Retro & Hip: Nickel Diner

If you like bacon (and most people do), you’ll love the Nickel Diner, or at least their Maple Bacon Donuts. Among their many original, or original-take-on-an-old-favorite desserts is this salty and sweet frosted confection. A signature dish at the Diner, one that helped solidify their reputation, the donut is an appropriate mix of cake and frosting, with the perfect blend of sugary sweet and savory salt.

If you don’t like bacon, or meat in general, have no fear, Nickel Diner has you covered.. Among their food offerings are plenty of options for vegetarians and vegans, including their vegan Sloppy Joe topped with soy cheese and a mound of onion rings; vegan chili with soy cheese and avocado; grilled veggie Pasta Puttanesca, which includes roasted tomatoes, grilled zucchini, eggplant, capers, black olives, pesto, and garlic, sprinkled with chili flakes; and their grilled veggie sandwich, which has eggplant, zucchini, caramelized onions, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella, and pesto. They even have a vegan coconut tapioca pudding among their slew of desserts.

The Nickel Diner is both hip and chic, with a classic retro feel. The metallic walls in the kitchen and the traditional signs in the entrance offering hot dogs for 19 cents and beans for 15, give it an old-fashioned vibe, even though its menu is anything but. Its dark red leather booth runs the perimeter of the seating area with many tables set up around it and in the center of the space. The seats are inviting and the room and tables are spacious. The eclectic mix of music playing overhead went from salsa, to swing and soulful jazz, such as Glenn Miller, Nina Simone, and Dinah Washington, to 1970s pop, like Donna Summer and Lipps Inc. The wait staff appeared a little brusque at first, the men and women both in dark t-shirts, jeans, and buzzed short black hair, not making small talk but getting straight down to business, but they were actually very friendly and helpful, informatively answering questions and efficiently serving food to the guests.

Monica May started the Nickel Diner with her partner Kristen Trattner in 2008. No stranger to owning an eatery, May owned the café Banquette, on Main Street, but it wasn’t really fitted with a kitchen. They felt there wasn’t really a place to eat Downtown, and hoped to fill that niche.

“The Nickel Diner grew out of the desire to feed the neighborhood,” May explains. “Here’s a restaurant where we can get what we want: real, handcrafted food that feeds our neighborhood.”

Very much a community effort when it started, the partners spoke with Downtown neighbors and investors to build the dream of the diner into a reality. “The neighborhood came together and saw what we needed to raise the money,” May says. They opened in the heart of the recession and are still going strong five years later.

“It’s the only retail on this block to serve as a connection up and down Main Street, inclusive of all walks of life,” May says.

No longer solely for the community, Nickel Diner has since become a destination spot with a reputation for good food and healthy options, loved by foodies looking to explore new recipes as well as people who just want a bite. “We have managed to bring more people Downtown than would normally have come,” May says.

The menu offers an array of dishes with new twists on old favorites, like spaghetti and meatballs; beef stew with mushrooms served over creamy mashed potatoes and fried carrots; catfish with corn cakes and pecan sauce with hashed bacon Brussels sprouts; grilled pork chop served with sweet potato tater tots and succotash, and an excellent macaroni and cheese with roasted tomatoes and bread crumbs, which they call Smac and Cheese because of the bite given to it by the pepper jack cheese blend they use (it won third place in a Las Vegas cooking competition). Even their burgers and sandwiches, from the patty melt with Fontina cheese, caramelized onions, and Dijon sauce on rye, to their Chili Burger with vegan chili and Dijon sauce, to their Tuna Burger, are regularly served with coleslaw or a mound-high pile of side salad, which includes chopped lettuce and greens, carrots, parsnips, radicchio, jicama, tomatoes, olives, and a dressing of your choice. But fear not, you can trade in the healthier veggies for French fries or onion rings for a dollar.

The Diner also enjoys putting their own twist on well-known desserts, and they offer several. They have homemade versions of Ding-dongs, Pop-tarts in a variety of varying flavors including strawberry, peach, peanut butter and jelly, and blueberry lemon, the latter of which was very tasty. Red velvet cake and lemon merengue with fresh berries are also on the menu. They clearly have a taste for the salty and sweet combination, as evidenced by their maple bacon donut as well as their Salt Peanut chocolate cake, made with peanuts and potato chips.

While they don’t actually offer menu items for a nickel, their prices are reasonable. You can get a stack of three buttermilk pancakes for under $7, and the cinnamon swirl brioche French toast, which Los Angeles Magazine recently listed it as one of the “What A Hunk: Our Four Favorite French Toasts in L.A.”.is under $9. The Nickel Diner has a reputation for their brunch and they have the lines around the corner to prove it. Be prepared for a wait but it’ll be worth it. As it says on the wall above the door, “There is no place quite like this place anywhere near this place, so this must be the place.”