At Nick’s Fish Dive & Oyster Bar, creating a unique ambience and dining experience is as important as the freshness of the seafood.
Owner Claudia Leonardo, who designed the restaurant and has about 20 years of restaurant experience, said she and her business partner Ernesto Vidal felt there was a need to bring the coast closer to The Woodlands. They opened on The Woodlands Waterway in 2015.
“There was a void in the area for fresh seafood, for a place where you could savor oysters, not only from the Gulf but from the East Coast as well,” Leonardo said. “I wanted to create a chef-driven restaurant where you could taste home flavors with fresh, local ingredients with a relaxed atmosphere.”
The eatery’s decor incorporates nautical, rock-and-wood elements surrounded by glass overlooking the Waterway, as well as a waterfall that lights up in an array of colors designed to change with the tempo of outdoor music at night.
Leonardo said the menu often changes to accommodate the fresh catch of the day, caught from the Gulf of Mexico and the East Coast as well as fresh fruits and vegetables each season.
Oysters make up 33 percent of sales, she said, and are available on the half shell, fried or baked. Although oysters from the Gulf–which are 50 cents each during happy hour–are larger and available year-round, Leonardo said the smaller, East Coast oysters that emerge from colder, more shallow water are brinier and taste better.
“It’s a fresh taste of the ocean—the taste is the beauty of it,” she said. “You start with one flavor, and you finish with a different one.”
John Burke, a customer visiting from San Diego, said the fresh oysters and seafood are as good as what one would find on the West Coast.
“I love the ambience and the food,” he said. “San Diego has awesome food, and Nick’s is just as good.”
Other popular entrees include the fresh catch of the day, fish tacos, gumbo made with fresh shrimp, crab, oysters and homemade sausage as well as grilled branzino and crab.
Leonardo said the lobster poutine, made with french fries, lobster chunks, Nick’s signature sauce and cheese curds is the best-selling starter.
Leonardo said the secret to the food’s flavor is that everything, including the sauces, is made from scratch by executive chef Justin Santellana and his wife, executive sous chef Nina Wilhite.
“The biggest challenge was to form a solid team that could create consistency within the restaurant, and chef Nina and chef Justin have done it swiftly and elegantly,” she said. “When talented people like them have a great work ethic and a passion for what they do, great things happen. I am so proud of all our team.”
Leonardo said her favorite dishes include oysters, peel ‘n eat shrimp and tuna poke from the raw bar, as well as the NOLA Barbecue Shrimp.
“It’s the real traditional New Orleans style that you can’t find anywhere around,” she said.
The fully stocked bar also includes a variety of craft beer, wine and cocktails made with fresh fruit, including the new Waterway Breeze, among other favorites. A new Saturday and Sunday brunch menu is also available.
In 2017, Nick’s won the Open Table Dinners Choice Award as well as the Most Creative Mac & Cheese Surf & Turf Burger Award at the Throwdown Texas Burger and Music Fest held in The Woodlands last April.
The restaurant, which celebrates its third anniversary in May, intends to expand its delivery and catering services. The owners also hope to add a second restaurant location in Houston sometime in the future.
“When guests have a smile on their faces when they leave our doors, that is what I enjoy most about being the owner,” Leonardo said. “Guests that want a unique flavor and are tired of finding the same dishes everywhere–they come to us and love it.”