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Nico Casts His Net: The Story Behind the New Nico’s at Pier 38

Plus the restaurant’s role in Pier 38’s vision as a modern-day fishing village.


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Nico's

NICO’S AT NIGHT, WHEN THE BEER AND WINE ON TAP MAKES THE INDUSTRIAL WATERFRONT LOOK ALL THE MORE ROMANTIC.

 

Nobody expected it to do as well as it did, in this industrial harbor. But people found it and flooded it. A regular, Joe Megna, who’s been coming to Nico’s since it first opened seven years ago, says, “I don’t know what brought me here. It was a fluke. I felt like the luckiest person in town.” He figures he eats at Nico’s four to five times a week, and he always gets the catch of the day.

 

Nico's

Chaize designed the entire kitchen, down to the refrigerated drawers for fish placed below the grill and stove.

While the space was cramped physically, it was fairly comfortable financially. Nico’s might have survived by staying small, but, fueled by success, there were new visions of what it could be: the public’s entrée into Hawaii’s fishing industry, the hook that draws landlubbers to Pier 38.

 

“Being in the fishing industry, we want people to be around us, to see who we are, what we do,” Cook says. “We’re a business that runs under the radar, in stealth, away from people. Our boats operate 500,000 miles off shore. But, hey, we’re a local business. The fishing business is not small. That auction sells $80 million worth of fish a year. I like the idea if we can run a reasonably priced [restaurant] we can get people to come down here and learn something about [fishing].”

 

As the public draw to Pier 38, the new Nico’s had to be bigger and better. POP signed a 35-year lease on the last available building at the pier (Fresh Island Fish, a fish wholesaler and distributor that also runs Uncle’s Fish Market and Grill, was among other parties also interested in the space at one point). Two-thirds of the building is allocated to POP’s operations, the top floor is a banquet facility and the final third is devoted to the new Nico’s.

 

Nico's

Whole, deep-fried kampachi with Chinese black-bean sauce.

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, which profiled the original Nico’s, wouldn’t recognize the new one. An open-air dining area curves outward like a ship’s bow, softening the original boxy-ness of the state-designed structure.

 

Inside, the bar draws the eye (and restaurateurs and chefs like Don Murphy of Murphy’s Bar and Grill, Eric Leterc, executive chef of The Pacific Club, even Chaize himself in the late evening hours as dinner service winds down). The light fixtures above it drop from a boat sculpture affixed to the ceiling. The counter’s metal surface shimmers, patterned like fish scales. For those uninterested in aesthetics, the beer and wine on tap are the real pull. Wine kept in kegs and served out of a tap is a trend in California, where Cook first experienced it. “The wine on tap, the premise of it, being environmentally friendly, lower cost, is something that I thought fit in with the theme of the restaurant,” he says.

 

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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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