Greek restaurateur Bill Nicklow came to America at 13, unable to speak English, with a boyhood that included living in a cave and begging for food after Nazis burned his village and killed his father.
In his pockets, young Billy carried only $3. In his heart, he carried a rich love and devotion for his family that stayed strong throughout his life.
Nicklow worked nearly all his free time in high school in Minneapolis to pay his sister’s dowry and support his mother in their tiny village in Greece, which he later helped rebuild. He worked to bring his two younger brothers and other relatives to America, where they built a string of restaurants that have served the metro for more than 50 years.
Nicklow, of Minnetonka, died Sept. 16 at Methodist Hospital. He was 75.
“He knew what it was like to be poor and hungry and not have anything,” said son Tony Nicklow of St. Louis Park. “He opened his heart and would do anything he could to help out people.”
Among several establishments he’s owned have been Best Steak House, Nicklow’s Restaurant in Crystal, and Nicklow’s Cafe & Bar in Spring Lake Park, where he worked until the end.
A patriarch in his Greek community, Bill Nicklow helped young heart patients who came from Greece for surgery at the University of Minnesota. He opened his home to them and to Greek college students. And with his brothers, Nicklow held Children’s Miracle Network golf tournaments for 20 years to raise about three-quarters of a million dollars for Gillette Children’s Hospital.
He worked behind the scenes, too, for those in need, said his son and his cousin, Mia Halkis of Orlando, Fla.
At St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church, he was an official greeter, joyfully saying “Welcome home,” to all who entered. There, a few weeks ago, he learned of an extremely poor family.
Quietly, he gave a check to a church leader to pass along, so the family could buy food.
“Family came first, and then business and everything else after,” said Halkis, who grew up in the same village, Thebes, in Central Greece. “If anybody called Bill, at any time of the night or day and said, ‘I need help; I need you,’ he would drop anything he was doing and run.”
Nicklow knew what it was to work hard, after seeing his village burned to rubble during World War II. He was 6 when Nazis killed his father. To help support his three younger siblings and mother, he began working as a young boy — and never stopped.
In 1952, he came to America, adopted by immigrant uncle Tom Nicklow. Billy went to Ramsey Junior High and Washburn High School.
His first job was busing for uncle George Nicklow at the Gopher Cafe in Minneapolis.
“Here you have the chance to become somebody,” he told the Star Tribune as a teen. “You have the friendship and love of people with whom you live and work.”
He got his own start in Stadium Village near the University of Minnesota with the first Best Steak House. It was a hit with a $3 steak, potato and salad. Nicklow and his extended family eventually owned about 10 of the Best Steak Houses.
He tried to retire several years ago but soon was helping his son at Tony’s Diner in Dinkytown. Bill kept working at his own place, Nicklow’s Cafe & Bar in Spring Lake Park, and would stop by his brothers’ restaurants.