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A Neon Beacon on Sunset Moves On : Business: The chic and creative L.A. Nicola restaurant serves its last meal tonight. Owner Larry Nicola and his family were a neighborhood institution for almost five decades.

August 27, 1992|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SILVER LAKE — For nearly 50 years, the Nicola family has been a presence in the community hub where Fountain Avenue meets Sunset Boulevard.

First it was the identical twins, Mike and Lester, Lebanese-Americans whose Nicola Twins Market offered deli food, fresh bread and gossip, and a first job for many neighborhood kids for 35 years.

A year after the market closed in 1979, Lester's son Larry opened a restaurant across the street.

Almost as soon as it opened, L.A. Nicola became a gathering spot for an eclectic Silver Lake crowd of yuppies, artists, celebrities and regular folks.

Serving up creative food, art and atmosphere, the chic restaurant was a focal point for those who hoped for a revitalization of Sunset Boulevard.

But the revitalization never fulfilled those expectations, and tonight L.A. Nicola will serve its last meals before closing its doors for good. Larry Nicola has opted to open a new restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, where he hopes to find bigger crowds and "a new canvas" for his unique culinary creations.

"The motor is really starting to run down there," said Larry Nicola about the downtown area. "We are thrilled to be a part of it."

Yet the move is clearly bittersweet for the affable restaurateur now ending his family's long-term role in shaping the community's identity.

"It's very emotional," he said.

The Nicola Twins Market had its start in 1944 when Mike Nicola, a Lebanese-American from North Dakota, bought out the produce section of the old McKinley Market. A couple of years later, Mike's twin brother, Lester, bought out the meat section and the brothers changed the market's name.

Nicola wives, children and relatives all worked at the grocery, and Mike and Lester were the fun-loving front men who treated every customer to a free slice of meat or cheese before taking the orders.

"No one walked out of there without a slice of baloney or ham, and people still come in (to the restaurant) and reminisce about sticking their hands into the big pickle barrel," said Larry Nicola.

In an interview Tuesday, Mike Nicola estimated that more than 300 young people from nearby Marshall High School and King Junior High had their first work experience at the grocery--all with bootleg work permits.

"The bureaucracy made it so difficult to get work permits, we said 'to hell with it,' and put the children to work. The parents wanted us to keep them off the street," said Mike Nicola. The family also helped each young employee set up a bank account.

The market was a "magnet for information," said Tom LaBonge, an aide to Councilman John Ferraro. LaBonge said that the market was a favorite spot for all sorts of city employees who knew that they'd "fix you the best sandwiches in the whole wide world."

In the back of the market, the family always kept a big pot of lamb stew or eggs and rice for employees and friends who stopped in for visits, Larry Nicola said.

"The market was a real neighborhood link," Larry Nicola said. "They'd even set you up with a date."

Even as a young boy, Nicola said he knew that he wanted to open a restaurant that would continue his family's tradition of "making people happy and giving them a sense of neighborhood."

By those standards, L.A. Nicola was a smashing success.

"It's a gathering place for a lot of different people," said Sharon Flanagan, a Silver Lake resident. "I'm gonna miss it a lot."

Its minimalist architecture, created by the architecture firm Morphosis, and the rotating art shows created a warm, elegant environment. Although he had no formal culinary training, Nicola developed a vibrant menu with a cuisine he calls "Contemporary American with Ethnic Influences."

"I was really proud to have it in the neighborhood." said Elayne Sawaya, a Silver Lake resident. "When people from the Westside came, we would have a place to take them that was just as slick, hip and cool as any of their slimy restaurants," Sawaya said, in mock derision.

By all accounts, much of the eatery's friendly atmosphere stemmed from Nicola, who went out of his way to schmooze with his guests and make sure they were content.

"He had the biggest heart of anyone I know," Sawaya said.

The decision to leave was not easy. Nicola was asked to develop a restaurant for the new Sanwa Bank building at Wilshire and Figueroa. Initially he declined, but later he changed his mind.

The new restaurant--which will be named simply Nicola's--is due to open early next year and will include a 110-seat dining area as well as a large patio with take-out food.

After 12 years in the same location, Nicola said he wanted a "new canvas" for his cooking experiments.

Nicola also said that he was disappointed that the Sunset corridor never blossomed into a thriving business area, and much of the community feeling has slipped away.

"We kept waiting on this block for something to happen," he said. "I feel like a stranger in my own neighborhood."

In spite of Nicola's disenchantment, another team of restaurateurs is already making plans to take over the space. Joel Kessel, former general manager of the Authentic Cafe, and Kirk Psenner, former maitre d' at Asylum and general manager of California Pizza Kitchen, said they will paint it blue, call it Cobalt Cantina and serve Cal-Mex food. Psenner said the adjoining Martini Lounge will remain open, though its name will change.

Nicola's wife, Melissa, who met him in 1983 while writing an article about restaurants that also show art, noted that business had fallen off about 30% in the last year as a result of the recession.

Still, she said, it has been hard to let go of the old spot.

"It's almost like letting your child go off to college, only you know he's never coming back," she said.

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