I have never been much of a fine dining, steakhouse person. I’ve always correlated steakhouses to old-money country club guys sipping overpriced scotch and pretending it does not taste like paint thinner. The perceived pretentiousness has always irked me. Steak and the admiration of steak are possibly the only foods that also double as personality types. I mean, if you think vegans are bad, talk to a self-labeled “steak and scotch” guy. In all honesty, my gripe with the fine dining sort is the fact that they are used more as a status symbol than a dining experience. And as with status symbols, they are often inaccessible to many if not most.
Fortunately, the best of Pasadena celebration introduced me to a different, less try-hard breed of fine dining — Nick’s Pasadena. What it is that sets Nick’s apart is more accessible price points, a menu with more than just cuts of meat, and a friendly, comfortable vibe. If Morton’s is for the old money, Rolex Submariner-wearing boomer, Nick’s is for the millennial who gets his Zara suit tailored. Nick’s is the place for us millennials who have found themselves in a whole new world where the marks of success for the generation of our parents cease to exist. We no longer want a steak with a price tag as some capitalist validation; we want a memorable dining experience for a reasonable price.
Nick’s has options for all the millennial archetypes. For a vegan/gluten-free friend — kale and quinoa salad ($14) with red grapes, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, red peppers, parmesan cheese and champagne vinaigrette. Essentially everything that crunchy, crystal deodorant-wearing, Instagram hippie could want in a salad, from the Earth to their plate. It has a fantastic balanced flavor and texture profile: crunchy, salty, sweet, and a touch of acidic bite from the vinaigrette round out the hearty kale and delicate quinoa.
For the friend with two jobs and three side hustles, or what I call the “baller on a budget,” there is the bistro plate ($23), a petite filet mignon topped with steak butter, served on garlic toast, with a bistro salad, and a cup of that day’s soup. Fine dining three-course meals for less than $25 are what millennial dreams are made of. For bonus Internet points use a cleverly posed picture of your filet mignon to flex on all the haters … and show we eat more than just avocado toast. I ordered the bistro plate, and while the filet mignon was aptly petite, it was a meat-eater’s delight. The trio of salad, tomato bisque soup and filet had me feeling like maybe I had this whole steakhouse culture pegged unfairly. While I’m a fan of crafted takes on street-food favorites, perhaps fine dining isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Pescatarians rejoice. The sea bass and shrimp taquitos come highly recommended and offer fresh and fun takes on classic flavors. Nick’s isn’t trying to reinvent or “deconstruct” classics. They’re just doing them really, really well and presenting each dish in a beautiful way. The flavors are distinct and complementary. Everything from artichoke to sashimi is prepared to perfection.
Favorites to try on my next visit include the buttermilk fried chicken and the prime rib dip.
Nick’s features market fresh and in-season appetizers and specials so you may not be able to get that grilled artichoke come winter but rest assured that they’re working on something equally delicious to greet your palate no matter the season.
Upon entering Nick’s, one is greeted by the warmest of welcoming staff into the most gorgeously appointed interior of a restaurant I’ve encountered. The soaring ceilings and mezzanine level overlooking the marble bar impress while the cushioned booths and high back chairs give a relaxed air to the finery. There is a garden room of neat greenery and clean, white-tiled walls and a row of intimate booths near the open kitchen and bar area. The upstairs mezzanine offers cozy seating for smaller parties as well as a private dining room for special occasions. The staff at Nick’s is not only hospitable but knowledgeable and warm as well. They clearly take pride in providing an experience for the guest, whether for a working lunch or an anniversary celebration. The attention to detail here is evident in the building, architecture and decorative appointments, as well as in the service and presentation of each dish and drink.
Splurge for dessert (ahem, butter cake) and pair it with a crafted cocktail. I’m thinking of the espresso martini; while I’m not much of a martini drinker, it’s a rich, cool cocktail and almost a dessert in a glass. Nick’s bartenders are mixing some masterful libations and there’s nothing quite like a smooth sipping drink to top off a fine meal. Drinks are not gimmicky or over the top; they’re refined and flavorful, just like the food, completing the experience of any occasion from leisurely lunch date to after-dinner nightcap.
In short, Nick’s has a comfortable elegance that makes me think “special” rather than “fancy.” The friendly, upscale-but-accessible vibe is one that I can see myself enjoying again. I may just be a fine dining (on occasion) convert after all.