Photograph of Nick Nickolas by Daniel Bahmani
NICK NICKOLAS got his first restaurant job in Oakland in 1955 at a very fine restaurant called Villa de la Paix. He went on to a six-decade career in which he opened more than 30 restaurants nationwide — most notably his Nick’s Fishmarkets in Honolulu, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Miami and other cities. Then he came home to the Bay Area and retired.
Or so he thought.
“So I’m back in the Bay Area,” says Nickolas, “and my nephew asks me to come over and take a look at his operation,” Dino & Santino’s, the neighborhood pizza joint at Fillmore and California owned by longtime local Dino Stavrakikis. “Before I realize it, three years have passed and I’m still coming over.”
Uncle Nick, as he’s become known to Dino’s regulars, has brought a touch of the big-time to the neighborhood, with his flashy clothes, toothy smile and smooth manner.
“Sometimes you can’t get enough of this business,” he says. “When it becomes a big part of your life it’s no longer work, but a way for you to express a love of hospitality.”
Family-friendly Dino’s is a considerable contrast to the high-flying restaurants Nickolas ran for most of his career.
“My restaurants were mainly white tablecloth with tuxedoed waiters — fancy and expensive,” he says. “But price doesn’t change hospitality. If you spend $10 or $10,000, the hospitality should not change.”
Dino was already in the process of remodeling and upgrading his corner spot at the heart of the neighborhood, and his Uncle Nick helped him up his game.
“There’s a new menu and new decor,” says Nickolas, “but the same good food and the same attitude. Dino and Santino’s fits into the Fillmore in a unique way — and it’s one of the few remaining family-run businesses.”
He adds: “Food is not what the guests remember, but the way they were treated. A good waiter can save a mediocre meal, but bad hospitality can sink the entire experience altogether. Were you greeted properly? Were you seated in a timely fashion? Were you thanked on the way out? If you were, the food tasted better — period.”
Dino is not the only old friend Nickolas has reconnected with since he came back home to the Bay Area. Through Facebook, he also got back in touch with Judy Steinberg, a friend he met for the first time in 1968. Their initial romance turned into a friendship that lasted on and off for 45 years. Now it’s back on again, and they are engaged — and working together on a website and a new book they’re calling Sexy at 70: It’s Never Too Late! (The Judy and Nick Story).
Read more: “Sexy at 70”
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