Din Rentmester and Joel Heffron are in Baltimore, but you would think they were in ecstasy.
"We drove here for the food," they say. The couple arrived from New York City Friday, checked into the Hyatt and got a good tip: Go to Nick's Inner Harbor Seafood at the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore.
On a chill, sodden Saturday afternoon, Ms. Rentmester and Mr. Heffron are cozy and content after consuming dozens of Nick's oysters, crabs and shrimp, a pretzel or two from a nearby stall and plenty of beer. It's time to waddle back to the Hyatt, but the two serious eaters will return this evening for margaritas and more oysters.
"This is really unique and fabulous," Mr. Heffron says.
"It's real, its natural, it's not nouvelle gourmet," Ms. Rentmester says.
"We love this."
Is there anything like this in New York?
"Absolutely not," they say.
Salty, raw and boisterous, Nick's has become a super-concentrated oasis of city life in a metropolis with its share of dead spots. Its elemental offerings -- fish and beer -- attract a weekly rainbow congregation of customers who crave good fellowship and good food. Many a city and county dweller would not consider their weekend complete without stopping at Nick's, for a quick sushi hit, or a leisurely, sociable feast.
From "the richest off of the marina to Baltimore's poorest," they come to Nick's, says Ted Christie, a regular with a salt-and-pepper beard, cap and blue flannel shirt.
Mr. Christie, a computer systems analyst for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, drives weekly from his Millersville home to Nick's. Today, he has polished off a dozen oysters and now prepares to consume a deep-fried porgy slathered in hot sauce. "I just picked out a fresh fish at the stand and had them cook it. That's nice . . . where can you get better and the coldest beer in town?"
Tommy Chagouris sits in his cramped office and covers his face with his hands. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine that the seafood business created by his late father Nick would become a bustling weekend mecca. "It's unbelievable so many people would come here to a fish market," he says. "It smells. It's wet. It's not like going to a nice restaurant. I don't get it."
But Mr. Chagouris does get it. He learned fast, after his father's death in 1987, when Nick's nearly failed. "For all those years, we were used to tremendous business," he says. "We weren't aware of what effect our father's death had on sales. He was the business. He was themaestro," says Mr. Chagouris, 35, of the business he now runs with his mother, Jean.
Out of financial necessity, Mr. Chagouris expanded Nick's. The seafood stall, short-order counter and raw bar were joined by a steam bar and the Samurai Sushi stand. In cooperation with Richard Davis, director of Baltimore's city markets, Mr. Chagouris increased his hours until 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays and from noon until 7 p.m. on Sundays to lure the after-work and weekend happy hour crowds. It was a bold strategy in a market system that for the most part holds with old Baltimore tradition by opening and closing early.
Soon, the small cluster of Nick's regulars accustomed to slurping oysters in solitude on long afternoons were joined by an onslaught of newcomers seeking sushi and sympathy. On some Friday nights, the crowd hits its 275 maximum capacity and a line forms at the door. "Which is really embarrassing," Mr. Chagouris says, "This isn't Studio 54."
For some customers, the new Nick's is not as homey as it once was. Every Saturday, "It used to be, 'Let's get together and go down to Nick's,' " says Sheila Holleran, who lives in the Cross Street neighborhood. "It went from a little small town thing to everybody . . . I like the small-town atmosphere. I felt like more a part of it."
At 2 p.m. on the same dreary day, Nick's is happening. As usual, Amy Williams and her 2-year-old daughter, Katie, are perched at the wooden bar while Dad plays golf. Katie munches a pretzel and her mom drinks a beer while chatting with friends Cheri Jones and Cathy LaPole. Nick's regulars from way back, the group drives down from Cockeysville and Timonium to soak up some market vitality. "There's affordable beer and all walks of life at Nick's. We don't want to go places to meet people just like us," the group agrees.
At the sushi bar, an elegant grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter, all clad in rich purple-and-red hues, bend over a wooden tray of bright sushi rolls. A tall, solemn, man in a leather jacket, jeans and snakeskin boots stands across from them and eats sushi while staring straight ahead.
At the fish stall, a woman carefully counts out food stamp coupons to purchase supper. She chooses from among a dazzling deep sea garden of undulating eels, butter fish flowers, piles of crabs encrusted with spice, perch, salt cod, black bass, and more, arranged by Nick's "fish artist" John Anderson.