nick’s of time

Old City. (Sigh)

How did the birthplace of our city (and of our country, for that matter) devolve into such a glammed-up, thugged-out club-and-lounge wasteland? While the warehouse-cum-condo district of the neighborhood’s northern end is an exciting mix of galleries and theaters (with a subterranean bar thrown in for good measure), the area to the south is, for the most part, a nauseating meld of pomp and arrogance under the cover of Kenneth Cole and trendy lighting.

I rarely find myself in the area for anything other than the Ritz or Mexican Post, but while passing through to Temple’s gallery on North 2nd Street one afternoon last winter, I was surprised to discover Nick’s Roast Beef, a welcome dose of blue-collar, Philly reality.

Nick’s is one of those bizarre Center City establishments whose clientele seems to come from anywhere BUT Center City. The wood paneling and rampant Eagles paraphernalia scream South Philly, not Old City. It has a real working-class toughness to it, but also a welcoming atmosphere that’s open to all.

Make no mistake about it: the food at Nick’s isn’t great per se, but is elevated by the surroundings in an ironic sort of way. While upstairs at 32 Degrees, the model wannabes sip cosmos on plush chairs by candlelight, the rest of us are downstairs in a cloud of smoke, hunched over the bar in the glow of sports on TV.

That said, the food isn’t bad by any stretch. The Roast Beef Italiano is a hearty portion of beef, provolone and spinach sautéed in garlic and oil, piled high on a long Italian roll and toasted, making it more like a grinder than the traditional French Dip. Distancing itself from neighboring Cuba Libre and Continental even further, Nick’s serves up the sandwich with individual plastic take-away cups of horseradish and hot peppers.

Nick’s also has pretty decent fries served up plain or with cheese, Old Bay seasoning, or gravy. They’re that perfect type of steak fry that’s more salty baked potato than greasy fried stick (not that anything about Nick’s indicates that this was a choice made with healthy eating in mind).

So next time you’re pushed into the street by the fabulous herds and nearly crushed by a tinted, 6-ton Hummer, duck into Nick’s for some so-so food and a comforting escape from the typical Old City scene.