Skid Row, maple bacon donuts and chick food. If that doesn't make immediate sense to you, don't worry. Investors didn't initially understand Monica May and Kristen Trattner's vision for their Nickel Diner. They're now chef and general manager, respectively, as well as owners of the nouvelle diner, but it took years of running a cafe a block away before the community rallied behind them to open the Nickel. After all, the two had been serving coffee and sandwiches at Banquette, now shuttered, without ever having the benefit of a kitchen.
But the Nickel had two kitchens, plenty of space and together, these two realized the diner of their dreams — where donuts are not just extraordinary for the bacon on top but for their brioche dough, the result of three days of labor — and since 2008, they've seen lines out the door and nationwide media adoration. Along the way, their Skid Row address has brought them some funny stories that usually involve someone strung out wandering into their restaurant and refusing to leave. The two women share these and other stories, including how the maple bacon donut came to be, why farm to table is a bunch of nonsense, and what it means to cook chick food. Turn the page.
Squid Ink: So where did inspiration for the Nickel Diner come from?
Monica May: We opened this place in 2008. I've been living and working downtown since 2004, and we had a little cafe up the street that basically had no kitchen, and living in the neighborhood, seeing what the community needed, we ultimately wanted to get eggs after 11 a.m. (Laughter.) We decided to open up the Nickel. This was an abandoned restaurant that had been closed. It was a front for drug deals. You'd come in, order the number 4 plate, and you'd get fried chicken and a dime bag of dope.
MM: And it was situated on a block where, you knew you didn't walk on Main between 5th and 6th. This is the Nickel. This was the notorious Skid Row. But I found out about this place, and I came in and realized it had really good bones. It had two kitchens, and I knew we had to do something with it. Then we started to do construction on it. We pulled down the old menu, the old plywood, and we discovered all of this. (May points to the wall to the left of the entrance, where a menu is painted, including “Hot Dogs 19¢” and “Large Draft Beer 20¢.') So all of this stuff is original.This dates back in the 1940's.
So there's this moment where the universe sort of put it here. The space defined itself. What we do here, it's not reinventing the wheel. We're making good food that ultimately comes from hands that care. The menu is based on what I love to eat and what my partner Kristen, who's as much a part of this project as I am, wants to eat. And ultimately, that's what we do at the Nickel is we feed people. You'd think that was pretty common, but I go to a lot of restaurants and they don't do that.
SI: Why do you think they're not doing that?
MM: It's an interesting point because in terms of where we are in food, everyone's talking farm to table and all that stuff. But it all comes from a farm. All produce comes from somebody growing it. So the point is that there has to be intent behind it, and I go to a lot of places that have this pedigreed food, and there are unsure or uncaring hands behind it. What I resent is people who go and pay a lot of money for these things and think it's gonna be the end all, be all, and it's sort of The Emperor's New Clothes.
What we do here is we make everything from scratch. It's real. We feed regular people here. Our lunch crowd is cops; it's [Department of Water and Power]. We feed a lot of the city people. Our evening crowd tends to be a lot of tourists. We've just discovered that it's become a destination spot, which is amazing, but it's a lot of people looking for a good time and good food. It's not a lot of bells and whistles, but it's a little bit of Grandma.
MM: Because Banquette had no kitchen, we had this fantasy moment of, “I want donuts. I want my childhood favorites. I want Ding Dongs. I want pop tarts. I want eggs. I want jam. I want food that tastes real, almost like you're coming over to somebody's house. It's the best of what a neighborhood can offer. So that's what I mean when I say the space defined itself. This couldn't be anything else but a diner. Especially where we're located. We are Skid Row adjacent. We are surrounded by two single room occupancy hotels. That was the thing with this neighborhood.
It was really, really important to us that there was a sense of inclusiveness. We know where we are. We understand who we are. We understand our price point. We also wanted a restaurant that made it affordable for you to be able to eat here more than once a week. And we do. I have one guy who comes here every night and gets the beef stew and the mac and cheese. He comes through the door, the cooks don't even wait for a ticket. They just fire it. And that's what I mean about being part of the neighborhood. Kristen and I have a joke about this place. She designed the place. She put together the lighting.
Our joke between us is that you're sitting on her lap while I'm feeding you. That's what I'm talking about here. It's very chick on chick here. It's very girl. You walk in and know women had their hand in this, and that's important as well. We joke about what we call “cock food”. Like you go out to these restaurants and you have this funny moment where you eat it and two bites into it, you're done. It's like getting slapped in the face. Our food isn't about that. This is chick food. It's a little bit of a journey. It makes you want to finish your plate as opposed to two bites and you're done. We have a lot of clean plates here at the Nickel. And it's fun. It's very labor intensive. Had I been smarter, I maybe shouldn't have decided to make everything from scratch, but at the same time it's kind of like I don't know how to do it any other way.
SI: We're seeing now a lot of high-low stuff. Which when done well can appeal to a wide range of people because…
MM: So what's your definition of high low?
SI: High-low like an upscale burger place.
MM: You mean like Umami?
SI: Umami's on the higher end of high low.
MM: Umami, to be honest with you, irritates the shit out of me. It does.
MM: It's two burgers and a beer, and it's fucking 60 bucks. Are you kidding me? And that's what bothers me. As a chef, I can go out to eat and know what I want, but there are a lot of people who can't afford that. They go to these places, and they're expecting all of this, and I think they're getting ripped off. I really do. People who go to Umami are already the people [who are already conscious of upscale food]. There's a whole level of people who are already aware of food, food concepts, different ideas, looking for whiz bang, bells and whistles.
But there's a whole group of people who are regular and they're just looking for good food. What I hope that can happen is that they come to the Nickel and they taste what real food tastes like. So instead of choosing to go to the Macaroni Grill or Denny's, they come here and go “Oh! this is what a donut tastes like. This is what real food tastes like.” That to me is the revolution because that's where you change the mindset. All those other high low restaurants, those people already fucking know about that, man. You know what I mean?
I'm talking about the Latino family who drove in from Cathedral City because they saw us on TV. Fucking four hours in a car with six family members. I can't even imagine. My kids aren't that good. But they came here and they had a great time. That's what we gave them. We gave them good food. We gave them old fashioned soda pops. We gave them great, fun desserts to eat. And they're gonna go back thinking “That's what real cream cheese frosting tastes like.” Are they going to go to Animal? Are they going to go to A-Frame? No. That's what i'm talking about.
And I'm probably gonna get shit for all of this, but I don't particularly care because I know who my demographic is who eats here. None of the dishes on our menu is over $15. Affordable food. Am I gonna get rich? No. But I know at the end of the day what it is I do, and it's what I tell my cooks. We feed people. That is our goal. You want to call it art? Fine. But if I want art, I'm gonna go to a fucking museum. I make food for people to eat to have a good time and to leave here with a full belly, hopefully in a little bit of a food coma. So that they don't have to go to Pink's afterward and get a fucking chili dog because they're still hungry.
SI: The difference, if we're hearing correctly, is that you're more at the forefront.
MM: I don't know if I'm at the forefront of anything. I just think that there are people that cook out there and care. Like my favorite place to eat is Mo-chica. I go out to Ricardo's place in that stupid little mall, Mercado La Paloma, sit at these tables and I eat his food, and I'm just a pig in shit. I can't get enough of the Papa Ala Huancaina. If I could, I'd just put it all over my hands and lick it. But I get that. I get how pristine his ceviche is. I love his oxtail risotto. The lamb shank with the white beans and the cilantro puree? Fucking to die for. And that's what I mean, that's real food.
I go eat at a Korean place over in the 3rd and Alameda mall, and there is woman who is making it, and it's like eating grandma food. She makes all her own banchan. She makes these great seafood pancakes, and that's what I want to eat when I'm hungry. And that's not to say I don't like going to the Bazaar. I love all of that. My favorite restaurant? wd-50. I've had some of the most extraordinary meals ever there. So it's not that I don't appreciate that or get it but for where I am, I know who I am and what we are and what we have to do. And it's different. We're not Bottega Louie. Bottega Louie people have all bought into the myth of what it is to be downtown. I live downtown. We just recently moved [to another home downtown], but for the last five years, I've been living on Main Street.
(May introduces her partner Kristen Trattner.)
MM: There's this movement now where it's gotten to be more about the philosophy than about the food
Kristen Trattner: Farm to table stuff. It's about the philosophy of the food. Doesn't necessarily mean it's great food. It's organic, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's prepared well.
Check back later today for the second part of this interview, as well as a recipe.