Nickel Diner, Iconic Downtown LA Breakfast Spot, Closes After 15 Years
The beloved Skid Row-adjacent diner served the best breakfast in Downtown LA, but it may not be gone for good.
It’s unclear whether they actually invented the Maple Bacon Donut at Nickel Diner, but when owners Kristen Trattner and Monica May opened the restaurant in 2008, they just about perfected the form. It’s impossible to capture the joy that donut brings better than Jonathan Gold did in June of 2009 when he wrote, “And then the person sitting across from you does bite into one, and you have seen this look of bliss before: wood smoke melting into tree essence; pig fat into cooking oil; yeast into sugar, time into the smoky void. The doughnuts are warmed to just below blood heat, so that the glaze is still slightly runny, the bacon is still pliable, and the structure of the doughnut itself is plumped a bit — they’re not just greater than the sum of their parts, it is as if the parts themselves barely exist.”
But it’s not just about the donut; it’s what the donut represents—a playful take on comfort food, a menu that is at once creative and familiar, and the kind of restaurant that makes you feel like a regular from day one. For the last 15 years, Nickel Diner provided all that and more, a sturdy harbor in a stretch of Downtown that shifted around them in heaving waves. It has always been a warm space, overtly generous even (especially) to the more demanding customers. But this week, the doors closed for the last time.
Trattner and May cite the rising cost of doing business as an important reason behind the closure—egg prices, in particular, have gone insane, which is a real hardship for a classic diner with a menu devoted to hearty breakfast and baked goods. The LA restaurant scene didn’t help, as it is notoriously fickle, prioritizing new hotness over restaurants of a certain age. And then there’s the downtown milieu.
The pandemic was brutal for most, with a roller coaster of information and regulations, loans and grants, spikes and waves, and peaks. But it was especially difficult on businesses downtown, which relied on office workers who left in March of 2020 and never came back. Three years later, it’s still much quieter than it was in office buildings, residential buildings, and restaurants too. A walk down Main Street near Nickel Diner reveals vacant storefronts up and down, empty husks that were once bustling bars, and tons of overpriced parking lots with only a handful of cars scattered around each one.
Ironically, this stretch of downtown looks less like it did in 2019 and more like it did in 2008 when Nickel Diner opened in the middle of the Great Recession. Downtown was in an odd place then, with fewer restaurants and a little bit seedier of a reputation than it has now. The location at 5th and Main is just around the corner from Skid Row, and the restaurant that was in the space before had a reputation for selling some off-menu less-than-legal specials, if you knew how to ask.
A good diner serves many functions; it’s a spot to shoot the shit over bottomless cups of black coffee, an excellent choice to wolf down a club sandwich with coworkers when you can get out of the office for lunch, and a fine place to sit silently and make full use of the purpose-built Hangover Helper breakfast. Nickel Diner was all that and more, and over the past 15 years, Trattner and May built a real community in the space. They were an anchor for Skid Row, a pillar of the downtown queer landscape, and beloved by almost anyone who walked in the door.
That community was out in full force at the end. There were crowds gathered on the sidewalk on Main from morning until closing, groups of regulars who sort of knew each other finally making official introductions, sharing favorite dishes and memories, and taking lots and lots of pictures.
A teenager sits by himself at a two-top along the wall. Somehow he has stumbled in here for the first time, maybe drawn by the crowd or perhaps just pulled in by the smell of burgers that floats out onto the street. He deliberates over the menu for a long time, pondering breakfast versus lunch, eggs versus pancakes. The older couple next to him senses his indecision, kindly leans over and suggests the Blueberry Pancakes. They arrive, in a big pile with rivulets of indigo compote running down the sides, and he smiles broadly. In another world, he would be a new regular. Instead, he’ll have a single fond memory.
But Nickel Diner will live on—in spirit if not corporeal form. May and Trattner say they plan to focus on feeding LA’s food insecure, bringing hot meals to the people who need them most. On their last weekend in business, Mayor Karen Bass even stopped by to discuss meals for Skid Row residents. The brick-and-mortar Nickel Diner may be a thing of the past, but who knows what the future holds.