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For 117 years, the Woolworth Corporation operated one-stop shops that came to be known as “five-and-dimes”: a single source for pancakes, cosmetics, housewares, and hardware alike. It wasn’t until 1997 that the corporation shuttered its four hundred remaining locations, and in the past twenty years no institution has been both large and delicate enough to replicate Woolworth’s iconic stores. This past October, Nickel & Diner opened on Chinatown’s Howard Street in homage to the classic Woolworth counter, skipping the extras (no sandpaper for sale) and focusing on the food.
Though Nickel & Diner does not attempt to achieve the sheer variety of commodities on sale at the original five-and-dimes (even as the idea of the general store seems to be in fashion again, springing up in rejuvenated incarnations everywhere from Brooklyn to Bovina), the Dutch East Design firm brought on to create the space did faithfully mimic the 1950s–1960s American Lunch design aesthetic. Instead of simply piping in doo-wop music (the restaurant is in fact sweetly quiet), they’ve installed pleasing, perfectly spherical lightbulbs at each booth; spotlit their cute round barstools; embraced the clean surfaces of chrome, tile, and wood; and kept the color scheme simple at white, black, and blue-green.
The particular seafoam shade used for the booth upholstery may be a reference to the “seafoam salad,” a special at the original Woolworth stores: lime Jell-O, pears, cherries, and cream cheese. At Nickel & Diner there is, somewhat surprisingly, no cream cheese on the menu. The design is pure 1960, but the food is entirely 2017: We’ve got lox, but it’s served with “farm spinach and citrus hollandaise”; the outstanding buttermilk pancakes are treated only with “macadamia nuts, orange zest, sea salt”; the morning yogurt is Greek (more protein, less slimy); the french fries are dusted with rosemary; the BLT features an heirloom tomato; and the once merely orange side of mac ‘n’ cheese now comes loaded with gruyère, panko crumbs, and brightening jalapeño.
Nostalgia for a simpler, pre-organic time could easily cast this experience as overwrought or precious. But here chef James Friedburg (previously of the fine and farmy West Village restaurant Blenheim) asserts himself, trusts his talent, and saves the day: The food is beautiful, ambitiously delicious, and makes the best use of each modern contrivance. A Kale Cashew Bowl may not sound like breakfast, but after two bites you’ll be wildly grateful for the care and invention behind this dish: a gooey and perfectly poached egg spills onto a warm heap of chopped sweet potato, avocado, beans, asparagus, kale, cashews, and general unidentifiable hearty warmth. It’s just a marvel.
If you prefer more recognizable dishes, you can order your eggs served Benedict-style over English muffins, in a cheesy and rapturous bacon-egg sandwich ($8) on a poppy-seed kaiser roll, on fluffy toast with onions and peppers, or as an omelette. The bacon is normal and excellent. At lunch, a basic chicken soup is encouraged by a bit of ginger and dill; the salads are as big and tasty as the sandwiches. A complete dinner menu offers serious protein: Short rib, roasted chicken, pork chop, and rib eye are served from 6 to 10 p.m. (Unfortunately the restaurant is still awaiting its liquor license approval, so you can’t wash down your meat with a cocktail.)
That said, you might reasonably question the decision to spend $38 on a dry-aged rib eye for dinner at a diner. It’s not entirely clear yet what Nickel & Diner wants to be: fine dining dressed down, diner food dressed up, old fashioned, new fashioned, or all of the above. The space (formerly a hundred-seat Chinese buffet) is unusually large and would be more in keeping with L.A.’s proportions than NYC’s. The columns lining the building’s exterior are still a primary, Chinatown red, while the tabletops inside are painted over with sleek black-and-white geometric designs. One isn’t entirely sure where one is. But whether you opt for the plain burger or the roasted maitake mushrooms with ratatouille and “fine herbs garlic butter,” you’ll get a plate of great food. And I think it’s acceptable to appreciate that fact as simply as possible, to quiet down the questions and eat up.
Nickel & Diner
1 Howard Street