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My 2¢ on the Nickel Diner

I went to the newly-opened Nickel Diner in Downtown for lunch today. Here are my impressions:

LOCATION: The Nickel Diner (named after the nickname for Skid Row, which is centered on Fifth Street, or "The Nickel") is halfway between the once-and-future Cole's on Sixth and all the overpriced lofts surrounding it and Pete's, Banquette, and Blossom on Fourth and all the overpriced lofts surround them. Its stretch of Main Street is rather desolate and bland. The best way to find the Nickel is to look for the cluster of about ten Skid Row derelicts hanging out right next door to the diner's entrance.

INTERIOR: The look can best be described as Cedd Moses-does-Fred Eric, as if the Golden Gopher and Fred 62 had a baby. Red leather(ette?) banquettes span the length of the long room, with more hobnailed leather decoration and patterned wallpaper. The colors are vermillion and gold - very retro-elegant. The red-accented hangling lights are especially nice. But the high ceilings are without acousting panels, making for a very loud room, especially when the Amy Winehouse starts blasting. For the amount of single customers a diner gets, a counter would have been nice; a lot of seats are wasted at the two-tops with singles and four-tops with doubles who could have used those two-tops. And when they get their credit card machine - they're cash only right now - let's hope they also get some air conditioning. It's toasty in there.

SERVICE: Clearly the kinks are being worked out in their third day of business. The coffee I ordered was brought promptly, but getting a cup without a giant chip in it was much more difficult. I was placed in a table right behind the tall service station, in what seemed to be a blind spot for the staff. And calling to a server in a normal voice did not get a response by virtue of the noise level. It took a good ten minutes from when I was brought the coffee for anyone to notice me again, even though tables seated after me had already had their drinks brought and orders taken in this time. (After the coffee was replaced, I would wait nearly five more minutes to get my order taken.) A few tables from the brunch crowds cleared out, and I got more attention - my coffee was refilled regularly, the hostess checked on me a few times. But when each table is occupied, the hidden table is not the place to be. The owner and my waitress was more than accommodating with my lack of cash, too - the sign stating they were cash-only was nowhere in the front; I only got wind of this by hearing the table next to me say something - and allowed me to get cash after finishing. The staff was very friendly, just scattered. Hopefully they will get the layout down better soon.

FOOD: I'm not sure if I would make a special trip to the Nickel for the food. It is certainly not worth crossing the city to eat here. Were I living in those overpriced lofts, I would be thrilled to have it near me. But it is just another hipster comfort food place, the bohemian alternative to the bourgeois Pete's up the street. I ordered a bowl of Monica's chicken pozole, which comes at $4 for a cup or $6 for a bowl. It is essentially tortilla soup one gets at Tex-Mex restaurants with hominy added. Dark meat takes the place of the suburbanite-friendly chicken breast-chunks, and there is a nice hunk of avocado, but the other ingredients - melted Monterey jack, fried tortilla strips, a slightly jazzed-up chicken broth - are all there. It's tortilla soup. I asked about the onion rings and was told they were great, so I ordered them. Wow, what a disappointment. They are the same frozen breadcrumb-coated onion rings they serve at Burger King, and, at $5, about the same portion size. I was crestfallen that a diner with gourmet pretensions can't even make its own onion rings from scratch. They do make their own doughnuts and other pastries from scratch, which they owner displayed at the table, and she offered samples when I sat down; the doughnut covered in bacon crumbs was tasty, as was the chocolate-coconut one. And they have good strong coffee.

There are kinks to be worked out. It's not perfect, but it's got a lot of good things going for it. I'd like to visit it again when dinner gets going and the menu goes beyond breakfasts and sandwiches, but when I get a breakfast craving, I'll keep them in mind, too. I think when the staff gets more polished, it will be really nice. (Hopefully it won't become one of those regulars-only sorts of places like Pete's where people who aren't there all the time are treated like second-class citizens.) The owner was very nice, and the staff were friendly. The prices were okay, but I'm not sure my meal was worth $14 before tip. And the food, although not transcendent, is still better than The Pantry, Banquette, and Tiara Café. It has a long way to go to becoming my favorite restaurant on Main - Blossom is still reigning champion - but it's nice to have some variety. I'll be back to visit in a little while to see how they're coming along.

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  1. Thanks for the review Woolsey.

    1. Yes, thanks for the honest review, Woolsey. I've only seen over-hyped reviews by friends/investors of the diner. Looking forward to enjoying a good cup of joe. Not looking forward to paying $10+ for a stack of pancakes, eggs, sausage.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Waverly SGV

        People at tables around were raving, but a lot of yupsters who aren't really into food but more scene will do that. "Oh, wow, this diner has polenta! I can get smoked salmon in my scrambled eggs? Wow!" Never mind if nothing's executed particularly interestingly. Such people are often very easily impressed - how else could Pete's up the street have thrived so long? What it is is a neighborhood diner that has a swanky retro vibe. The prices are too high, but if you're able to spend $400,000 for a tiny shoebox loft on the edge of Skid Row like most of the Nickel's clientele, the price of pancakes probably isn't an issue for you.

        It's really all about perspective with places like this. What I thought while looking over the crowd at the Nickel Diner is that this most fully represents Silverlakization of Downtown.

        Try the homemade doughnuts with your coffee.

        1. re: Waverly SGV

          Then the Pantry is there to fill the low cost bill. Ham, bacon or sausage + 2 eggs + 2 hotcakes for $5.95 (+ $1.35 for coffee - if you want to splurge).

        2. “INTERIOR: The look can best be described as Cedd Moses-does-Fred Eric, as if the Golden Gopher and Fred 62 had a baby.”

          I’m not sure who designed the interior of Fred 62, but you are spot-on with the GG reference: The Nickel’s interior was done by the same designer, Ricki Kline, who did the interiors of Moses’ downtown bars Golden Gopher, Broadway Bar and Seven Grand, among others.

          And, um, The Nickel’s chef/co-owner is the same as Banquette’s: Monica May.

          3 Replies
          1. re: yinyangdi

            and cedd used to own (or may still own) banquette.

            1. re: yinyangdi

              I knew from the ample pre-opening publicity that owner of the Nickel was also the owner of Banquette. But I think the Nickel is an improvement over Banquette, which has always struck me as just another limp quasi-French café with a lack of dedication to any real culinary style. The Nickel, whatever its drawbacks, is definitely more focused.

              1. re: Woolsey

                why not try that place called blue star? although it' is in a different part of downtown, near 14th and alameda i think. that' place should be at the very least decent.

            2. Co-owner Kristen Trattner helped design the Nickel. The place used to be a soul food joint, and the painted menus on the wall are original; Kristen and Monica found them when they took the place's wood paneling down.

              1. Tried the Nickel for breakfast this past weekend and was not disappointed. For around $10 each, my dining companion and I each tried one of their scrambles - mine was ham, fontina and leeks. The service was on the indifferent-hipster side, but the food was good - a few bucks more than the Pantry and lightyears better. My scramble was cooked perfectly, and the potatoes on the side were the best diner spuds I've had outside of those at the Pines out in Pearblossom.

                Seems like everything downtown these days is upscale or *too* divey - it's nice to have a mid-range alternative.

                1. I'd say the Nickel Diner is decent and I hope it succeeds. The food I've had is just OK though. I actually enjoy Banquette a little more, would rather have lunch at Tiara, and for pancakes prefer the Pantry. Pete's is in a different league in my opinion. If I lived in the neighborhood I'd probably have lunch or breakfast at the Nickel Diner once every two weeks or so.

                  1. Finally tried breakfast and lunch at The Nickel Diner. "Splurged" on the Cameron's Puppy Pile: three buttermilk pankcakes with a chicken-apple sausage tucked inside, and an easy-over fried egg on top. Really really good flavor and fluffy texture. But beware, it'll expand in your tummy! Pulled pork sandwich was tasty -- smokey and spicy, but the pork was a little dry. Matchstick-ish french fries were great, crispy, salty, and spinkled with a little parsley. The lowrider burger, dressed with pepperjack cheese, sauteed bell peppers, onions and poblano chilis, was the bomb! Way better than any burger at Pete's. Medium rare was juicy, succulent, dripping all over the french fries. The bun didn't seem substantial enough for the slippery burger and fillings, but who needs the extra carbs when you have a pile of addictive french fries? Skip the Cher cupcakes which are too sweet (for my tastes) and topped with a greasy glob of buttercream that tasted like sweetened whipped butter. Most menu items hover around $10 or slightly under. Servers are helpful and super friendly (once you get to know them). We were delighted that our favorite waitress from the now dark Main Street Grill resurfaced at The Nickel as the head server. The cook staff are hot. While I probably wouldn't seek out The Nickel as a dining destination (we go because of the close proximity to our place of business), it's a nice amenity for the neighborhood and a good choice for retro fare.