I went to the newly-opened Nickel Diner in Downtown for lunch today. Here are my impressions:
LOCATION: The Nickel Diner (named after the nickname for Skid Row, which is centered on Fifth Street, or "The Nickel") is halfway between the once-and-future Cole's on Sixth and all the overpriced lofts surrounding it and Pete's, Banquette, and Blossom on Fourth and all the overpriced lofts surround them. Its stretch of Main Street is rather desolate and bland. The best way to find the Nickel is to look for the cluster of about ten Skid Row derelicts hanging out right next door to the diner's entrance.
INTERIOR: The look can best be described as Cedd Moses-does-Fred Eric, as if the Golden Gopher and Fred 62 had a baby. Red leather(ette?) banquettes span the length of the long room, with more hobnailed leather decoration and patterned wallpaper. The colors are vermillion and gold - very retro-elegant. The red-accented hangling lights are especially nice. But the high ceilings are without acousting panels, making for a very loud room, especially when the Amy Winehouse starts blasting. For the amount of single customers a diner gets, a counter would have been nice; a lot of seats are wasted at the two-tops with singles and four-tops with doubles who could have used those two-tops. And when they get their credit card machine - they're cash only right now - let's hope they also get some air conditioning. It's toasty in there.
SERVICE: Clearly the kinks are being worked out in their third day of business. The coffee I ordered was brought promptly, but getting a cup without a giant chip in it was much more difficult. I was placed in a table right behind the tall service station, in what seemed to be a blind spot for the staff. And calling to a server in a normal voice did not get a response by virtue of the noise level. It took a good ten minutes from when I was brought the coffee for anyone to notice me again, even though tables seated after me had already had their drinks brought and orders taken in this time. (After the coffee was replaced, I would wait nearly five more minutes to get my order taken.) A few tables from the brunch crowds cleared out, and I got more attention - my coffee was refilled regularly, the hostess checked on me a few times. But when each table is occupied, the hidden table is not the place to be. The owner and my waitress was more than accommodating with my lack of cash, too - the sign stating they were cash-only was nowhere in the front; I only got wind of this by hearing the table next to me say something - and allowed me to get cash after finishing. The staff was very friendly, just scattered. Hopefully they will get the layout down better soon.
FOOD: I'm not sure if I would make a special trip to the Nickel for the food. It is certainly not worth crossing the city to eat here. Were I living in those overpriced lofts, I would be thrilled to have it near me. But it is just another hipster comfort food place, the bohemian alternative to the bourgeois Pete's up the street. I ordered a bowl of Monica's chicken pozole, which comes at $4 for a cup or $6 for a bowl. It is essentially tortilla soup one gets at Tex-Mex restaurants with hominy added. Dark meat takes the place of the suburbanite-friendly chicken breast-chunks, and there is a nice hunk of avocado, but the other ingredients - melted Monterey jack, fried tortilla strips, a slightly jazzed-up chicken broth - are all there. It's tortilla soup. I asked about the onion rings and was told they were great, so I ordered them. Wow, what a disappointment. They are the same frozen breadcrumb-coated onion rings they serve at Burger King, and, at $5, about the same portion size. I was crestfallen that a diner with gourmet pretensions can't even make its own onion rings from scratch. They do make their own doughnuts and other pastries from scratch, which they owner displayed at the table, and she offered samples when I sat down; the doughnut covered in bacon crumbs was tasty, as was the chocolate-coconut one. And they have good strong coffee.
There are kinks to be worked out. It's not perfect, but it's got a lot of good things going for it. I'd like to visit it again when dinner gets going and the menu goes beyond breakfasts and sandwiches, but when I get a breakfast craving, I'll keep them in mind, too. I think when the staff gets more polished, it will be really nice. (Hopefully it won't become one of those regulars-only sorts of places like Pete's where people who aren't there all the time are treated like second-class citizens.) The owner was very nice, and the staff were friendly. The prices were okay, but I'm not sure my meal was worth $14 before tip. And the food, although not transcendent, is still better than The Pantry, Banquette, and Tiara Café. It has a long way to go to becoming my favorite restaurant on Main - Blossom is still reigning champion - but it's nice to have some variety. I'll be back to visit in a little while to see how they're coming along.