The restaurant without a gimmick

The patio at Nick's is peaceful and softly lit at night. Photo by Richard Foss

Nick’s in Manhattan Beach shows little ingenuity in decor or menu, but that’s not a bad thing

Manhattan Beach has several restaurants that are architectural showpieces, among them the otherworldly Esperanza, sleek Zinc at Shade, the retro grandeur of The Arthur J, and hyper-modern Love & Salt. Places that can’t afford the architects and decorators festoon their places with surf memorabilia, photos they purchased from the Historical Society, or kitsch to convey that sense of being part of local culture. They appeal to people who think of beach culture as distinctive and stylish, and most offer original menu items that reinforce that appeal.

It seems like a sensible template to follow, but one establishment has become enduringly popular with a strategy that seems deliberately anonymous. Nick’s looks like an upscale mall restaurant, with the obligatory old pictures of the Pier and bathers on one far wall, but otherwise minimally decorated, with no particular theme. (There’s a very good collection of vintage Metlox pottery on the premises, but you only see it if you happen to be on the way to the restroom.) The glassed-in kitchen on one side and view of the Metlox plaza on the other are the main visual attractions.

Nick’s architecture is in keeping with Metlox Plaza’s low key look. Photo by Kevin Cody

The most unusual thing about the menu is that nothing seems to have changed on it since the place opened in 2014. It’s a parade of American favorites, fried chicken, sandwiches, proteins with two veg, and the like. It’s a remarkable record of stability amid one of the most fluid dining scenes in California, and to succeed with such an absolutely un-hip menu, one has to figure that they’re doing something right. A cynic might suggest that in a location this good, anything can thrive, but that ignores the fact that there were three restaurants here before Nick’s arrived.

The outdoor patio facing that plaza is my favorite dining space, bright by day with a great view of kids playing, and dogs being walked, peaceful and softly lit at night. Ocean views may be more highly prized as a general thing, but those who enjoy people watching will gravitate here. Service on the patio seems slightly slower than indoors, but worth it.

On recent visits we tried two starters, the California salad and parmesan-crusted asparagus. We wanted to try the shrimp taquitos, but on both visits, they were out of them. On one visit the server highly recommended these, then sheepishly came back to say they had run out. It’s hard to believe they’d beat the asparagus, which were excellent.

The fried asparagus at Nick’s. Photo by Richard Foss

The batter was crisp with just enough parmesan to add cheesy tang, and a dip of the warm vegetable into the cool buttermilk ranch dressing added an extra layer of flavor. The menu says this is a Nick’s original, and if so I hope they’ll keep the originals coming.

The California salad might be based on a cliche: let’s take all the things that people elsewhere caricature Californians as eating, like quinoa, kale, goat cheese, avocado, and nuts, throw them together, and see what happens. Add in dates, strawberries, and green onion, tie it together with a Champagne vinaigrette, and you get a nice balance of greens. Putting fruit and nuts in a salad was the hot trend a decade ago, but we’ve already established that the menu here doesn’t change much, and in this case that’s just fine.

The entrees list is short and predictable: three seafood items, a steak, pork ribs, and a nod to California with a taco platter. I had tried the ribs and fried chicken in the last review, so my companions and I ordered the Chilean sea bass, Scottish salmon, French dip, veggie burger, and cheeseburger. The sea bass and salmon were both described as pan-seared, but arrived with very different textures. The bass was lightly seared so it had a very delicate crust with the interior cooked just through, so it was almost liquid, almost like eating a scallop. It was served in a lemon beurre blanc that accented the natural flavor, and didn’t need anything else. The salmon had a crisper exterior and a coating of seasoning, and was served with a caper-mustard butter that was a partner to the rich, oily fish. Both seafood entrees came with whipped mashed potatoes, and what was listed on the menu as sauteed spinach, but actually also contained some bok choy. It’s a smart combination, because the bok choy added a little texture that made the spinach more interesting. They’ll substitute a baked potato if you prefer one to mashed, which I did.

A sea bass entree at Nick’s. Photo by Richard Foss.

The French dip is listed as being made with ribeye, a well-marbled cut that benefits from slow roasting. I’m surprised that they roast their own prime rib but offer it only in this sandwich, because I’d happily have it as an entree. The sandwich was on a brioche roll and was a bit on the small side, along with fries a light meal rather than a full one, but it was a very good light meal.

The burger was decent but unimpressive, a standard item competently made. I had asked for a petite bistro salad, but they were out, so they offered a daily special side of bok choy sauteed with sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic, and Thai chili. This should be a regular menu item, because it really woke up my taste buds. The Thai chili was used moderately but effectively so that it didn’t take over the dish but seasoned every bite. I’m going to try duplicating this at home.

The housemade veggie burger was odd but good – odd because there wasn’t really anything that had the texture of a patty. There was a soft mix of black beans with various vegetables, with squash of some sort as a major player, and along with the avocado, mayo, and Swiss cheese the textures were soft and rich. Some lettuce and fried onions added occasional hints of crisp texture, but were mostly lost in the mix. This is one area where there’s really room for improvement, because veggie burgers have come a long way in the last decade when it comes to creating satisfying textures.

We paired our meals with cocktails, which could also use some work. The drinks palate here tends toward the sweet, which is very noticeable when you order a whiskey sour or mai tai. I talked with one of the bartenders about getting some of my favorite drinks, and found the bar here is not well stocked with bitters and amaros. If you favor balanced cocktails, stick to the wines or beers, because those lists are good.

We tried one dessert, a warm butter cake with a crystalized sugar crust, and berry compote, topped with ice cream. One portion was enough for two and was very satisfying, the cake flagrantly buttery and not overly sweet. It’s an American favorite well made, which is what this kitchen does well. Nick’s is an interesting anomaly, an upscale family restaurant in a town that is more noted for catering to the young party crowd. It’s the place you go when you want something more upscale than The Kettle and crave comfort food – there will be something there for everyone in your party, and odds are that it will be made very well.

Nick’s is at 451 Manhattan Beach Boulevard, in Metlox Plaza. Mon-Fri. 11 a.m., Sat.-Sun. 8 a.m. Close varies but after 9 p.m., Underground or street parking, structure adjacent. Full bar, corkage $15. Some vegetarian items. Wheelchair access good.310) 545-7373. ER


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