Tuscaloosa is home to a beloved institution with fans from all over the country. Although most of them surely roll with the Tide, high-stakes football isn’t the attraction. Instead, great steaks, potent signature drinks and an atmosphere like no other are what draw these fans.
Nick’s Original Filet House (aka Nick’s in the Sticks) has been serving tender, juicy filets at fantastic prices for more than 75 years.
Nick’s is still in the sticks – about five miles out of town, down U.S. Highway 43. The restaurant is in a little brick building, painted crimson-red with a matching awning and a small, wooden patio out front so people can sit and have a drink while they wait. The large American flag in one window has been there since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Nick’s didn’t have a sign for the longest time, but there’s a fancy new one up now. Even without a sign, the crowds would indicate that this is the place. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, especially, the wait for a table – in the cold or in the heat, rain or not – can be up to three hours for the loyal local folks, university students and out-of-towners in the know.
They come to Nick’s mainly for “the onion rings, the filets and the Nicodemus and our ranch-blue cheese dressing,” says owner Carla Hegenbarth. “That’s what we’re most known for.”
And they come from all over.
“Nick’s is just an icon,” Hegenbarth says. “We’ve had people drive from Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee just to eat. So that’s pretty neat.” Football season is especially busy, and the T-Town restaurant has a lot of LSU fans.
Nick’s popularity spans generations. “Parents who went to school at the university bring in their own children,” Hegenbarth says. “They’ll say, ‘This is third generation here.’ I’ve had several friends who’ve had children, and this is the first place they’ll bring them. They’re just infants.” One woman in line to pay for her meal on a recent Tuesday said, “I came here when I was a student, and I’m still coming here. I’m 60 years old now.”
Hegenbarth is one of a short list of owners of this long-time favorite. Nick’s first opened across the Greene County line in 1939, she says, because Tuscaloosa was dry. Tuscaloosa became wet in ’52, and founder Nick Delgado moved his business to the current Culver Road location. “It’s been here as long as I can remember,” she says. “My parents brought me when I was little. It hasn’t changed hardly any since I was coming. I remember Nick Delgado would walk around the tables, with his big cigar in his mouth, greeting everybody.”
Delgado ran the place for a long time before selling it to Richard Norton, who, in turn, sold it to Lloyd Hegenbarth in the mid-1980s. Lloyd had worked for Delgado when he was in college. When Lloyd died in 2014, fans feared that would be the end of Nick’s, too, but Carla took charge. She said at the time, “It’s not going to change. It is what it is and what it always has been.”
What that is exactly is a welcoming space with great steaks at amazing prices. There are other things on the short, locally sourced menu – whole chickens, a Nick’s burger with grilled onions on top, baked potatoes and thick steak fries, fried chicken livers and gizzards, crunchy onion rings that are nearly as legendary as the steaks – but grilled steak is the big draw even if this steakhouse is hardly high-end.
The 20-ounce T-bone overflows the plate, and there’s a 12-ounce ribeye, too, but the hand-cut, bacon-wrapped filets are the most popular item, Hegenbarth says. On game-day weekends she might sell 90 large filets and 70 small ones each night.
That makes perfect sense. You can get a thick, juicy six-ounce filet – with a nice, crusty sear on the outside and the inside falling-apart-tender – served with a salad, a side and rolls for $13. A smaller, four-ounce filet will cost you $10.50. There is no béarnaise sauce or blue cheese crumbles, but your steak is served, old school, on a metal plate atop a wooden charger. Terrence “Spoon” Witherspoon might be the person who sets it upon your table; he’s been doing that for 20 years. His dining room co-worker Jesse Richardson has been at Nick’s for 10 years.
Follow the lead of the regulars (and Spoon), and put the white dressing (that mix of ranch and blue cheese) on your iceberg-lettuce salad (it also works on the baked potatoes). You really can’t go wrong with those large, sweet onion rings, either. And if you are a first-time visitor to Nick’s, you get an appetizer serving of the onion rings for free.
Dig in, and then look around at your fellow diners who come from all walks of life. There are people from just up the road who are at Nick’s for the chicken gizzards and fresh Alabama catfish. There are moms and dads from out of town treating their college student (and usually a friend or two) to a steak dinner. There are couples having a date night and crowds having a reunion.
There usually are more customers than chairs in this one-room, 50-seat restaurant with its ceiling completely papered with one-dollar bills (and an occasional Euro or Yen). The Christmas lights stay up all year, and there’s a vintage Budweiser chandelier featuring a horse-drawn cart that still runs sometimes.
This décor gives Nick’s a friendly, pub-like vibe. The ice-cold beer here is inexpensive, as are the two wines (pinot noir and white zinfandel) and the mixed drinks. However, a couple of fruit-forward, rum-punchy specialty drinks get the most attention. The Zombie and the Nicodemus, which are legendary, are served – and have always been served – in Styrofoam cups. The ingredients in these potent and mysterious drinks are a long-kept secret, but an extra measure of Bacardi is involved with the more popular Nicodemus. You’ll want to stir that drink well.
Nick’s has racked up lots of accolades over the years: It was voted “best hole in the wall” and “best steak” by readers of Tuscaloosa magazine. It was featured on ESPN’s “Taste of the Town” with former NFL quarterback Todd Blackledge and in Southern Living magazine.
For Hegenbarth, though, it’s personal.
There’s a “closeness” here, a sense of “togetherness,” she says. “When people come in here, they talk to each other. They don’t get on their phones; they don’t watch TV. They talk to each other, and they talk to the other people around them.” This “bonding experience” is what makes the long waits seem less long, she says, adding, “The Nicodemuses don’t hurt.”
People have suggested that Hegenbarth expand Nick’s, but her response is always adamantly no.
“People would quit coming,” she says. “You can’t change it. You want people to come in and it be what they always remembered. That’s what brings them back. This is what you want to come back to. It’s what’s always been.”
Nick’s Original Filet House (aka Nick’s in the Sticks)
4018 Culver Road
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35401
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Nick’s in the Sticks is on Facebook. Check there for updates and news.