Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nick's in the Sticks

There are scattered moments in this life when everything falls into place. You are in exactly the right place at the right time, and it feels great.

I don't know if it was the first few sips of my jet fuel-esque beverage that was beginning to course through my veins. It might have been the classic weathered d├ęcor of an honest, authentic dive restaurant. Maybe it was the fact that I was having dinner with my grandpa, Pappy Duncan. Just us two guys out for a steak and some conversation. It could have been the primal joy in eating a well-cooked ribeye. I'm not sure what it was, but it was darn good.

A few minutes earlier, we had been headed down a dark two lane road on the outskirts of Tuscaloosa. Nick's Original Filet House (colloquially known as Nicks in the Sticks) would be our destination. Doubt crept into my mind. There's no way there could be a restaurant out here. There's nothing out here at all except for darkness and the yellow lines in the middle of the road.

Then, out of the darkness, I saw a sign. Well, to be precise, I saw a lack of a sign. It was the empty metal frame that contained Nick's restaurant sign until some tornado or freak storm blew it away years ago. They never replaced it. The empty metal frame works just fine, and it is a fitting welcome.

Imagine one of those sad television commercials pleading for just 35 cents a day to help save the life of a child. Picture the footage of lean-to hovels and cinder block houses with murky puddles of water or dusty gravel. That's about what Nick's In the Sticks looks like at first glance. I kid. It's not that bad, but you get the idea.

The ambiance inside is that of an old bar or maybe a VFW Post. There's aging wood panelling everywhere, and, as is the custom in these parts, the walls are covered in Alabama football memorabilia and paintings. The ten tables were all jammed packed. It was pretty loud in there as the small room practically thrummed with a happy, boisterous energy.

I suspected that Nicodemus might have something to do with the atmosphere. The Nicodemus is the signature cocktail at Nick's, and the word on the internet is that this is a potent concoction. As a looked around at the other tables, I could see many of them festooned with styrofoam cups filled with red punch topped with a cherry. I nervously ordered one when the waiter stopped by. I was a little surprised when he asked to see my I.D.. This must be some drink! If he asks me to sign a waiver, then I might have to rethink my order.

Pappy and I then ordered our steaks. He had the bacon-wrapped filet with baked potato. I ordered the biggest thing I could find, the ribeye with onion rings. The food was delicious. I could tell that my ribeye wasn't a high-falootin dry-aged, organically farmed piece of prime beef. It had character, it had seasoning, and it was cooked to the medium rare I asked for. The onion rings were some of the best I've ever had: sweet with a thick buttermilk batter.

I will admit that the Nicodemus had gone to work on my physiology. I felt warm, happy, and quite hungry. I was really enjoying the atmosphere. I was chatting with pappy and peering around at the Daniel Moore Alabama football prints. These realistic paintings capture great moments in Alabama football history and feature names like, "The Kick", "Rebirth in the Swamp", and "Goal Line Stand." Pappy was telling me about the last time he had been to Nick's. It was 25 years ago, and the table he sat at was right next to ours. Maybe in the light of day in some blind taste test, I might not be overwhelmed by the experience like I was, but everything combined for an awesome night.

We wrapped up our dinner and went up to the bar to pay. There's no cash register or touch-screen computer here. You just point at your table, and the owner adds up your bill by hand in pencil. Ah, Nick's. As we headed back out into the dark Alabama night, I looked back at the little brick building with the aged red and white awning. That was definitely the right meal, at the right place, at the right time.


KuKd Chick said...

A gorgeous post! You should be a travel writer. I loved this story.

Sarah said...

Well done, Chris. :)