If you want to see how the neighborhood is changing, look no further than the intersection of Howard and Centre streets, just down the block from the Museum of Chinese in America. In the past couple of weeks, a casual restaurant with big ambitions debuted in a conspicuous corner location, replacing a $5 Chinese buffet. The new spot, Nickel & Diner, officially opens on Wednesday for breakfast, lunch and dinner after a few days in soft-open mode during daytime hours.
The other day we stopped by the fashionable, Art Deco-inspired diner to talk with Ivy Tsang. She is part of the management team for the restaurant, along with Selwyn Chan and Jonathan Chu. Over the summer, the team opened a smaller venture, Chikarashi, a Japanese-style poké concept, on Canal Street. Jonathan Chu’s family is now finishing construction on the 22-story Joie de Vivre Hotel at 50 Bowery.
Nickel & Diner draws inspiration from the old five and dime lunch counters, but it’s definitely not your grandfather’s diner. The chef, James Friedberg, is classically trained and has worked at places like Le Cirque and Aureole. On the menu, you’ll find diner classics like burgers, pancakes and fried chicken. But Friedberg has given almost every dish an unconventional twist. That egg sandwich is topped with basil vinaigrette. The fried chicken is dusted with chili sauce and crusted with cashews. The chicken soup features ricotta dumplings and a hint of ginger.
The location of the restaurant is hard to define. It’s at the crossroads of Chinatown, Little Italy and Soho, and draws customers from all three neighborhoods. During our visit, Tsang explained the thinking behind Nickel & Diner. “Jonathan had a vision to bring something to this corner,” said Tsang. “The $5 Chinese buffet wasn’t bringing a lot of traffic in this area. He wanted to bring in something a little bit more modern that celebrates the ingredients from this neighborhood, but (that also attracts) a completely different audience to this location.”
The idea for the new venture started with a single dish, a classic slider Selwyn Chan successfully tested out during two pop-ups in San Francisco. The menu began to take shape from there. Tsang explained, “We always wanted to open a diner around this area because it’s the food we want to eat.”
The area has been undergoing significant change for some time. Aby Rosen’s hotel, 11 Howard, opened earlier this year. The restaurant within the hotel, La Coucou, is one of the more talked about new spots in Lower Manhattan.
In the past, Jonathan Chu has told us he hopes Chinatown will experience a renaissance in the years to come and that people won’t be too afraid of change. The Nickel & Diner team is well aware that some people will see their efforts as another sign of gentrification (Chu is a third generation Chinese American with deep Chinatown roots). Tsang talked about a new vision for the neighborhood.
“Our goal,” she said, “is to really bring our generation back into Chinatown, where we celebrate Chinese American history, but at the same time embrace what’s new.” She added, “We just have to embrace this new part of Chinatown.”
Nickel & Diner, located at 1 Howard St., is now open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Starting Wednesday, the restaurant will serve dinner until 10 p.m. In addition to sit-down service, there’s a coffee bar featuring Nobletree Coffee. A liquor license is in-the-works.