m giving him the keys, but I’ll still be around.
Nickolas, sitting in the sunshine at a sidewalk table and flashing his killer smile to passersby who wave hello, claims that after 60-plus years, the restaurant business is in his blood. He says: “I love it when someone comes up to me and asks, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ ”
But the Oakland-born Greek, who launched his six-decade career picking pineapples in the fields of Hawaii, isn’t just out to feed his ego.
“I have the time and desire to work more — to continue a 28-year-old tradition of a family-owned restaurant, but turn it up a little bit. I’m not here to make another Nick’s Fishmarket,” he says of the high-end seafood restaurant that put him on the map.
He has already taken his first steps. He’s moved from the East Bay to an apartment just up California Street from the restaurant. “I’m selling one of our cars and we’re going to be Mr. and Mrs. Uber,” Nickolas says. “I’ve cut my commute down from an hour and a half to 10 minutes straight downhill in the morning.”
Menu tweaking is farther down on his priority list. “Dino and I are on the same page there. We’re old school restaurateurs with an emphasis on our employees. Show me any other small joint with 20 guys taking care of the guests,” he says. “Instead, we’re going to concentrate more on hospitality. Hospitality is how you welcome your guests, how you look them in the eye, how you treat them once they’re in the door, how you seat them, how attentive you are in anticipating their needs, how you put down the check, how you thank them when they leave.”
Insists Nickolas: “In 60 years, I’ve never lost a guest who left because we thanked them too much.”
He is somewhat tightlipped about menu changes he’s been pondering. “We should have some fish here once in a while, but it’s not going to be a five pound lobster like I did at Nick’s. We’re a pizza joint, but let’s get some fish folks in here by serving some salmon, cod and an elegant fish and chips,” he says. “But keep it priced right.”
He won’t be trotting out USDA choice New York strips or filet mignons. “Too expensive,” he says. “We had a great pork chop on the menu for a while and we sold one in four months.”
Nickolas maintains the best way to rework a menu is to listen to the guests. “Just talk to them, listen to them and they will tell you what dishes they’re looking for,” he says. “Lots of people have been coming here regularly for years, but their tastes change.”
And he acknowledges new younger guests, the millennials, who are well traveled and have their own tastes. “I want to accommodate them with a series of new Uncle Nick Specials, at both a new affordable lunch as well as at dinner,” he says, unwilling to be more specific.
The seasoned restauranteur does not hesitate, though, about promoting a 4 to 6 p.m. happy hour that will include some “creative bar foods.” Just do not expect to find martinis and margaritas to wash down Mama’s marinara or the fresh mozzarella. “$100,000 for a booze license? We don’t need it,” says Nickolas. “Our food lends itself to beer and wine. I see our happy hour spilling over to the outside. There’s always a beautiful parade of people on Fillmore. I see it as a gathering place, like a Greek taverna.”
But Nickolas doesn’t envision Dino & Santino’s adding breakfast to its culinary repertoire. “We don’t have the equipment or the space,” he says. “We’re sticking to 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. Our big day is Sunday, when everyone comes in to watch the games — and eat.”
Nor is he planning to unfurl a laundry list of tasty new desserts. “We do just one dessert — loukoumades, a Greek donut that is deep fried and served with honey, cinnamon and walnuts. You find them at Greek festivals,” he says. “If someone wants another dessert, we send them around the corner to Smitten for their fresh ice cream or across the street to Sift. We love our neighbors.”
And Nickolas makes it clear he will not be tethered to the restaurant dawn to dark. “I’m going to walk the streets and hustle for new customers,” he says. “I did it 65 years ago. I haven’t forgotten how and I like doing it.”
Still, he’s quick to add he’s not looking backward for business. “There are all the young kids today,” he says. “You can’t just do delicious food. They want vegan and gluten-free. We now have gluten-free pizza dough.”
Dino & Santino’s also has a little-known but prosperous corporate catering division, often in collaboration with another San Francisco caterer called Zesty, which Nickolas is now supervising. Some new dishes have already been created for the catering venture that could show up in the restaurant.
He’s also hatching a plan to round up the Fillmore’s restaurant owners for a regular meeting. “In every city where I had a Nick’s Fishmarket, I created an association of fine dining restaurants and invited everyone to be part of it,” he says. “In Chicago, I had the top 25 restaurants in the Loop as members. We all had a drink, talked about our mutual problems and opportunities and no one was jealous. We were all supportive of each other. We can do that here in the Fillmore.”