A big helping at the Nickel
This is the place
There is no place
Quite like this place
Anywhere near this place
So this must be the place
Time had not been kind to the tiny restaurant -- that was obvious the first time that Monica May and Kristen Trattner cast their eyes on this curious poem, painted in red and blue above the door.
By most measures, it decidedly wasn’t the place.
The building, near the corner of 5th and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles, was a shambles. Ten pigeons were roosting inside. The women had to dismantle a dropped ceiling and pry 1970s-era wooden paneling, covered in excrement, off the walls just to see the words in the first place.
Outside, many decades of the city’s problems were in evidence. Homeless people begged for coins. Drug deals were conducted in the open.
But May and Trattner saw something in the tattered space: a chance to serve downtowners of all stripes, and to upgrade the neighborhood in the process. The two women, who each live within a block of 5th and Main, had moved downtown as part of the first wave of residents gentrifying the old bank buildings and warehouses around skid row. They fell in love with downtown before it was popular -- when the residential neighborhood was still a work in progress, and 5th and Main was one of the city’s most notorious corners. The restaurant space, once part of a downtown opera house and later a burlesque theater, had been vacant for years. The last eatery there, Mai Taco, had been under investigation by the city attorney’s office after locals complained that it was being used as a front for drug sales.
“There are a lot of ghosts downtown,” May said. “There are a lot of ghosts here.”
In March 2007, May and Trattner signed a five-year lease on the property.
“We didn’t have a business plan, or a corporation, or even a name,” May said. “It was, ‘Let’s do here what we have been longing to do.’ ”
Trattner and May named their restaurant the Nickel Diner, after a well-used nickname for the nearby corner. They envisioned a place that would serve upscale, retro fare: breakfast and lunch at first, and dinner later if all went well. And they called upon a handful of fellow downtowners to invest or otherwise help them in their efforts: the owner of an art gallery at 5th and Main, the local bookseller, a developer working in the area and even a few downtown bloggers.
“We know exactly where the Nickel is and how that stretch of block is,” said Julie Swayze, the owner of Metropolis Books, a block north of the restaurant on Main.
Celia Winstead, who invested in the Nickel with her husband, Jim, said that in 17 years downtown, she has watched the neighborhood slowly change, one block at a time: “I know what impact each new business can have.”
Armed with a vision, May and Trattner set out on their improbable task. In the months that followed, they would tackle the intricacies of opening a restaurant as well as explore, in intimate detail, the changing nature of the neighborhood itself.
In late April, more than a year after Trattner and May had taken possession of the Main Street space, it seemed as if a restaurant was beginning to emerge from the cocoon of debris and chaos.
Old-fashioned menus on the wall, remnants of a previous tenant, had been restored to a luxurious sheen.
Dark burgundy leather booths were in place, with matching, brass-studded leather installed above them along the long walls. The studs were a little too dull for Trattner’s taste, so she had taken a paintbrush and a bottle of gold Rub ‘n Buff to try to remedy the situation.
Trattner had taken charge of the restaurant’s finances as well as its look and feel. With 17 years on the L.A. restaurant scene, May, quite simply, was the chef.
Or, as Trattner explained it: “You are sitting on my lap, and Monica is feeding you.”
May is no stranger to opening new restaurants; she also runs Banquette, a small cafe near 4th and Main, and is married to Ricki Kline, a partner with restaurateur Cedd Moses in a series of downtown watering holes. But this was Trattner’s first attempt. The women, both in their 40s, met after Trattner, who used to work in cinematic visual effects, moved downtown after the end of a relationship and started frequenting Banquette. They share an affinity for many things, including shoes, off-beat humor and coarse language. And both say they have a special fondness for the close-knit nature of their neighborhood.
The mindless work of painting upholstery studs took Trattner’s mind off money issues: All of the money that had come in -- about $50,000 -- had gone out the door, to plumbers, electricians, contractors and rent. That day, the Nickel’s bank account held $15.
Trattner said that they were expecting more money from investors, but bills were piling up. “I don’t want to have to bust into my 401(k),” she said. “But I don’t know what to do.”
Then Ken Aslan, the building’s landlord, pushed open the restaurant’s oak doors with another tenant, Michael Rizzo, in tow.
Rizzo, a talent manager, had just rented the space next door, and Aslan wanted to show off the possibilities of the neighborhood. But quickly, the conversation changed to its drawbacks.
The night before, a downtown resident had been knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly after he tried to stop two men who were setting off car alarms along Main. Police intervened, and the men were arrested.
By mid-morning, word of the beating had spread, and both Trattner and Aslan were worried.
Should they post a security guard at the door of the restaurant? Trattner wondered aloud. Install security cameras outside the building, as the Los Angeles Police Department would later suggest?
Aslan proposed leaving lights outside the restaurant on all night.
“It’s going to be interesting to see if we can get along in this neighborhood,” Trattner said.
Eventually, May and Trattner decided against the cameras and the guard. And they said they tried to make a place in the restaurant for the longtime residents, keeping prices low and making much of the menu a la carte.
“God forbid you bring in something nice to the neighborhood,” May said. “Or you are accused of gentrifying it.”
The women also used the menu to poke fun at the neighborhood’s reputation. Specialties include a “5¢ bag” (doughnuts and coffee) and “Smac and cheese.” A list of pastries on the menu is divided into a.m. and p.m. “fixes.”
May and Trattner said in a series of interviews that they were keenly aware of outsiders’ perceptions about downtown. That was one reason, they said, that they looked to downtowners for financial support.
“We can’t get people to come from other parts of the city to see the site,” Trattner said in March, as construction was underway.
May finished her thought: “But the people who live here get it,” she said. “It’s investing in your neighborhood.”
As the months went on, that neighborhood would provide a series of gifts, which buoyed the women’s spirits and pushed the project forward.
After Trattner did, indeed, have to break into her 401(k), the last piece of financing came from the Historic Downtown L.A. Retail Project.
And after a first pastry chef bailed out of the project, Sharlena Fong -- a petite woman with a straight-on gaze and a wicked buttercream -- entered their lives.
Fong, who had trained under noted chef Thomas Keller, had moved to downtown L.A. and was looking for work.
At first, May and Trattner were dubious that anyone with Per Se and Bouchon on her resume might be interested in the Nickel. “There’s no way she wants to make croissants at the corner of crack and smack,” Trattner said in June.
But Fong did -- lured in part by the idea that the opening of the restaurant seemed “like a big community effort.” Plus, she said with a shrug, “I would rather walk to work.”
Soon, Fong was figuring out how to make a vegan Sacher torte -- in order to appeal to one kind of downtown resident -- and testing out versions of peach cobbler on another, the inhabitants of the residential hotels nearby.
As they looked for cooks, servers and busboys, May and Trattner kept a special eye out for downtowners. Their head waitress, Ricci Petite, came from the Main Street Grill, a shuttered restaurant half a block to the north. A pastry sous-chef lived in the Alexandria, a block to the west.
The women also started talking with the nonprofit Chrysalis, whose offices were next door to the Nickel, about hiring some formerly homeless people to work in the restaurant.
Opening a restaurant in the age of the Internet is not the quiet, slow affair it once was. Curious bloggers and eaters post feedback and critiques with such alacrity that some restaurants are panned or swamped even before they are fully operational.
May and Trattner said they kept this in mind as they thought about how and when they would open the Nickel, waiting until everything was more than ready before testing the restaurant out on an invited group of investors and friends.
There were hiccups even after those invitations went out: Three line chefs were hired and then quit.
But the women pushed forward, and on a downtown morning not too long ago, May, Trattner and Fong woke up before 5 a.m. and walked the blocks from their apartments, along Main Street, to the Nickel.
Fong -- worried about what early morning on Main Street might be like -- carried pepper spray in one hand, keys in the other. But she said that she found the walk easier than she’d thought. The neighborhood was surprisingly empty.
“Everyone was either passed out or had gone home,” May said. “The streets were clear and quiet. There was a beautiful glow.”
A few hours later, half a dozen black-clad servers were lining the Nickel’s tables with photocopied menus, filling sugar containers and making last-minute adjustments to the dining room.
At 9:45 a.m., bookstore owner Julie Swayze entered with Stella Dottir, the owner of a clothing store on Main. The women were quickly led to a corner booth. Soon after, Celia and Jim Winstead arrived, and grabbed the menus to take a look.
It would be weeks, months even, before they knew whether their gamble on the Nickel had paid off.
But May and Trattner seemed serene as they flitted from table to table, greeting friends with tight hugs and carrying out plates of Fong’s freshly baked treats.
As May leaned against a booth, she wiped her brow and smiled.
“Eventually, it’ll be for everybody,” she said. “For now, it’s for the neighborhood.”
Birth of a restaurant
For an audio slideshow on the Nickel Diner, go to latimes.com/nickelcafe.
To see recent Column One articles, visit latimes.com/columnone.