All I Ever Wanted Was a Bar
How Colin Nishida, against his will, became the hottest restaurateur in town.
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“Colin led by example,” she says. “He could do anything. If the kitchen was slamming, he’d get in there and cook. If the bar got backed up, he’d come out and handle a 15-drink order faster than any of us.”
Nishida was strict but generous to his employees, she says. “If there was a baby luau or a funeral, he was there, with the food.” On the other hand, he was blunt.
“If you came in hungover, he’d say, “What the hell did you do last night? You look like s—t.”
She marveled at how he would treat people. “He was generous with everyone, made sure no one was hungry. Remember that big fundraiser when Chai [chef Chai Chaowasaree] was in trouble [with federal immigration officials]? Colin put that together in less than two weeks. He did every charity event. Plus, you know how he is, jeans and rubber slippers, he acted exactly the same way to everyone, whether it was a CEO of a big company or the guy who washed dishes.”
DeAngelo was scared to tell him she was leaving after eight years for a better job. “All he said was, ‘I’m happy. You’re making something of yourself.’”
Nishida had made something of himself as well. He had Side Street humming, a menu of 68 items, and growing recognition as a chef (Russell Siu: “His steamed moi is a perfectly thought-out dish”). Not to mention an ever-expanding circle of friends.
In 2007, Anthony Bourdain came to film for his Travel Channel show No Reservations. It was supposed to be just Bourdain and a few chefs. Nishida ended up inviting 200 people, including nearly every chef in town, from Wong and Siu to Hiroshi Fukui, Elmer Guzman, Nico Chaize and Don Murphy.
“Everyone kept calling me, saying they wanted to come,” says Nishida, and he said yes to everyone, even me. He declared an open bar and kept the poke, pork chops, Parker Ranch rib-eye and fried rice flowing out of the kitchen.
As Bourdain poured himself into an SUV at the end of the evening, I asked if everywhere he went they threw him a party. “Not like this one, brother,” he said. “Not like this one.”
In addition, from 1999 until this year, Nishida also had a downtown plate-lunch place called Fort Street Grill, which served as his catering kitchen. I’d see him in the kitchen at 7 a.m., prepping, and then, if I could stay up that late, I’d see him at midnight, ordering up a round of vodka shots for his friends at Side Street.
He seemed indestructible.
His stomach was bothering him, however. It took a long time—almost too long—for the doctors to figure out it was a particularly nasty case of diverticulitis. He’d done a bout or two in the hospital, but, by September 2009, he was in intensive care at Queen’s in an induced coma. “We weren’t sure he was going to make it,” says Mel.
On his birthday, Oct. 27, with Nishida still unresponsive, Mel threw him a birthday party at Side Street, packing the room, even inviting Colin’s doctors and nurses.
The next day, Colin started to get better. Says Mel, “I told his nurses, the prayers worked.”
By November, he was out of the hospital, under strict orders to limit work. “I knew he wouldn’t listen,” says Mel.
Eight months later, he opened the $1.5 million Side Street on Da Strip, having designed the entire kitchen and restaurant himself, down to the furniture.
“You gotta be happy for the man,” says Wong. “He comes back from his deathbed and opens a restaurant. Who does that?”
The new Side Street opened in July, with a big party, for which Nishida made much of the food himself. Several hundred friends showed up to celebrate, including a whole panoply of chefs, every one of which said, “Have you seen the kitchen? It’s incredible.”
Cheryl DeAngelo and most of the original bartenders, now women with families, attended as well. “They’re all still friends of ours,” says Mel. “The joke is that they were all skinny when they started and left chunky, from eating the food.”