An L.A. transplant with a rocker attitude and a taste for black nail polish has become an unlikely champion of downtown's bar scene.
Downtown Minneapolis after dark can sometimes seem like another world. Touring it with L.A. Nik is like encountering another universe.
I spent one night with this self-appointed ultimate scenester, an outing that included a shirtless woman running down 10th Street, a backroom drag battle and a kissing horse.
L.A. Nik just seems to attract the wild side of the nightlife scene. Nik (as I'll call him) might be the most famous bar-goer in downtown. Actually, he insists -- he is the most famous person in downtown. Mayor R.T. who?
Nik, 46, looks like he stepped out of a Mötley Crüe video, circa 1985. Morning, noon and night he's clad in all-black, right down to his fingernail polish. The silver skull necklaces draped around his neck complete his character. Think Keith Richards crossed with illusionist Criss Angel (he'll kill me for saying that -- the Criss Angel part, at least).
Nik landed in Minnesota two years ago like a marooned astronaut. He adapted to his new surroundings by turning downtown into his kingdom. For him, Minneapolis is free of Tinseltown's pretension yet filled with undiscovered gems. He loves downtown. For the most part, it loves him. Here, he acts like a goodwill ambassador, shaking hands and talking up the area's restaurants as if he's the Aging Rocker Delegate to the Downtown Council.
"I'm like a politician, man," he'll say.
Minnesotans sometimes treat Nik like a zoo animal, taking photos of him with their cellphones. So for the past two months, he's been promoting a photo contest on his website: "Take a Pic With L.A. Nik." Snap a shot with him, send it in and the best one will win $1,000 (deadline is Wednesday). The purpose, he says, is to get people to come downtown.
"I eat, play and stay in downtown," Nik said (he lives in Loring Park, but formerly lived for 13 months in the Hotel Minneapolis).
Nik is so sure of downtown's greatness, he told me he will act as a personal tour guide to anyone who asks.
So I asked him. And he showed me his downtown.
Drag queens and cops
It was a brisk Saturday night. We began at Zelo, the swank Italian restaurant favored by junior executives. Nik was the only person with a giant skull belt buckle. Drinks seem to find their way into his hands. "We like colorful people," a manager told me.
Next was Wondrous Azian Kitchen, where owner Thom Pham told me Nik is "the craziest person I've ever met" (this coming from Thom Pham). The two are reviving "The Gong Show" at Pham's bar every Sunday night. Later, we went to Seven and Lure, where Nik easily struck up conversations with strangers (mostly women). Missing by his side this night was his girlfriend Nancy Kuehn, a photographer for the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. He talks about her incessantly.
Back on the street, we ran into one of Nik's friends, who took us into the new Cowles Center. We were thrown into a rowdy, packed room where an all-black drag-queen contest was in full swing. It was like a scene out of the movie "Paris Is Burning." The crowd was electric with tall men in bright, skin-tight outfits. We slipped out after about 15 minutes.
"I'll try anything once!" Nik said.
'Charlie Sheen' problems
Despite his nickname, Nik grew up Nickolas Pilotta in Delaware.
"I've been called every name in the book, but I knew who I was going to be by the ninth grade," he said.
He moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, where he drummed in bands but never found stardom. Still, he lived the life. He opened a club, hung out with famous comedians and befriended hair-metal gods. I asked him if he did a lot of coke.
"Absolutely," he said. "I was like Charlie Sheen. People were just throwing me 8-balls."
Fast-forward to 2009: Nik was clean of drugs and working several angles, one of which brought him to the Twin Cities. He designed a mall kiosk called "Go Hollywood Live," which allowed customers to record audition tapes for movies and TV shows. It lasted for eight months at the Mall of America. But he was here to stay.
Saving downtown from itself
During our late-night adventure, two police officers flagged down Nik on the street. Turns out: cops love him.
"Nik, how you doing!" one shouted.
Nik has a mischievous look to him, but he thinks of himself as a downtown steward, a Downtown Improvement District officer without the uniform. He's concerned about recent incidents of teenagers fighting on Nicollet Mall.
"That needs to be nipped in the bud real quick," he told the two cops. "That'll scare people from coming downtown."
Not everyone is charmed by Nik. Some people think he's full of B.S. (which is how one downtown player put it).
Nik says he's an entrepreneur. He's famous for his "Favorite People" parties at Hell's Kitchen. Right now, he's working on his own energy drink and opening a club in downtown. On his blog, RockinThisTown.com, he calls himself a "professional entertainment personality."
In September, Nik co-hosted the red carpet at the Ivey Awards with Fox 9's Todd Walker, another man about town.
"I got the feeling he's created a character and now he's selling it to Minneapolis," Walker said. "But I'm not sure anyone is buying it."
Where the wild things are
Well past midnight, an intoxicated woman came streaking toward us as we walked down 10th Street. Nik, concerned for her dignity, pleaded with the woman to put her shirt back on. We escaped the bizarre episode once the woman's boyfriend arrived.
The last stop of the night was the W Hotel. Its 27th-floor bar, Prohibition, is home to Nik's favorite bartender.
Outside, I learn he has a favorite horse, too. As we crossed the street in front of the Foshay Tower, a carriage approached.
"Oh, this is my guy," Nik said. It was unclear if he was referring to the driver or the half-ton steed. Nik went straight to the horse, stroking its belly and resting his cheek against the steed's furry hide.
"What's up, buddy," he said, massaging the horse. "I got your spot -- right there."
The beast swung its giant head around to greet Nik in the face. "I got your spot," Nik repeated as he looked into the creature's dark eyes.
Yes, even animals love L.A. Nik.