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The Nickel Diner opens in downtown L.A.

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L.A.'s 5th Street, long considered the bleak heart of skid row, has been known for decades as ‘the nickel.’ Now a new diner, also called the Nickel, opened two days ago on Main Street, between 5th and 6th streets. That a trendy eatery perfectly set-dressed to resemble a pre-WWII-era diner, down to the old-school wallpaper, big red booths and scuffed floor tiles, would offer up such a tongue-in-cheek reference to this deeply troubled neighborhood is a bit disquieting.

Worse than that, however, are the glib drug references on the menu, which includes offerings such as ‘Smac and cheese’ and 5- and 10-cent ‘bags’ of food combinations. (Get it? Nickel and dime bags?) Also on offer are a variety of morning and afternoon pastries dubbed a.m. and p.m. ‘fixes.’

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This kind of flippant riff on the history of this area of town could be excused if that history were a distant memory and downtown was a kind of City Walk mock-up of its former self. But that’s not the case. As Times columnist Steve Lopez pointed out in a series of stories about skid row, the area is still awash in desperation and filled with hopelessness in large part because of an epidemic of drug use.

The Nickel Diner is located along the stretch of Main south of the super-trendy Old Bank District; as soon as you cross 5th Street, the fedora-wearing hipsters and poncho-clad hippies give way to the homeless, drug users and beggars, one of whom sat mere feet from the diner itself when I visited, watching well-heeled professionals come and go.

Don’t get me wrong: I like that downtown is getting a new lease on life and that bars and restaurants and specialty shops are opening up in record numbers, many of them, like the Nickel Diner, run by people who care about the historic integrity of the buildings they are leasing.

I even like the Nickel Diner. It’s operated by the same folks who own the adorable Banquette wine bar at 4th and Main, and they seem intent on keeping the place local and reasonably priced. The staff is friendly, the baked goods and desserts decadent and the atmosphere inviting. I just don’t think the time is right to poke fun, even good-natured fun, at the very real and contemporary problems of skid row.

— Jessica Gelt


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