Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nick's Cafe

Nick's Cafe (C)2011 Glenn Primm Photo
Terence Lyons is a journalist friend who writes me occasionally to fill me in on Los Angeles treasures that he runs across in his wanderings around Los Angeles. Recently he wrote me about Nick's Cafe, an LA landmark that has been operating in the same location just north of downtown LA since almost forever.

This morning I had breakfast at Nick’s Café on North Spring Street just past Chinatown, on the way to the Spring Street bridge over the L.A. River, across the street from what used to be the rail yards, was then briefly Lauren Bon’s Not a Cornfield artwork, and is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park.

Nick’s (“since 1948”) is two dozen stools bolted to the floor around a horseshoe formica counter, with a “CASH ONLY” sign over the almost-antique inoperable cash register in the middle. The walls are jammed with menu boards, old photos, maps, collections of sleeve patches and lapel pins, a couple of paintings of the place from different eras, and newspaper awards (BEST VINTAGE EATS IN DOWNTOWN). My favorite is the 2004 award from the Los Angeles Downtown News naming Nick’s Café as "Best Place to Watch Cops and Artists Mingle."

There is a model railroad track that runs around all four walls just below the ceiling, although I’ve never seen a model train running. To use the restroom, you have to go outdoors and around the back (and then inhale to squeeze between the open door and the washbasin to get inside).

This morning the place was busy – only a couple of empty stools when I walked in shortly after 10, following a morning meeting in the MacArthur Park area and then a ride to the nearby Chinatown Gold Line station. As I sipped my coffee, a fellow standing behind me hit me up for a handout so he could “get a cup of coffee down the street,” nodding toward the river. That’s what I get for being the only one in Nick’s wearing a tie; but I knew there was no place “down the street” to get a cup of coffee.

When the waitress brought my SoCal Scramble (eggs with grilled onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos, avocado), she automatically set down two napkins (one for the lap, one for the moustache, just right) and pulled over a ketchup bottle and a carafe of homemade chipotle sauce. You have to love the place.

She said the first 90 minutes of her shift (they open at 5:30) had been hectic with City workers and sheriffs, some on their way to work and others just getting off. (The water and power department yards are nearby, as is the county jail.) After a quiet hour, she said, it got busy again around 8:00, and it was only beginning to calm a bit as I was leaving. But the lunch crowd was only an hour away.