Whenever I get back over on the Tampa side of the bay, I always try to eat at one of my old hangouts from my days of living over there. One of my absolute favorites spots–and I’m surprised it’s taken me so long to write it up–is Nicko’s. Nicko’s is a well known favorite among Tampa locals. It’s a diner, more specifically, a “real” diner. By that I mean a diner styled to look like a railway diner car. This Wikipedia article describes the origins of the American diner as railway diner cars that were no longer track-worthy being hauled to permanent locations and turned into restaurants.
RAILWAY CAR STYLE ARCHITECTURE
There are other meanings to the word, “diner,” though, depending on your personal history and what part of the country you’re from. In some parts, such as Long Island, a diner may refer to what I, from the Midwest, would call a “coffee shop.” For a detailed treatment of the famous Toddle House coffee shops, see the Inkwatu article, Kopper Kitchen.
COUNTER AND STOOLS
There is also a very real connection of the word, “diner,” to horse-drawn trailer eateries, later motorized, or hand-pulled–as covered in this Inkwatu post, New York Street Food. The larger of these portable horse-drawn or motorized diners sometimes became situated at fixed locations. Some of these establishments were big enough to seat customers inside, some were not. There were, however, like the rail-way cars, pre-existing or prefabricated structures which became established in a permanent location.
Books on Diners
Regardless which type of diner you associate with the word, here’s a few books you might look for in your public library, or purchase new or used from Amazon (one is even available on Kindle):
- The American Diner Cookbook(also available for Kindle)
- The American Diner (Motorbooks Classic)
- American Diner Then and Now
- Hometown Diners
- Diners: American Retro (used, some as low as $0.75)
- Diners Of New York
- Diners of Pennsylvania
- Jersey Diners
- Diners Of New England
ELVIS® BOOTH PLAQUE
Nicko’s (4603 N. Florida Ave., Tampa, FL 33603-3732; 813-234-9301; map), pronounced “nee-ko’s” by locals, specializes in Greek food, but it’s got all the typical favorites one expects from a genuine diner. I met a friend there recently for lunch and we were lucky enough to sit in the Elvis booth, the very booth that Elvis Presley sat in following one of his concerts. My friend got the small Greek salad (looks pretty large to me) and I got the Gyro Platter (so much I could only eat part of it). Both are pictured here. I recommend Nicko’s, especially for early morning, late night, local color and good food. Be sure to bring cash; like may Tampa Bay independent restaurants, it’s cash only, but there is an inside ATM. They are mega-packed on weekends. If you go for breakfast on a weekend, you will have to wait.
Tampa Bay Diners
When I first moved to Tampa in 1969 there were several railway style diners. I often ate at the Ayers Diner when it was at the Dale Mabry location. But, the diner I ate at the most was on West Hillsborough, near the Fun Lan Drive In Movie (no, that’s not a typo). I don’t remember the name of that diner, but, for some reason, I thought it was also called Ayers. If someone knows, please comment. That diner’s building has long been demolished. St. Petersburg had a spectacular one down where the road bends on the way to Treasure Island–I can still remember the taste of their tart cherry pie, decades Later.
SMALL GREEK SALAD
Here is a great St. Petersburg Times article from their Americana Series about Nicko’s and its owners. The following is a quote from that article:
“Elvis has left the diner. He was on tour in Tampa in 1956, the year he broke out like a national rash that never quite went away. After the show, The King was hungry and sought out the only 24-hour joint in town.
“That diner is now Nicko’s Fine Food on N Florida, between Martin Luther King and Hillsborough. The waitresses can still point out where Elvis sat, as legend has it, in booth three on the north side of the diner.
“Nicko’s is one of only two diners left in Tampa. Nicko’s opened for business in 1951 as the Ayers Diner. In 1980 it was sold and reopened by the Liakos family as Nicko’s. The original Ayers Diner, which opened in 1950, was moved from its original Dale Mabry location and reopened as TJ’s Galaxy Diner at Himes and Cypress.
“Nicko’s is still owned and operated by the same family: James and Dee Liakos and their son and his wife, Nick and Laurie Liakos.”
(Note: TJ’s Galaxy Diner, referred to in the quote, is no longer in operation.)
If you’re interested in finding diners in your neck of the woods, check out the sites listed below. There aren’t many diners left, but, fortunately, there are still people who see their value and buy and restore and operate them. The clientele for a good diner definitely still exists.
- Diner City — excellent resource with a listing of diners by state and other nostalgia links such as New York Deli’s, Classic Motels, Hot Dog Stands, and much more
- Roadside America — some diners, but mainly roadside attractions of that era
- Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives a Food Network show dedicated to Diners
- The American Diner (Google Books preview) — with links to previews of other diner books
- Florida Diners — on Debra Jane’s Home Page; good pictures
- Jack’s Diner — another personal page with locations, menus, many good diner links!
Coffee at the Caribbean Point
After lunch, my friend took me to another little shop for a post-lunch cup of Cuban style espresso (highly sweetened, similar to Armenia/Greek/Turkish coffee, but without the grounds at the bottom). This was the Caribbean Point restaurant. It’s been there about a year and half. Terrific coffee. My friend raved about their Moros y Cristianos, or black beans cooked together with white rice (sometimes called black rice when prepared this way) which he had had another time. I’ll be returning there to try their sandwiches. Like most small Cuban restaurants, the dishes are extremely inexpensive.
THE CARIBBEAN POINT
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