The white dry-erase board of “specials” on the wall remains enticing: A fried catfish dinner, with three sides, is $11.50. Or have your pick from the value menu: beef stew, rib tips or turkey necks.
Each comes with rice and a muffin, for just $3.50.
But it’s been more than a month since Nikki’s Place, an award-winning soul food mainstay in Orlando’s Parramore community for 16 years, has served up its authentic, old-school southern favorites.
On March 31, as the family-run eatery was closing for the evening, a fire broke out in an apartment above the restaurant, leaving behind smoke and water damage that have kept the doors closed.
Chef Nick Aiken Jr. and his family are determined to get the restaurant back up-and-cooking.
They’ve started a page on GoFundMe.com, seeking donations to help pay the bills until they can re-open for business. But as of Monday, more than a month into the donation drive, the page had raised only about $1,500 toward its $10,000 goal.
“We are so prominent in the community and we want to continue to help our community … we really think that having us back in the community would be beneficial to a lot of people,” says Aiken’s daughter, Shannea “Nikki” Akins.
The eatery, at 742 Carter St., was originally called Roser’s Restaurant. Owned by Aiken’s aunt, Roser Mae Jones, the restaurant first opened in 1949, according to the family. Aiken worked there as a child in the ’50s.
Aiken and his wife, Elaine Aiken, later took over the restaurant in 1999, re-naming it after their daughter.
In the time since, Nikki’s Place has been lauded as a Central Florida soul-food mecca, and also a fixture in its community. Twice a month, Nikki’s cooks dozens of meals for the Parramore area’s homeless, Aiken said.
“We’re putting back in the community what the community gives to us,” he said.
And according to Elaine Aiken, the restaurant’s absence has been felt far and wide.
“People call from Daytona, Sanford — Gainesville,” she said.
Adrienne Hunt, one of the restaurant’s most loyal diners, said the food at Nikki’s is “amazing,” but what really sets it apart is the “down-home” atmosphere.
“Nikki’s is the kind of place that you walk in the door and … [Nikki is] gonna come out, she’s gonna hug you. You get a smile,” Hunt said. “How often now do you go to a restaurant and they remember you?”
And they also remember her order, she said: “The turkey necks with yellow rice, potato salad and greens.”
Nikki’s Place has catered “quite a few” city events over the years, said Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who also dines at the restaurant. Asked his favorite menu item, he replied: “I’m always going to go with collard greens.”
“They’re a great, small, local business here in our community,” Dyer said.
Walter Hawkins, director of urban development for Orlando, said he goes to Nikki’s often to enjoy their grits for breakfast. He called the food “wonderful,” and said he hopes the community will support the restaurant in its time of need.
“We don’t want to lose an iconic restaurant,” Hawkins said.
Nikki’s is a repeat honoree of the Sentinel’s annual Foodie Awards, the macaroni and cheese and the fried chicken made the paper’s best-in-Central-Florida lists, and Nick Aiken was inducted into the Sentinel’s Culinary Hall of Fame on March 5.
The fire happened less than a month later.
According to a police report, the blaze was apparently an accident. A resident in a second-floor apartment told investigators he’d been cooking with a hot plate, left the room and returned to find his mattress aflame.
Nikki’s Place was mostly spared. The kitchen remains intact, as is much of the dining room, though the ceiling was damaged and beams from the upper floor are exposed in some places, including over the service counter.
There was also water and smoke damage, Nick Aiken said.
The restaurant was insured, but he said the money hasn’t yet arrived — “They want your money fast, but they pay off slow.” Meantime, the bills are piling up.
But the family remains optimistic and is working with a contractor specializing in emergency restoration work.
“Now they’re working on trying to get the plans together so we can get permitted to get started again,” Nick Aiken said, standing amid the restaurant’s damaged dining room last week in his white chef coat.
“But,” he added, “it’s been a long vacation.”
Hunt said she can’t wait for her “go-to place” to re-open.
“Oh my gosh,” she said with a laugh, “I am so tired of cooking Sunday dinner.”