tbo: Tampa Bay Online.
Friday, Oct 19, 2018
  • Home

Nicko’s Fine Foods, classic diner and Seminole Heights icon, closes after six decades

Nicko’s Fine Foods, known as the place Elvis Presley ate following a 1956 concert and Tampa’s last classic prefabricated diner, has shut down after more than 60 years in business.

Owners Karen and Nicholas Liakos could not be reached for comment, but servers Connie Oquendo and Jessica Tunnis confirmed the closing of the Greek diner with the Elvis decor at 4603 N Florida Ave. in Seminole Heights.

Karen Liakos informed the staff last Wednesday.

"She said we’d be closing at 3 p.m. that day and that was it," Tunnis said. "We kind of knew it wasn’t doing well, but we thought it would get sold and not shut down. It’s sad. We were a little family there."

A noticeable decline in customers during the past few years preceded the move, Tunnis said, as trendy eateries opened along Florida and Nebraska avenues on the outskirts of downtown Tampa.

"A lot of places opened and we never served beer or wine. I’m sure that had something to do with it," Tunnis said. "People want a dinner and a drink."

Among the establishments that have opened nearby over the past decade are the Refinery, Rooster & the Till, Fodder & Shine, Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe and the Independent.

The new restaurants serve great food and have helped boost the profile of Seminole Heights, said Fred Smith, whose production studio Grownman Brand has operated there for a dozen years.

Still, none have that "pure Seminole Heights vibe" as Nicko’s did, Smith said.

"Working class guys, the bearded tattoo crowd, business people, artists — all sitting next to each other at Nicko’s counter," Smith said. "The denizens of Seminole Heights all just kind of hung out there and felt comfortable."

And then there was owner Nicholas Liakos, whom Smith called "a Seminole Heights original," known to randomly break out into a magic act for customers.

"That place could be burning to the ground, and he’d still perform," said Tunnis, who worked there for seven years. "Card tricks, the burning wallet trick, the disappearing handkerchief."

The Liakos family purchased the diner in the 1980s and renamed it.

Before that, the business was an Ayres Diner, one of four built throughout Tampa in the mid 20th century, said Andrew Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections. The Florida Avenue location opened in 1951.

This was in the era when diners were manufactured in the classic railcar style, mostly in New Jersey, then delivered to a location.

"In the heyday of diners, they were made like mobile homes," Huse said.

Nicko’s has a basement, unusual in Florida, with five rooms and two baths.

"It was built there before Nick owned it because it used to be 24 hours," said Denise Myhre, a regular for 30 years. "Staff would sleep there, I’m told."

The all-night dining brought Elvis Presley to the Ayres Diner in 1956.

Rumor has it he returned again and again for his favorite snack — a peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Nicko’s owners latched on to this, installing a small plaque at the booth where the King sat in 1956.

Elvis paraphernalia — photos, figurines, a special edition Monopoly set — adorned much of the diner. Menus featured a gyrating Elvis in a white sport jacket and black pants.

The diner even hosted Elvis nights where impersonators performed.

Oquendo, who worked at Nicko’s for 20 years, will remember the good times there.

"It was popular morning, noon and night," she said. "Then, within the past three years, it started dying down.

"I pray someone buys it, remodels and restores it. My regulars are like my family. It is a wonderful place."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Weather Center