Friday, December 24, 2010

Nick's Nest, 1597 Northampton St., Holyoke, MA

Food: Nick's Nest Nourishes

Holyoke landmark Nick's Nest serves up both history and dogs with relish.

Photo By Mark Roessler
The counter at Nick's Nest in Holyoke

A block from where Dwight Street crosses Route 5 in Holyoke, in a sea of huge, back-lit plastic signs promising cheap, fast food, an undistinguished house with colorful awnings has a small neon sign on its roof that blinks alternately, "Hot Dogs" and "Popcorn."

Its modest siren call has attracted many a wayfaring traveler wandering into and out of the Valley on a summertime holiday with the family. Up the hill from the eatery, four lanes of Interstate 91 scream by, but long before that major artery was thrust through the landscape in the '60s, travelers heading north through the Valley drove past Nick's Nest. Then, as today, it seemed like a good place to stop and stretch your legs.

"For some reason—I don't know what it is—people are happier when they've got dogs on their mind," said Kevin Chateauneuf, owner of Nick's Nest, on the appeal of his chief product.

Five years ago this spring, Chateauneuf and his wife bought the business from the original owners. "There's a lot of history in this place, and that's one of the major reasons we bought it," he explained. "We've worked in a lot of restaurants, but this place, it was a homerun."

Their dogs are made from the same special recipe used since the 1930s, and while the new owners have made a few enhancements to the menu, they've been careful to preserve the store front and interior.

"There's little things that they did that just attract people," Chateauneuf said of the Malfas family, the Nest's original owners. On the wall next to the popcorn machine are pictures of the evolution of the business, beginning with a cart Nick Malfas pushed on the streets of downtown Holyoke in 1921. The business settled into its current location in 1927, and its current incarnation was built in 1948.

The Wurlitzer jukeboxes that line the lunch bar along the windows don't work, but it's still fun to flip through the lists of albums Chateauneuf assures me are sitting in the basement, waiting for the day he can afford to get the needle dropping on them again.

Chateauneuf did get the small, metal, automaton jazz band above the counter working, though. When he flips a switch under the cash register, a curtain pulls back and reveals a big band of tin musicians who sway and stutter in front of palm trees and a moonlit surf, pretending they are playing whatever's on the juke box.

For customers who leave to eat on the road or picnic elsewhere, their arms full of dogs, beans, drinks and other sides, a hand pull has been installed above the counter that, when tugged by the staff, opens the door automatically for the encumbered dog consumer.

"People come home to Holyoke—they could live in Boston, or anywhere—when they come home to their parents, they come here. Thanksgiving, Christmas, even St. Patricks day—they'll come here four or five times in the few days they're back. Because they miss it. 'I can't get hot dogs anywhere like Nick's Nest,' they tell us," Chateauneuf said.

"So many older people will come in here and tell you, 'I had my first date here.' It's incredible. If you think back to the '40s and '50s, [the area] was booming. There was no McDonald's, no Burger King, no Wendy's, no Kentucky Fried Chicken. There was all just mom and pop places. And this place was a destination.

"I know: I grew up as a kid in South Hadley," Chateauneuf continued, "and we used to come over here very sparingly. Once or twice a year. It was a treat. Because back then, we didn't go out to eat. If we went out, it was once every two months. Today it's a whole other ball game. We're take-out people. It's crazy."

Still, he reflected, while he gets his share of fast, to-go traffic, Nick's Nest also attracts customers who travel at a slower pace. "You know, what's funny about this restaurant is we get a lot of people who come by themselves and just sit here. I've worked at a lot of restaurants, and people don't usually go by themselves. But in here, I think they feel comfortable. They come, get something to eat, read a book, and stay for a while."

While the menu basics are the same, the new management has introduced a seasonal soft-serve ice cream stand along with the dogs. They also now serve soups and fries in addition to the original fare, and after years of unexplained absence, sauerkraut is now available. But whatever the essence of Nick's Nest is, Chateauneuf is vigilant about protecting it.

"People say, why don't you expand?" he said. "Because this place has been here forever. You ever hear about someone going in and buying something that's successful and changing it? This family business has been here over 80-something years; I'm going to change what they did? I want it to be here for 80-something more years. I want to say to my daughter, you want to run Nick's Nest? Here's Nick's Nest."

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