1956. That’s the year Kruschev denounced Stalin while Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, ending any possibility of an autonomous socialism in Hungary. That’s the year Elvis recorded “Heartbreak Hotel” and Little Richard released “Tutti Frutti”. That’s the year Egypt re-claimed the Suez Canal and Israel seized Gaza. That’s the year “The Price Is Right” debuted and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation on public buses. And that’s the year Nick and Pauline Felicella opened Nick’s Spaghetti House at 631 Commercial Drive.
52 years.That’s a long fucking time for two people to keep a place like this. And it’s famous in this neighbourhood. So we’re here to check it out and write it up.
Walk in the door and your eyes immediately hit upon a landscape of Venice painted below two archways. OK. Not a-typical. A moment later, however, you realize that plastered around and atop this scene are dozens of pictures of….horse-racing. It’s a veritable shrine to the race-track. Hmmm. Yup. Definitely east side.
Megan came in here a couple of times some ten or so years ago, but has no strong recollections of it all. I was here only once, around the same time. Doug Henwood, who publishes the Left Business Obverver out of New York. was in town to give a talk at the Maritime Labour Centre. I went down and ended up after the event at Nick’s with Doug and an assortment of older radical men. Heading in, they all raved about the place – not about the food, particularly, but the place. It’s a night that I remember pretty vividly. Great conversation and debate, lots of fun. But not impressed with the food, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why this place was so important to these guys.
So, a decade later here we are, Megan and I, wondering the same thing as we walk in. It’s pretty busy for early evening on a Tuesday. Couples, families, a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings, a couple of old-timers and the requisite lone diner reading a paper while he slurps his pasta. Past the venetian-racetrack fusion entranceway, we’re seated at one of many standard restaurant tables, down to the diner-style red-and-white checked tablecloth. It’s 1970s basement decor – low ceilings, faux-leather-sided bar, round globe lights along the walls.
OK. Not getting anything from the atmosphere or decor to justify the fame of this place. But let’s get down to it. Meg opts for spaghetti and mushrooms, me for a ravioli and baby back ribs. We’ll start with a tomato and onion salad to share, and a couple of Moretti beers. Just the basics, exactly what this place has been doing for half a century.
We’re brought a plate of bread. Take a piece, pull off a corner. Ugh. Not fresh, not good. A slather of butter – well, prepackaged margerine, but we won’t quibble – and I lean across to Meg, who’s just taken her first bite. “Butter doesn’t make it any better.” Bread to the side, we’ll just sip our beers and wait. The salad comes – six slightly-less-than-ripe tomato slices, some onions and a basic vinaigrette on top, and parsley. Not fresh parsley, but dried. Hmmm. Is that really necessary? How hard is parsley? Apparently too hard. But we finish the plate, and that’s a step up.
Mains arrive looking like what we’d expect. A plate of spaghetti, covered in lots and lots and lots of mushrooms, most hiding beneath the dollop of tomato and meat sauce that tops it off. A plate of ravioli and a half-rack of ribs on the side. It’s food. Not good food, but we can eat it. Bad quality ribs are usually drenched in sweet barbecue sauce. Here there’s almost no sauce, and I find myself pining for countless other less-than-stellar spaghetti houses I’ve visited. Nick’s pastas, we decide, are what chef-boy-ar-dee probably looks like before it’s stuffed into the can. Bland.
Fair enough. There’s a place for cheap pasta in this world, and both of us know and appreciate that. But funny thing is, this place isn’t cheap. We’re paying around $15 a meal here, and with the salad and two Moretti apiece it’s a $70 tab. Now we’re really not impressed. Not only can this place not keep up with the similar-looking joints that are sprinkled generously around the city, but they’re charging us substantially more, too.
So that question nags. Why? Why the fame of this place? And why is it still so busy?
Not the food.
Not the prices.
Not the decor.
Location? Walk up five blocks, and you’ll find a row of Italian restaurants charging only a few more dollars a plate, and with some really great food. Not location.
We’ve spoken to a number of people who have eaten here, and can’t really find an answer. Nick’s, it seems, is one of those spots that people keep going to simply because it’s always been there. People go to Nick’s because when you’re casting about for somewhere to grab a bite, the name springs to mind just because it is part of the collective consciousness of this neighbourhood.
History counts. Whether an idea, a practice, a form of government, or a little spaghetti restaurant – when something stays around for a while, it becomes a normalized part of the landscape, a part of the culture. Indeed, that’s exactly why we came in here. Think ‘East Van institutions’ and we both jump immediately to Nick’s Spaghetti House. We’ve both eaten here, but neither of us thinks to remember just how bad the food was. Instead, it’s “O yeah, Nick’s, pretty standard cheap food, and an important part of this neighbourhood.” The history has a life of its own, and sustains the place despite all kinds of reasons it really shouldn’t still be here.
So where does this leave us, post-meal-at-Nick’s? Well, we’re glad that a place that’s been around so long is still surviving. We’re glad that the new Yuppie eateries haven’t killed absolutely everything on the Eastside. We’re glad that Nick and Pauline have lasted so long. We’re glad that people in this neighbourhood have a sense of history, and still go to a place just because it belongs here, just because it matters to this community, just because small family shops are worth supporting, just because they want this little piece of our history to last a bit longer yet.
That’s all good stuff. For all those reasons, Nick’s is a nice place to have around. But we wouldn’t want to eat there.