PROVIDENCE -- On the west side of this city, a small restaurant on an up-and-coming block of Broadway has been quietly gathering acclaim as the best breakfast and lunch spot for miles around. A tiny diner by day, with room for 16 or so patrons at four tables and along the counter, Nicks on Broadway serves up simple yet gourmet American classics such as steak and eggs with Hereford beef ($10.95) and house-baked granola mixed with French vanilla yogurt and fresh fruit ($4.75).
It's the kind of place where, if you manage to squeeze in the door, you've earned a personal hello from the young chef and owner, Derek Wagner. At 27, Wagner is already a veteran of the Providence culinary scene, having graduated from Johnson & Wales and worked as the executive chef at Agora, the flagship restaurant for the Westin Providence. Three years ago, he took over a greasy spoon and made it his own -- a clever blend of streamlined '50s diner kitsch and clean, updated flavors that draw the younger crowd, yet not so hip that it keeps locals from becoming regulars.
Behind the counter and within arm's reach of his customers, Wagner makes it his business to hand over a perfect breakfast plate. An egg, cheese, spinach, and tomato sandwich comes perfectly assembled between two pieces of seven-grain toast ($3.75). For regulars with dietary restrictions, he knows to serve the French toast without too much butter or to sub in egg whites. He has a small but excellent team that works swiftly and attentively to coordinate prompt seating, the arrival of multiple dishes, and coffee refills.
Lest you think that Wagner is content with churning out the classics, his daily specials hint at grander aspirations: chive-cheddar polenta with organic local baby greens and poached eggs one day, lobster frittata with wilted spinach, tomatoes, and brie the next. And on Friday nights -- dubbed ''Nicks at Nite" -- with the help of dimmed lights and a bring-your-own wine and beer policy, Wagner transforms his place into an intimate gathering spot. It's akin to having dinner at a friend's house, if that friend happens to be a star chef preparing an ambitious $40-a-head prix fixe meal.
As always, Wagner mans the grill and charms customers with his personal touch. Despite the busy flow of traffic, the waitress pays close attention; when she overhears a customer objecting to farmed Atlantic salmon, she offers tuna instead.
At night, Nicks amps up the sophistication a bit: Cement blocks hold flickering votives, plates come in swishing shapes, jazz plays softly from the overhead speakers. The food is also stepped up: On a recent visit, the spring asparagus and golden potato soup has a deliciously smooth texture and full-mouthed flavor, perked up just enough by a cheddar crisp, and the delicately balanced bruschetta of grilled pork sausage, artichoke, and fontina is golden on the outside and wonderfully soft and chewy on the inside.
This move toward a more stylish presentation, however, is slightly schizophrenic when paired with the casual daytime plastic chairs, light silverware, and glasses. Inconsistencies are also perceptible in the menu, which at times features too many strong flavors competing on the same plate -- a lemon shrimp appetizer with peppery greens, olives, goat cheese, and fennel vinaigrette is chock-full of quality ingredients that are all a bit overpowering. But simply prepared elements -- browned scallion-potato cakes, sauteed spring vegetables, lightly grilled shrimp -- are impeccable.
Overambitious entrees may just be a sign that it's time for Wagner to grow so he can have more room to experiment. Nicks is planning a move to a larger space down the block by the end of the summer and is also in the process of securing a liquor license. Wagner says the restaurant will probably start offering dinner four or five times a week.
His is an establishment the West Side is lucky to have, and as the neighborhood changes in bigger and brighter directions, Nicks should grow happily with it.
Nicks on Broadway, 259 Broadway, 401-421-0286. Wednesday-Saturday 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m.-3 p.m., and Friday nights 6-10. Prix fixe dinner on Fridays, $40.