Welcome to a special Burger Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives. Up now is Nancy Nichols, owner of The Waterfront Bar & Grill, the iconic watering hole that was first established in 1933.
For thirty years, Nancy Nichols worked nearly every job at The Waterfront, from cook to bartender to cleaning crew. Nichols, who has three children, four grandkids and three great-grandkids, co-owns the bar with two of her grandsons who both have their own Waterfront-inspired eateries; Chad Cline opened Harbortown Pub in Point Loma and co-owns the Gaslamp's Werewolf with cousin Jason "Rocky" Nichols, who also runs East County's Eastbound and The Hills. Though she's no longer a day-to-day fixture at The Waterfront, Nichols is still closely connected to the bar and breakfasts there nearly every Sunday.
Is this the oldest bar in San Diego?
There's some debate about that, but we think so. The bar was founded 1933 and it had the first liquor license in San Diego after Prohibition. The first owners were Chaffee Grant and Clair Blakley, who sold it to Blakley's brother-in-law Clayton Schilling. He ran it for a long time until my parents and another partner took it over in the 1970s. They had it for ten years and then I bought out their partner.
What was Little Italy like back then?
It was very scary early in the morning and late at night because there weren't many people around. We used to not be open at night because there wasn't much business; it was more of an industrial neighborhood back then.
When I first took over, I went for 13 years with no lease at all, it was month to month. All I had was my liquor license and my customers; there were a lot of sleepless nights. The whole property went up for sale and a local developer, Jonathan Segal, bought it. I thought I'd be gone but God bless him, he said that he'd let us stay here. After five years, he sold so it could be developed into condos and I was able to buy The Waterfront section. So we are never leaving.
How has the bar changed through the years?
We try to keep up with things but also keep the same ambiance and character that we've always had. It's hard to do but I think my grandsons have done a good job with that. One guy came in recently and said that this wasn't same dive-y place it used to be and I said, well now we're a classy dive.
Has The Waterfront always served food?
When I took it over in the 80s, it didn't serve a lot of food - maybe a pot of beans or chili. I came in and started doing lunches right away; we did .99 cent burgers for at least five years. Then we started serving breakfast because we opened at 6 a.m. anyway. The bartenders used to do all the cooking, so someone would order a burger and they'd have to run into the kitchen to throw a burger on, run back to the bar to make a drink and run back to the kitchen to flip the burger over. They used to have "hamburger wars" over who made the best burger.
When did the menu expand to what you have today?
From the .99 cent burgers, we added roast beef or turkey sandwiches. Then we started serving Mexican food on the weekends. It sort of just escalated from there.
What's your signature burger?
We're always trying to think up something new but our half-pound Texas burger is the signature, bestselling burger. We hand-form all of our patties and they have always come with grilled onions. We've upgraded our buns since the .99 cent burger days; we used to use the cheaper buns and would have to toast them because they'd get greasy, which actually sort of made it better.
Do you have any crazy stories about the bar?
We've had a lot of notable people in; Gene Wilder came in years ago and we just gave him his space and didn't bother him. As he left, he said "I'm rich, I'm famous, and I'm well-hung" and just walked out the door.