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.
Partners in Nico's. From left to right: Sean Martin, Juliana Chaize, Nico Chaize.
Photos: Linny Morris
“I first met Nico in a little café in Venice, California, where he was busy marrying my daughter,” says Jim Cook. He’s partners now with Nico Chaize, the chef and (handsome) face of Nico’s. We’re talking about the past, while standing directly above it, right above where the old Nico’s used to be, the 1,800-square-foot takeout counter that was always busy, where you had to hustle if you wanted one of the green plastic seats and wobbly tables. Chaize is across the street, very much in the present, working the hot line at his newly expanded restaurant, a gleaming 5,200 square feet. He’s gearing up for the lunch rush in which he’ll churn out 900 or more plates. Between noon and one, he’ll pull the long string of paper tickets out of the order machine, reeling them in hand over hand like a fishing line. He will think, “Oh, my God, it will never stop,” but he’ll put his head down with his four line cooks to crank out Styrofoam clamshells of furikake pan-seared ahi, beer-battered fish and chips and the catch of the day, today, an ahi tombo in a fennel cream sauce.
If Nico’s had stayed exactly the same, we would have all probably kept eating there. The 700 plates a day Chaize used to serve from his tiny takeout counter were a testament to this. Maybe 30 years from now, Nico’s would have achieved hole-in-the-wall-institution status along the lines of Ono Hawaiian Food, Helena’s, places that we love in spite of—or perhaps because of—the cramped seating, lines, scuffed linoleum and fluorescent lighting. We would have still been captive to his $10 lunch plates with fresh, local fish.
Instead, Nico’s changed. It moved. It got bigger.
Why? “There was no place to breathe, [I was] suffering every day,” Chaize says. That’s the simple answer. But to better understand how and why the new Nico’s came to be requires looking into the history of Pier 38 (where Nico’s is situated) and his partner and father-in-law, Jim Cook. Chaize’s cooking and work ethic—he’s a chef who used to rise at 4:30 in the morning to bid on fish from the auction—carried Nico’s to success, but Nico’s, both the original and the new, would never have happened without Cook.
If you’re a fisherman, you know Cook. He and Sean Martin own POP Marine and Fishing (formerly known as Pacific Ocean Producers), Hawaiian Ice, Kewalo Ice Co., Liferaft and Marine Safety Co., and six longline boats.
In his offices, Cook is dressed in a weathered Nico’s T-shirt and shorts, a crummy pair of sneakers, with wine-stained socks pulled up below his shins. The wine stains are the only indication he might be in the restaurant business. He had been redesigning the wine-on-tap system—the first in the state—at Nico’s earlier that day. (“It’s a struggle,” he says of the new system. “We have to learn how to do the mechanical side of it … I think five years from now, there will be wines on tap in every major restaurant. And I’ll sit back and say, I’m broke now, but I did that.”)
“I’d be the first to tell you, we’re not restaurateurs,” Cook says. “We’re a couple of guys who know a lot about fishing and boats, and Nico is a guy who knows something about cooking. We just came up with this concept and did it.”
The concept was a small lunch takeout counter serving fresh fish, but it was part of a larger vision, of Pier 38 as a modern-day fishing village.
Since the late ’80s, Cook and others envisioned Pier 38 as a central hub for Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry. At the time, commercial fishing boats were scattered along the waterfront and fish had to be trucked into the fish auction at Kewalo Basin. “Governor [Ben] Cayetano took an interest in the project,” Cook says. “The state built the infrastructure—the roads, designated lots.” Ten lots were built at Pier 38. The fish auction was the first to move in, in 2004, then POP Marine and Fishing. When POP’s building was under construction, Cook offered Chaize a small restaurant space inside it. For what would a village be without a place to gather around food?
The original Nico’s opened in 2004, wedged in a corner of POP. From the beginning, as now, there was a duality to the menu. There’s the fish, of course—furikake ahi and a daily changing catch of the day—but, because Nico’s also served a community of fishermen and longshoremen for whom the last thing they wanted to see was another piece of fish, the menu had (and still has) local favorites such as chicken katsu, served with a housemade katsu sauce, and a beef stew fortified with a good glug of wine during its braise.
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.
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.
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.
NICO’S FISH MARKET, WITH WHOLE FISH, FRESH FILLETS AND A POKE COUNTER.
In addition to the lunch service, the menu largely unchanged from the old Nico’s except for the addition of pizzas, there’s dinner. At night, the Styrofoam is swapped out for real plates, dishes go up $3 to $4 and Chaize’s French comfort food supplements the menu: steak frites, a seared skirt steak topped with herbed butter, short ribs braised in red wine. These bistro classics threaten to outshine the fish dishes. A pupu menu features marlin carpaccio and poisson cru—a Tahitian version of poke marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.
Bistro classics such as steak frites are offered at night.
Also new is the fish market, because it didn’t make sense to have a fish auction on Pier 38 and nowhere for people to buy fish, short of bidding on a whole 150-pound ahi at five in the morning. There’s a poke counter, fish smoked in-house (try the Cajun-spiced, smoked swordfish, moist and meaty), and whole, fresh fish such as monchong and opakapaka, fillets of mahimahi and sailfish.
Nico’s market boasts more variety in the fish it carries than the restaurant. Most of the fish on Nico’s restaurant menu tends toward the larger species—ahi, swordfish, marlin—because larger fish are easier to deal with in volume. (Nico’s moves about 400 pounds of fish daily. As a comparison, Side Street Inn serves an average of 100 pounds of its famed pork chops a day.)
At dinner, Nico’s offers a pupu menu that includes poisson cru, a Tahitian version of poke marinated in lime juice and coconut milk.
And yet, with all these additions, lunch plates still hover around $10. Chaize says that, from the beginning, he wanted to “give a chance to locals to eat fish for cheap. If you want fresh fish, you go to Alan Wong’s, Roy’s, you get charged $28 for fish. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But nobody wants to buy fish at the auction, put a bigeye in the back of a truck and carry it himself. I’m the one who does this. I buy the fish on the block. There’s no middleman. It’s me and the fish; I cut it, serve it.”
Nico’s, bigger and better, is a hit. Pier 38, with its industrial, big-box buildings and a promenade that doesn’t go anywhere, is not quite there yet, compared to its ambitions, as Honolulu’s version of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco or Pike Place in Seattle. But that may be why Pier 38 works. Unlike those exaggerated destinations, it is what it is: a waterfront dominated by cargo ships, cranes and commercial fishing boats, its industrial ocean architecture glowing in the dusk, providing the sea equivalent of a city skyline. Chaize says, “It’s not Hollywood. These are real fishing boats. That’s Pier 38.” In this day and age of food tourists and gourmands seeking authenticity and the origins of their food, perhaps Nico’s and Pier 38 are the perfect bait.
1129 North Nimitz Highway, (808) 540-1377, nicospier38.com.