Atmosphere: Victorian pub.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. Friday; noon to 1:30 a.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Price range: $2.25 for chili to $11.50 for filet mignon; burgers and sandwiches with fries, around $4.
Reservations: Suggested for parties of more than four.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Choice.
Special facilities: Parking in restaurant lot; accessible to wheelchairs; highchairs and booster seats available.
C. J. Nickels, a Victorian-style pub and family restaurant located on Backlick Road, attempts to return its patrons to the days of yesteryear, when a nickel was still worth something. A noble purpose, but Nickels misses the mark, both in its public image and in the quality of the food you get for your money.
Fitted out with stained glass windows, Tiffany-style lamps, bare wood floors and brass rails, the decor almost produces another era. Bentwood chairs are set around lace-covered tables set with hurricane lamps, but there is a little bit of California confusion in the skylights and hanging plants throughout the restaurant. This confusion shows up in other ways, too.
The menu, a whopping ten pages long, rivals that of an ambitious Chinese restaurant, and is no less confusing. There is a page of appetizers, a page of salads, a page of omelettes, a page of burgers, two pages of dinners, and so on. The choices range from pub food, such as cold shrimp, deli sandwiches and chili, to trendy eatery offerings, such as fried zucchini and "fresh veggies" with dips.
The virtue of all this is versatility for the diner. If you are hungry for a sandwich and a beer, Nickels offers you a pleasant atmosphere for eating a relatively simple meal. If the kids want burgers and french fries, parents still can indulge in a full-course dinner. Or all of you can eat rounds of nachos and potato skins followed by ice cream sundaes. The choices are many.
The problem is, as often happens, the kitchen can't do all these things well. Nickels makes the same mistake many trendy restaurants make: in trying to be a little bit Mexican, a little bit French, a little bit Japanese, a little bit California, it winds up being a little bit mediocre.
You are best off ordering the simplest dishes at C. J. NIckels. The chef is not up to complex seasonings or preparations.
The restaurant accommodates children with half-size hamburgers and half-price dinners, but with the range of this menu, there are plenty of things for children to choose.
Our youngest daughter, for instance, thought the idea of having nothing but cold shrimp for dinner was too good a treat to pass up. Nickels sells jumbo shrimp at $4.25 a quarter pound, or about $1 apiece. They were huge, properly cooked, and our daughter enjoyed them.
The rest of the food we tried was uneven. We had ordered from the dinner menu, which is mostly seafood and beef, and includes salad, potato or vegetable and bread. Salads were a pleasant melange of fresh vegetables with adequate dressings.
Teriyaki sirloin ($8.95) was cooked as had been requested. At that price, one doesn't expect a premium cut of beef, but this one was too tough to be enjoyable.
Sole florentine ($7.95), described in the menu as "sole baked with spinach and Swiss cheese," was just that and nothing more. The food was watery rather than sauced, and it was so bland it needed salt and pepper.
A special that evening, prime rib with crab cake and fried scallops ($10.95), was somewhat better. The beef was tender and juicy, and the crab cake tasty, although shreds of crab were overwhelmed with filler. Scallops were heavily breaded, but otherwise not overcooked.
C. J. Nickels offers what you might expect for dessert: cheesecake, carrot cake, chocolate mousse, and a variety of liqueur-flavored sundaes and dessert coffees. But by the time we were ready to order dessert, service had broken down, and our waitress, who was trying to take care of too many tables, could not even manage to get the dessert menu to us. We cut our visit short.
Our tab for four was $43.03, including tax and tip.