Nicky’s And The Big Baby: A South Side Burger Mystery
Conor McNamara grew up in Beverly on Chicago’s Southwest Side, just down the street from a local joint called Nicky’s Grill and Yogurt Oasis.
“We’ve been coming here as long as I can remember,” he told me outside the restaurant nestled in a strip mall on 103rd Steet. “I remember after I learned how to ride a bike, we came here for blue moon ice cream.”
Nicky’s serves up all the Chicago fast food classics, like pizza puffs and hot dogs — but one of Conor’s favorites has always been their signature double cheeseburger: the Big Baby.
As Conor grew up and started driving around the rest of the South Side, he noticed there were Nicky’s fast food restaurants all over the place with nearly identical menus. So he wrote in to Curious City asking:
How did some variation of Nicky's become such a popular name for places serving street food? They seem to be everywhere, most serve similar menu items — like the Big Baby — but none of them seem to be connected aside from the styles of food.
We recently bit into Conor’s question by visiting several Nicky’s across the South and Southwest sides and talking to customers and owners. It turns out the answer to how Nicky’s (and the Big Baby) became so big has to do with two pairs of Greek men named Jimmy and Nicky, a famous rival hamburger, and some mysterious grilled onions.
Where did the first Nicky’s start?
According to Nicky’s Hot Dog owner Angelo Lilas, the very first Nicky’s in Chicago opened on 6142 S. Archer Ave. in 1967 by a Greek immigrant named Nick Vagenas. Angelo’s father, Jim Lilas, purchased it from Vagenas in 1978. (Curious City is still trying to arrange a meeting with Vagenas for a more complete origin story.)
The longest continuously owned Nicky’s appears to be Nicky’s the Real McCoy, opened in 1969 on Kedzie Avenue by the Maneris family. Now run by Manoli Maneris, the restaurant was launched by his father Jimmy Maneris, who Manoli says named it after yet another Nicky — Manoli’s grandfather.
How did there get to be so many Nicky’s?
Lilas says Nicky Vagenas, who opened the first Nicky’s on Archer, opened several additional Nicky’s throughout the South Side, and also sold them off, mostly to Greek owners. After those original Nicky’s opened and found success, unaffiliated entrepreneurs opened even more Chicago street food places, named them Nicky’s, and began serving Big Baby burgers.
“A lot of those people used to work in a Nicky’s or are related to people who worked in a Nicky’s,” Angelo Lilas says. “And it’s just one of those names that everybody knows on the South Side. When you come to the South Side, everybody knows what a Big Baby is.”
How was the Big Baby born?
Big Baby burgers are served at almost all of the Nicky’s restaurants Curious City found on South Side and south suburbs — and at several places that don’t even call themselves Nicky’s.
Jim Lilas says he’s not entirely sure what inspired Nicky Vagenas to produce the Big Baby. But he conjectures, “I think it was a hit for the Big Mac. McDonald’s has the Big Mac and Nick started the Big Baby.”
Some might say that the Big Baby is just a double cheeseburger with grilled onions. But Maneris and Lilas both agree that the sequence of ingredients is crucial. Here’s how it goes:
Does the Lilas family have any plans to sue the copycats?
“I think that’s one of those things that when the original Nicky opened it up, he would have had to do it then,” says Lilas. “Now it’s been so long, good luck trying to trademark any of that. Now it’s open game. You guys can go and open a Nicky’s and sell Big Babies if you want.”
Where can you get the best Big Baby?
We haven’t tried them all, but the following are some Big Baby fan favorites:
Nicky’s Hot Dogs, 6142 S. Archer Ave.: “Nice thin charred patties and simple melty American cheese,” says Chicago Tribune food writer Louisa Chu, who argues that the Big Baby deserves a place in the pantheon of classic Chicago foods.
Illinois Bar & Grill, 4135 W. 47th St.: The last time I had [their Big Baby] they smashed it so flat that the patty drooped over on the bottom bun with that lacy edge. It was so delicious,” says Chu.
Nicky’s The Real McCoy, 5801 S. Kedzie Ave.: Serves up a juicy and delicious version but with a twist: a single third-of-a-pound patty.
Nicky’s Grill and Yogurt Oasis, 10255 S. Western Ave.: This friendly spot serves a tasty Big Baby with unconventionally charcoal-grilled patties and adds lettuce and tomato.
Jacky’s Hot Dogs, 5415 S. Pulaski Rd.: This two-patty beauty features the signature ingredients in the classic order made with love and topped with generous grilled onions.
So how does a Big Baby stack up against its alleged rival, the Big Mac?
The Big Mac is served at a few more places than the Big Baby these days. But when we did a blind taste test with questioner Conor, the South Side sandwich won hands down.
It’s “got a lot more going on and definitely has more of a burger flavor,” he says. “More grilled flavor and the sauces aren’t as overwhelming and [it has] a better pickle ... McDonalds is good but there’s something about the neighborhood joint.”
More about our questioner
Conor MacNamara is a college enrollment advisor and lifelong South Sider from the Beverly neighborhood.
He loved hearing the Nicky’s origin story and how so many spin-offs still thrive today.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “It’s really fun that we have such an organic story about how it came about [with] people jumping on the bandwagon and using a strong name and associating themselves with a good burger. Then, it’s even better that they let the name spread and see it as a tribute to themselves instead of trying to shut it down. It gives it a nice local flavor to the South Side.”
For fun, he says, he indulges in other Chicago pleasures like chicken vesuvio, local music and Cubs games.
“Yeah, my dad grew up in Jefferson Park on the North Side,” the South Sider explains probably for the millionth time, “so he decided he still needed to bring me up to Wrigley for games when I was growing up.”
In between his job, and planning a trip around the world next year, Conor works for Pat Mac’s Pack, a charity he helped start for his late brother to raise funds for pediatric brain tumor research.
Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. You can follow her @monicaeng.