Author: Riley Kimball
Asking our waiter at the Nickel Diner to recommend a few dishes was a big mistake. “The catfish on corn pancakes is delicious, especially if you like Brussels sprouts and bacon,” he said. “‘Eat Your Veggies’ is a bit lighter, you’ll get some carrots and parsnip. And the flat iron steak has a sort of California take, with avocado.” He went on and on, detailing absurd juxtapositions in every menu item, like mashed potatoes in artichokes and the aforementioned Brussels sprouts with bacon, which is incidentally a growing trend in many restaurants.
None of these combinations are surprising for one of the original purveyors of the maple bacon doughnut. The Nickel Diner indulges in greasy but surprisingly high quality dishes. The food served at the Diner seems as though the chef intended to make delectable dishes in the $20 range more accessible to and affordable for the general public. This approach to cooking takes the form of savory, fattening dishes that abandon most of their nutritional value once they have gone through the Nickel Diner kitchen.
Located about 15 minutes from Occidental in the thick of downtown L.A., the Nickel is denoted only by a sign reading “5¢” above a large windowed facade. Inside, a dark burgundy and mustard scheme feels homey and almost Southern, abandoning pretension and preparing visitors for a hearty meal. The restaurant uses retro decor and this darker palette to create the feel of a cozy diner from early twentieth century L.A., but the effect is uncomfortably dissonant with the layout of the space and the hipness of the waitstaff. The high ceilings and windows and the inventive dishes do not quite match the soda fountain simplicity for the decor. Consequently, it takes some time to adjust to the idiosyncratic ambiance.
The juxtaposition of hip and classic extends to the menu, and fortunately, this mix works much better with the food. Our waiter pronounced the catfish on corn pancakes in a sweet pecan sauce and a simple cheeseburger as equally delicious, through we did not try the latter. The catfish plate had an almost breakfast-like flavor, with the sweet sauce acting like syrup for the corn pancake, and the Brussels sprout side drowned in salty bacon. Alongside our meal we enjoyed a heaping plate of thin-cut french fries, which were delicious and rather light, and an artichoke stuffed with mashed potatoes and Parmesan cheese. The artichoke, like the Brussels sprouts, was heartier and more filling than a typical artichoke appetizer thanks to its substantial toppings, but consequently a bit of the plant’s original flavor was lost. The food is all extremely rich and at times excessively sweet, making it difficult to clear a plate. With an appetite for this variety of food, though, it would be perfect.
Unsurprisingly, dessert at Nickel Diner follows the rest of the menu’s lead. Exotic inventions like root beer creme brulee and home-made Pop-Tart-style pies alone make the restaurant worth a visit. The red velvet cake, with cream cheese frosting loaded with malted milk balls, caps off the rich, sugar-packed offerings, but it’s so good that few will be slowed down by the size of their stomachs.
The Nickel Diner is not open especially late, unfortunately; otherwise, it would be a great place to swing by for dessert. It can be difficult to finish appetizers, meals and dessert all together, but taken in pieces, the Nickel offers a satisfyingly indulgent twist on classic diner fare.
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