Downtown’s ideal diner from this week’s CityBeat:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Call the Nickel Diner whatever you will – a harbinger of gentrification, a preservationist’s dream, a loft-livers’ love – but the spirit of the downtown restaurant is best represented by three little doughnut holes. They arrive on a sampler plate; at a recent brunch rush, they were strawberry shortcake, vegan blueberry and the famous maple bacon. The three seem derived from a common diner DNA of past, present and future, but the maple bacon doughnut is what captivates the crowds.
The bacon-crusted pastry has become the restaurant’s essential bite – like fried Snickers or chicken ’n’ waffles – a sweet hunk of Americana sought out for its Homeric gluttony. But lost in all that baconated press is the fact that the Nickel Diner is a relatively rare restaurant: not only does it have a clear sense of itself, but it can match any hypertrophied expectations, too.
Central to the diner’s identity is its great space, a retro-minded dining room scraped out from decades of rental neglect. From the brass-studded leather to the burgundy-and-cream color scheme, the Nickel nails every detail. Most important, though, is that there’s an air of history about the place (look to the murals unearthed during renovations for a tie to the past) that the restaurant proudly reflects in its menu.
Take breakfast, for instance, where the Nickel displays the classics – pancakes and scrambles, oatmeal and polenta. But even these basics are tweaked. The pancakes come with a spoonful of blueberry compote, the French toast is brioche-based and the oatmeal shares its bowl with sautéed apples. The scrambles are particularly modern (choose from roasted tomatoes, leeks, Fontina cheese and the like), but they’re carefully diner, too, always close enough to traditional flavors.
Among many great plates, by far the best entry on the morning menu is the Fifth and Main, the Nickel’s take on a classic hash. Instead of the usual corned beef, the plate’s a pile of pulled pork strung around crispy cubes of potato, topped with two perfectly poached eggs. A sweet barbecue sauce (it has some heat, too) thickens as the cracked yolks seep into the dish. With all of those elements loaded onto a single forkful, this hash is one of the best breakfasts in town.
Lunch is laid out in a similarly updated fashion. The sandwich spread sounds familiar – there’s a BLT, a club, a steak hoagie. But the BLT includes arugula and avocado; a spicy aioli punches up the club; roasted peppers and pickled onions balance the hoagie’s steak. The salads follow an identical path, with timeless tastes like Cobb and Niçoise salads bookended by irregular plates such as the chili-lime grilled salmon salad, which pairs the fish with quinoa, beans, peppers, corn and cilantro.
The Nickel’s pastries are roughly split between morning and afternoon appetites, but they fit together just fine, great tastes from an alumnus of Thomas Keller’s kitchens. A bite from any of those full-sized doughnuts, however, will lead you right back to defining the diner. Is it part of a new downtown? Of old Los Angeles? Of a single neighborhood? Maybe it’s all of those things; maybe it’s something else altogether. Only the Nickel knows.
Nickel Diner, 524 S. Main St., Los Angeles. (213) 623-8301. Open Wed.-Sun. 7:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Street parking. Vegetarian friendly. Food for two: $15-25. 5cdiner.com.