Business travel is a bit of both bore and chore. The bore part can happen if you travel to the same place a little too often. That’s how it is with Lakewood, Colorado and me. Lakewood is a nice enough city on Denver’s western edge, nestled a few miles from the start of the Rocky Mountains. It has a nice view of the mountains and Denver, many affordable houses, convenient strip malls, a new hospital and the Denver Federal Center, where I hang out during the day. Soon it will have light rail as well. It’s a decent city and might be a nice place to retire to if you dream of retiring to a ranch house and like to bike places. It is quite bike-friendly. Still, there is nothing particularly special about Lakewood, aside from its scenic views. It is the average American city, the sort of place where Dagwood Bumstead would feel at home.
Business travel to Lakewood usually means sleeping in the same so-so hotels. The TownePlace Suites where we usually stay is very much so-so: standard clean Marriott hotel, just not one of the nicer ones. Calling them a suite is a bit of a stretch. There is a tiny kitchen, but there it is basically one room with a bathroom. There is also something resembling breakfast in the lobby in the morning. Breakfast means a continental breakfast: cereals, milk, bananas, apples and bagels. The closest thing to protein is the hardboiled eggs, which only recently appeared on the menu. The price is right but meal quickly gets boring. You find yourself craving some real breakfast food: like scrambled eggs with bacon, fresh orange juice, pancakes and hash browns. For most Americans this means Denny’s, and there is a Denny’s across Highway 6 about a half a mile from the hotel. There is also a hole in the wall called Nick’s Cafe.
You would be wise to choose Nick’s over Denny’s. Granted, passing this tiny restaurant at 777 Simms Street your first reaction might be to run to Denny’s instead. Nick’s epitomizes the hole in the wall restaurant, and its location in a tiny and disheveled looking strip mall with a liquor store might have you wondering if restaurant inspectors ever come by. Moreover the place is tiny. Your chair might well bump up against a chair of the table next to it. It can’t possibly seat more than two dozen people and when it does it must be with considerable discomfort. There is that plus all the kitschy stuff on the walls, almost all of it with an Elvis theme. Nick, the chef behind the counter, reputedly used to cook for Elvis though for how long I don’t know. Nick’s is part restaurant and part shrine to the crooner, with a dash of Marilyn Monroe thrown in. Rumors of Elvis’s demise may be exaggerated, because at Nick’s he has a parking space awaiting his return.
You can likely get breakfast 24 hours a day at your local Denny’s, but at most restaurants at 4 AM you are out of luck. Not so at Nick’s because Nick is an early bird. He arrives around 4 AM and departs around 3 PM after lunch. Nick is not intimidated that most of us are asleep at 4 AM rather than searching for a hot breakfast. He is there, probably because he’s wide awake anyhow. He knows what he does well which is make great tasting breakfasts and lunches for prices that make him competitive with McDonalds. Unlike McDonalds though you can also get a taste of Greece or Mexico, if not during lunch when his hot and tasty gyros are in high demand, but even during breakfast where if you think your taste buds are awake enough for it you can get the breakfast burrito.
Nick concentrates on the food, not on the silverware, which is plastic, or the glasses, which are paper cups, or the plates which are Styrofoam. You can watch Nick prepare your meal if you want since he is right there behind the window. And you cannot escape Nick, as you pay him, not the waitress, on your way out the door. Tip the hard working waitress of course, but leave your credit card at home. It’s strictly cash at Nick’s.
I eat at Nick’s a few times a year, usually toward the end of my trip when I cannot endure another continental breakfast. I am on per diem anyhow, and breakfast is always cheap at Nick’s. It’s also a short walk across 8th Avenue, across a gas station lot and up a short but steep embankment. It’s worth the short climb just to have the pleasure of sitting down, enjoying the Elvis memorabilia on the wall, the Today show on the TV (in the morning) and to hear the comforting sound of food frying on Nick’s grill. The waitress is always there, so it is a matter of seconds before you get a cup of water and a menu. (Seat yourself.)
Perhaps it is just as well that Nick’s Cafe is unknown. With a restaurant so small, Nick simply does not need much more business. It’s the sort of place that should have a line outside the door but I have never seen one. This may be due in part to the severely limited parking. It may be small but that does not mean it does not have loyal clientele. They are also friendly clientele, perhaps too friendly. As I had breakfast the other morning, one patron walked in to pick up her usual order of takeout, but stayed just long enough to sit on the lap of a much older patron. Nick’s is apparently the dining choice of penny pinching Lakewood police, two of whom came in for breakfast while I was there.
As much as I enjoy the ambiance of Nick’s as well as its great food, I confess my primary motivation is the bacon. Nick knows his bacon and he delivers thick strips of bacon cooked just right: neither too greasy nor too brown. It’s bacon you can sink your teeth into and ingest with great satisfaction. I haven’t found it served in any other restaurant, probably because other restaurants are too busy making their bottom line to worry about giving patrons thick slices of bacon. At Nick’s there is only Nick behind the counter and a waitress handling customers. He serves what is good, not what makes him the most money. He cannot be in this business to get rich, as he charges so little. I figure he works simply because he enjoys it. He is the master of his own small domain, a cash-only business, and it works for him. He can open his own damn store at 4 AM if he wants and there is no one to complain. And so it goes until the last gyro is sold around 3 PM. If you need to see Nick, he will be back at 4 AM. Count on him.