Support Local: Nick’s and the plight of the college bar in a shutdown (2024)

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Thanks to the suspension of the Bundesliga basketball season in Germany, Jordan Hulls is back home in Bloomington, Ind., hunkered down with his parents, his wife, Aubrey, and the couple’s two boys. The 30-year-old former Indiana guard and Bloomington South High School star knows he still has some pull in town, so when Nick’s English Hut opened back up for takeout during the last week of April, he not only made sure he was there, but also that he made his support public.


Hulls posted onto his Twitter account a photo from the takeout table just inside the restaurant saying, “Let’s Goooo! #supportlocal,” then later posted more photos onto both his Twitter and Instagram accounts of his younger son, Leo, in a high chair eating Nick’s specialties stromboli and Sink The Biz seasoned french fries.

The first comment below the second post was from a young man 11 years Hulls’ junior who is following his same path. Bloomington South guard Anthony Leal was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball for 2020, becoming the first Bloomington South player to earn the award since Hulls did it in 2009. Like Hulls, he’s a top-150 recruit who will stay close to home as part of Indiana’s freshman Class of 2020.

“Biz fries are undefeated,” Leal posted, along with a flexing bicep emoji.

Within this social media exchange between locals with exquisite jump shots lies the significance of Nick’s not only to Indiana athletics, but Indiana University and Bloomington as a whole. More than any other establishment in town, it connects every class of students to the next and the next, and it helps tie together generations. It is the archetypal college bar, but it also accomplishes a deep-rooted connection to the city it’s located in that few of its ilk actually achieve. That’s why Hulls and other IU luminaries have made a point of showing their support to Nick’s, which, like all restaurants in college towns, is affected not only by stay-at-home orders, but also the fact that so many students left town early when classes went on line.

“It’s a staple of Bloomington tradition, Indiana University tradition,” Hulls says. “Everything in there is IU-related and has been there for ages. Anybody who comes back to campus, old alumni, whoever, one of the first places they go is Nick’s. Nick’s is one of those places where everybody goes and has a great time. No matter how much has changed around town and at the university, that’s one thing that’s always stayed constant.”


Hulls knows the restaurant’s lore well, even though he didn’t spend much time in bars when he was helping Indiana to back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2012 and ’13. His grandfather John, an assistant coach under Bob Knight in Knight’s first two years at Indiana, used to stop in regularly after rounds of golf. When Jordan was named Mr. Basketball in 2009, the Hulls gave Nick’s his Indiana All-Stars jersey and had it framed and mounted. It stayed on the first floor in the all-ages restaurant section until he turned 21, when it was moved upstairs into the Hoosier Room, where only drinking-age patrons are allowed.

Opening a bar in a college town often means making a choice between marketing to newly of-age undergraduates or away from them. Kilroy’s on Kirkwood and Kilroy’s Sports are generally packed with clientele who don’t depart far from fraternity parties, so they’re student favorites. The Tap, Crazy Horse, Irish Lion and Alley Bar on West Kirkwood Avenue are a little out-of-the-way for students and offer alumni and townies who are past the undergrad scene to eat and drink in relative peace. (The hipster bars — the Video Saloon, Atlas Bar, The Bishop and the Root Cellar — are a separate genre all together.)

However, Nick’s, which was opened in 1927 by Greek immigrant Nick Hrisomalos, chooses not to pick a side and instead straddles the line flawlessly. It’s lively enough for students but not enough to make older patrons feel out of place. It’s the one place in town where you can expect to run into anybody. Students, professors, and administrators. Players and coaches, parents and children.

“We want people to feel comfortable at our place,” says Gregg “Rags” Rago, who started at Nick’s as a dishwasher in 1978 and is now the owner. “It’s not a facade. It’s not something that’s a theme. It just grew organically. That’s just the way it happened over the decades. It’s a place where families can come in, but you and your buddies can come in and watch the game and blow off some steam too. It’s like going into your living room.”

And for that reason, it’s always the toughest place to get into for IU football and basketball games. When the Hoosiers won championships in the 1970s and ’80s and even when they reached the Final Four in 2002, Nick’s was the epicenter as the crowds took over Kirkwood Avenue. When they claimed their most memorable victory of recent vintage, stunning then No. 1 Kentucky on Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer in December 2011, the scene inside Nick’s was nearly as wild as the one on the Assembly Hall floor.


“Our place exploded,” Rago says. “One of our patrons was at the bar and recorded when that shot went through and the place exploded. I mean, it was insane. Actually, the next day our insurance carrier saw the video on ESPN, called and asked was going on because we were packed to the gills.”

That’s why the current state of affairs feels so strange. Spring is usually the most happening time at Nick’s. It draws big crowds for the NCAA Tournament, especially if Indiana is involved. It’s also packed nightly the week of the Little 500, the annual track cycling event that draws 25,000 to Armstrong Stadium to see undergraduates who have devoted themselves to becoming world-class riders. Nick’s has sponsored a team in recent years, but even before that it usually drew students to the bar throughout the week and riders after the race who could finally drink again after months of training. It’s also a hub for graduation weekend because it’s a place graduates can bring their parents.

“It’s surreal, because all the sudden, everything stops,” Rago says. “This is prime time for not only the student body and the community but also businesses that depend on the income. All of the sudden, it’s just wiped off the books. It just happened overnight. It’s quite a shock.”

Rago was in Arizona visiting his mother and going to spring training games when the outbreak hit. He headed back to Bloomington, closed Nick’s and took the initial weeks to attend to remodeling projects in the kitchen and dining spaces that had been planned for the summer. Once those were finished, he decided to open for takeout only, but with a limited menu.

That helps lessen the financial hit, but not much, especially with the town’s current population diminished without students. Though the state is starting to make progress toward reopening, Rago is concerned about changes he’d have to make to the restaurant and bar to make social distancing possible before COVID-19 is eradicated.

“We try to keep it at capacity and fire code anyway, but instead of having a place that can seat 477 people, safely, maybe we can seat 200,” Rago says. “We’re geared to make money with that many customers. I can sell 100 drinks an hour, but optimally, you want to sell 1,000 or 2,000. There’s no way to do that responsibly the way things are set up now no matter what bar or restaurant you’re talking about. How many bars or restaurants do you go to where everyone sits six feet away from each other?”

For now, the goal for Nick’s is simply to get through this. It’s a Bloomington institution, so Rago realizes he is in better shape than less established restaurants in town, but all college bars are taking a substantial hit.


There’s going to be a lot of places that aren’t going to reopen,” Rago says. “There’s a lot of people in dire straits. We’re trying to help everybody out and take care of our neighbors. We’re trying to take care of our own. Basically it’s survival. We’re just trying to keep people employed.”

(Photo: Dustin Dopirak / The Athletic)

Support Local: Nick’s and the plight of the college bar in a shutdown (2024)
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