Get people talking about Nick’s Original Big Train Bar on Tulane Avenue, and the recollections often come with a chuckled caveat. After a night at Nick’s, the details could be smudged, the chain of events a little hazy.
At least the drink names were memorable — underwater demolition, banana banshee, the atomic bomb, between the sheets, ruptured duck, a wild night at the Capri Motel (a.k.a. “the purple drink”). Before its demise in the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina, Nick’s was where many New Orleanians learned how to party, or perhaps pursued advanced studies on the subject.
Albert Kattine remembers the anything-goes spirit of Nick’s. But for him, memories of the old bar are much more nuanced and familial. That’s because the late Nick Castrogiovanni, founder of the legendary lost night spot, was Kattine’s grandfather. Kattine knew Nick’s as a family legacy and a place that meant different things to different generations as it evolved.
Now, Kattine has a plan to revive the old family business and, he hopes, create a new Nick’s for the next generation.
“The good times I had with my grandfather there, that’s what gives me the motivation to keep it going,” he said.
New generation, new plans
Mid-City Messenger first reported the plans in January. Last week, Kattine, who is now a dermatologist in Nashville, was in town to outline his ideas for a new Nick’s at a fundraiser for the Barman’s Fund, a charitable initiative in the hospitality business.
The new Nick’s that Kattine envisions looks very different from the one that stood before Katrina at the same address, 2400 Tulane Ave.
The bar, at least, is designed along the contours of the old Nick’s, with a long counter running across a narrow lounge. This will open to a beer garden with a small stage. There will be a kitchen for bar food, and plans call for an attached coffee shop with its own drive-thru window. The second floor will have rooms for private events, and the building will have a rooftop patio and bar.
The city planning commission is scheduled to consider Kattine’s requests for conditional use permits at its next meeting on March 8.
Should his plans come to pass, it would not be the first time Nick’s was reinvented.
A midcentury cocktail destination
The Castrogiovanni family originally ran small corner grocery stores, a common calling for Italian immigrants in the early 1900s. The one that became Nick’s started in 1918. Later, Nick Castrogiovanni added a beer garden and this grew into its own bar, a ramshackle addition running alongside the grocery.
The grocery was demolished after Hurricane Betsy in 1965, but the bar remained and Nick’s entered a new phase.
The neighborhood was industrial, and Nick’s was bracketed by breweries, with the old Dixie just across Tulane Avenue and Falstaff three blocks away. The early iteration of Nick’s bar was known as a working man’s watering hole. One tale credits Castrogiovanni with inspiring the “Dixie 45” brand, after he told a brewery owner his beer had a kick like a .45 pistol, although, like any good Nick’s story there are alternate interpretations.
But as Kattine explained it, his grandfather was truly passionate about cocktails, and this became Nick’s calling card. He earned a reputation for making original, creative cocktails beyond Tulane Avenue, and when liquor companies introduced a new product they often asked Castrogiovanni to prepare a recipe featuring it.
Many of these were midcentury marvels of cordials and liqueurs, easy to sip though often elaborately concocted. The most famous became Castrogiovanni’s version of the pousse café, a carefully composed rainbow of booze with a dozen or more layers. Family lore maintains that Castrogiovanni won an international drinks competition by stacking up 32 layers in one glass.
Demain Weidenhaft absorbed many stories about Nick’s history during his hitch as a bartender here from 1995 to 2002, and he said Castrogiovanni’s hand with cocktails put the bar on the map.
“It was the first bar that people left their neighborhoods to visit,” said Weidenhaft, who is now a welder. “For other generations, all your life you went to the same groceries and bars around your house, then you heard about this little Italian man in Mid-City who will pour you a 32-layer cocktail. People came from all over, and the people you met at Nick’s, you wouldn’t meet anywhere else. That’s what made it special.”
As the surrounding neighborhood grew increasingly desolate, Nick’s remained an unlikely oasis. It looked like a rickety garage, with few windows and fewer right angles (“looks like the oldest bar in town,” was once a catch phrase here).
It remained a spot for regulars to grab a beer after work, but it was also a party destination for college kids and the afterhours crowd chasing good times. The list of specialty drinks grew larger than a sno-ball stand’s menu.
Nick’s didn’t reopen after Katrina, and its flood-wracked building was demolished in 2009. The property remains vacant. Kattine had floated plans to rebuild before, though he said changes in zoning rules and trouble with a contractor he hired for the job sidetracked these earlier efforts.
With a new plan on the table, fans of the old Nick’s who gathered for the Barman’s Fund event acknowledged that the wilder scenes from the bar’s past would not fly today. Times have changed, along with the drinking age. Maybe a Nick’s with a coffee shop, a kitchen and event spaces is more in line with a Tulane Avenue now undergoing sweeping redevelopment.
But there are different versions of Nick’s heyday that persist in the New Orleans memory. For instance, Weidenhaft recalls visits from fond patrons of previous generations during his years behind the bar.
“We’d have people in their 70s and 80s come in, doing tours of the great spots of their lives, the places that mattered to them,” Weidenhaft said. “Nick’s was a lot different by then, but they’d have a few drinks and leave very happy that there was still something of it left. It would be cool if that could happen again.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.