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A big helping at the Nickel

The upscale diner near 5th and Main draws on downtown residents for financing and staff. Its owners aim to nourish the neighborhood.

September 20, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer
  • Ricardo Tingle peeks into Nickel Diner on its opening day in late August. After a year and a half in the making, the eatery was ready to serve the public. >>> Audio Slideshow
Ricardo Tingle peeks into Nickel Diner on its opening day in late August.… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

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.

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