In part one of our interview with Monica May and Kristen Trattner, owners of downtown's Nickel Diner, the two ladies explained how they moved from a cafe with no kitchens to a diner with two of them. In the second part of the interview, May and Trattner talk about their gay pop tart, the Sugar Fairy Snap Tart, and the time Robocop faced off against the homeless Unabomber. And check back later for a recipe for Nickel Diner's pan roast pork chop with succotash and pepper jam.
SI: So having this restaurant right in what was formerly Skid Row, what's a memorable experience of interacting with the neighborhood?
Monica May: [There was a] man with a shopping cart who rolled in here and got halfway through the restaurant. We were in the middle of full dinner service. Kristen goes up to him and she goes, “Can I help you? and he goes “Yeah, [and mumbles]” and she says, “Guess what? There's a sale on aisle four.” And he goes, “Really? Where's aisle four?” She says, “Turn around, walk out the door and take a left.” He says, “Okay,” and that's how we got him out. (Laughter.)
Another time, we had some TV people come in. They were kind of idiots who were here looking for hip, tattooed people. But everybody was here and we feed everyone. We get everyone down here. The whole arson squad. We get the whole public defender's office here which is great because if you want to commit a crime, now I know who my lawyers are. And we were having this moment where they had ordered all this food and were photographing it and they had already eaten their food. But afterward. They all started poking their food with their fingers and they were terrorizing it, and I'm like, “What the fuck are you doing? I have people out here who want to eat. The fact that you are doing that is just so disrespectful.” There's so many hungry mouths in the world. So they were here with their cameras and they were wanting to take pictures of tattoos or whatever else.
Meanwhile, this guy who just got out of the hospital, in this wheelchair, gets in here and positions himself in the doorway, and we're like “Oh god, what are we gonna do with this guy?” and he says, “I'd like to eat.” We say sure, equal opportunity. Then he proceeds to put the towel that he's wearing over his head, and Kristen looks at me and says, “Oh god, he's leaking.” I'm like, “What do you mean he's leaking? Oh shit, he's leaking.” As I notice he's dripping from the bottom of his wheelchair, from inside I grab our cop friend here who just lives down the block. Our big beat cop. Lenny. Been down here for thirty years.
And I say, “Lenny, there's this guy. We can't get rid of him. Can you help us?” And he's like, “What's the problem?” We say, “He's leaking on our doorstep,” and so then he comes down and he's huge, he's this 6'4″ African-American beat cop, and he's like, “Oh god, he's leaking. Fuck this, I don't want to deal with this.” But he comes up to the guy, gets behind him and is like, “You gotta leave,” and the guy turns around and says, “Nigga, you ain't gonna tell me what to do” “Nigga, I am telling you what to do,” and then they start “nigger”-ing each other right in the doorway. Meanwhile, I've got this camera crew looking for hip tattoos and meanwhile, they're missing the fact that I have fucking Robocop and the unibomber, who are “nigger”-ing each other like motherfuckers. So finally, Lenny manages to get him out, but the wheelchair has a flat tire so the guy can only go in circles. So now we've got this guy who's leaking, driving in circles out of the restaurant, and I'm like “That's what life's like at the Nickel.” And that's what makes it funny. And that's what makes us… dumb for doing it but having a good time?
(A cook comes out from the kitchen to ask about the pepper jam on the stove.)
MM: We make a lot of jams here. We make strawberry jams. For stone fruit season, we make peach jam. We have Sugar Fairy Snap Tarts (May snaps her fingers.). Our gay pop tarts with our mixed berries. It's that “snap” tart. We make our waiters go to the tables and snap.
Kristin Trattner: Yah, it's funny because people come in here for it, and they have to ask for it by name.
MM: Especially the good gay boys who can really get a good snap at the table.
KT: Yeah, we're not as good.
SI: How'd the famous maple bacon donut come together?
MM: It was one of those serendipitous moments where we were sitting around talking about ideas. We knew we wanted to make french toast with brioche and then it was like flavor combinations and how great it is when your french toast and maple syrup and bacon all collide on one plate. And ultimately, that's how the bacon donut was formed.
MM: Someone told us that a local Korean donut store is doing a maple bacon donut now, and I'm like, “Right on.” It takes away the preciousness of it.
KT: The thing about our donuts is they use a brioche base so it takes three days to make. No one is stupid enough to spend three days on a $2 donut. Except for us.
SI: So what happened with Banquette?
MM: We don't want to get into it, but what was sad about Banquette closing was that it brought together and defined a community. I's what allowed us to do the Nickel because people knew us from there and saw how hard we worked.
KT: That's how we got funding because we couldn't get anyone to fund us for this place.
MM: Right. Because we couldn't get anyone to invest on two women who wanted to open a diner on Skid Row. So our neighborhood came together. Some of our investors were our friend Julie who owns the bookstore up the street. Our friend Bert Green who started the Downtown Art Walk. They were people who lived here and saw the need for what we wanted to do. And they ultimately gave us the money to do it. It was the right place at the right time. And that's what's sad about Banquette closing is that this little neighborhood lost a heartbeat
SI: We talked about Bottega Louie. There seems to be an attempt by some people to make downtown upscale.
KT: There's this interesting thing where people seem to think people downtown have money. You have this nice wine shop here where you have no wine for less than $16 a bottle. You have a market that's about to open with artisanal bread and artisanal things, and we're not there yet as a downtown. There's not the money here. Those of us who live down here can't really buy $18 bottles of wine once a week. The great thing about Bottega Louie is it's a little piece of New York in the right place at the right time. Like it looks like Dean and Deluca. Its food is uh, how would you describe it? Politely.
MM: Uh… it's food for people who think they like to eat?
KT: But the thing is, they hit a vein also.
MM: They hit a vein with the people who bought into the mythology of what living downtown is supposed to be like. And that's great, but where we are is still a working class community.
(A woman walks in and says something slurred and unintelligible to Trattner. The two briefly have a conversation before the woman leaves.)
KT: We finally realized we shouldn't have the “5¢ diner” sign because people think it's a “5¢ dinner.”
MM: Why I moved downtown and chose to open businesses around here is that it was a fabulous wild ride. There is so much to see. There are so many different levels of people and energies and buildings. You know, to me what's an amazing thing is the sidewalk in front. The sidewalk is the great leveler. Everybody waits outside for food and it doesn't matter if you're rich and white and Westside or poor and anything else. Just standing out here. That's the bottom line.
KT: In every other Yelp review they review the sidewalk. Seriously.
MM: You have to understand, the people who live and hang out in front here are the people who live in the SRO's (single room occupancy hotels). It's a small, small room. There's not a lot of space. There's not a lot of privacy. And so you come outside, and this is like their front stoop. And they have as much right to be on the sidewalk as anybody else. We coexist really well with our neighbors. They watch out for us; we take care of them. That was really important to us. We could have moved in here when we first opened up and just sort of battled. But we sit here all day and watch drug deals go by.
SI: Really? Still?
MM: I mean… yeah. It comes with the territory.
SI: In the time that you've been here, though, have you seen a kind of gentrification though this general area?
MM: Yeah, I see lots of little dogs. Like that one across the street right there. I see more shit on the streets, and it's not human anymore. It's dog shit. That's what gentrification means. Less human shit more dog shit. Or maybe less human pee, more dog pee. What's nice about this area though is the idea that it's still recognized as a recovery zone, and what I'd like to think is that this area is considered an economic recovery zone. That's what's exciting.