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The motto of the Nickel Diner is probably Home of the Maple Glaze Bacon Donut, a slogan inscribed both on the home page of its Web site and in the arteries of its best customers. And it is a lovely thing, round and doughnutty, paved with crushed bacon, glistening with what Dr. Dean Ornish might interpret as pure evil. If you look at it in a certain light, or at least the hazy rays filtering in off Main Street on a cloudy morning in June, the doughnut even seems to glow; a soft, pulsing glow like the on button of late-’90s desktop computers, or possibly from the undersides of flying saucers in science-fiction movies. “Eat me,’’ it says. “Eat me and die.’’
And then the person sitting across from you does bite into one, and you have seen this look of bliss before: wood smoke melting into tree essence; pig fat into cooking oil; yeast into sugar, time into the smoky void. The doughnuts are warmed to just below blood heat, so that the glaze is still slightly runny, the bacon is still pliable, and the structure of the doughnut itself is plumped a bit — they’re not just greater than the sum of their parts, it is as if the parts themselves barely exist.
Even given the gentrification of downtown, the Nickel is an unlikely success, steps from what used to be considered the most notorious intersection in town, on an artist-intensive block that may still have the highest concentration of SRO hotels of any in Los Angeles. The window is decorated with mannequin heads with hair fashioned from meringue, including TV chef Guy Fieri and a Marie Antoinette, whose upswept coif looks more like a Thai dancer’s crown. Some of the light fixtures are floor lamps glued upside down to the ceiling. The restaurant occupies the site of a long-forgotten diner — there are hand-painted wall menus with prices last current in the late 1940s — and the occasional old customer of the previous incarnation still wanders in to inquire about the legendary (cough, cough) Number Four Special. I wonder about the provenance of the well-dressed retirees who seem to show up among the drowsy hipsters on weekend mornings, but I do not think the Number Four Special is what they have in mind.
Like the primordial Millie’s, which resonated with the Silver Lake of the mid-1980s, and probably Huckleberry in Santa Monica right now, the Nickel is a precise reflection of its neighborhood and time, a restaurant whose particulars are almost shorthand for the state of Main Street in 2009. There are all the hash house favorites, sure, the pancakes and fried eggs and overcooked bacon without which there would be rebellion in the streets. But the toast, including the cinnamon-dusted Nickel Bag, is made with bread baked in-house — the résumé of Sharlena Fong, the house baker, includes restaurants like Bouchon and Per Se — and the excellent hash is made with spicy pulled pork shoulder instead of canned corned beef. The orange juice is freshly squeezed, and so is the cucumber-intensive house version of V8. There are fancy dishes of baked eggs over spinach, polenta and mushrooms, as well as vegan scrambles. The chicken posole could probably use a pig’s foot or two in the broth, but the basic formula won’t send you screaming to the nearest Mexican restaurant, and the avocados in the garnish are perfectly ripe.
Are there candied pecans in the chicken salad, arugula in the BLT, and roasted tomatoes in the macaroni and cheese? Guilty as charged. This isn’t the neighborhood John Rechy wrote about so vividly in City of Night 50 years ago. (You can still find a bit of that Los Angeles a block away, at the King Eddy.) The grilled-salmon salad, arranged around a nest of corn, quinoa, diced peppers and baby romaine, is about a million times better than you’d expect in a diner, and the salad of grilled flatiron steak with blue-cheese dressing and a wedge of iceberg lettuce is both dive-perfect and grand. The burgers tend to be a bit stodgy, but the steak sandwich is light and crisp as a Vietnamese banh mi. If you’re around at supper time, the stack of fried catfish interspersed with crisp corn pancakes and pecans is worth a visit before you blow out your liver at the Varnish or Tony’s.
If you catch the timing right, you may end up with a marble-size maple-glaze bacon-doughnut hole to snack on while you’re waiting for your food. The first taste is free. The next one is going to cost. The last time I was in, proprietors Monica May and Kristen Trattner were pricing old ice cream trucks on Craigslist. If Helms had thought to stock maple glaze bacon doughnuts on their trucks, the yellow bakery wagons would still be roaming the Southland, Father’s Office would still be in a single location, and the antique dealers would have to find another place to sell their gently used wing chairs.
Nickel Diner: (213) 623-8301 or www.5cdiner.com. Tues.-Sun., 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; Tues.-Sat., 6 p.m.-11 p.m. No alcohol. Takeout. Street parking only (or nearby paid lot). MC, V. $. Recommended dishes: Maple-glaze bacon doughnuts, baked eggs with polenta, pulled-pork hash, steak sandwich, catfish with corn cakes and pecan sauce.