There's a distinct look, taste, and feel to the classic American diner experience, trademarked by oversized "all day" menus of comfort foods, hand-spun milkshakes, retro slide-in booths, and of course, the ubiquitous aroma of both coffee and griddle grease. At the intersection of Chinatown, Soho, and Little Italy, Nickel & Diner evokes that old-school diner nostalgia while paying homage to the melting pot of cultures it's embedded in. Once home to a $4.99 Chinese lunch buffet, Nickel & Diner is now a sleek, Art Deco-inspired space serving a menu of diner classics with an elevated, Michelin-level twist using fresh, local ingredients. This week, we chatted with husband-and-wife team Jonathan Chu and Ivy Tsang (co-partners of the restaurant, along with Selwyn Chan) to learn more about the inspiration behind Nickel & Diner's cuisine, aesthetic, and mission to bring elevated hospitality to an iconic location.
What inspired you to do a spin on the classic diner?
I: About four years ago, we started throwing dinner parties at our friend and partner Selwyn Chan’s home. He’s excellent at cooking comfort foods, and these dinner parties became a bi-weekly ritual for our group of friends. So the diner concept came from that – we wanted to bring people and friends together, and bring Sel’s cuisine to life, but we didn’t want to do straightforward diner food. We wanted to deliver upscale diner-inspired cuisine – essentially, comfort foods “done right”. We met our chef (James Friedberg) through a friend, and after trying some of his creations, we thought he’d be the perfect person to execute the concept of elevated diner food. He's classically trained with a fine dining background, having worked at Aureole, Le Cirque, and Blenheim. In addition to the menu, the whole diner-inspired restaurant came to life with the interior as well, as we wanted to build a space that would feel comfortable and inviting to the community.
J: It’s been a really collaborative effort as a team to bring this idea to life, especially because we all have such unique backgrounds. Sel comes from high-end luxury retail, Ivy is the creative and marketing aspect, and I’m on the real estate and finance side. So we all apply our skill sets that we’ve individually developed over 10+ years, and we mesh well – it reflects what actually happens at this location, in terms of the meshing of a lot of cultures.
Tell us more about why you chose the location of Nickel & Diner.
J: The intersection at Centre and Howard Street has always been an iconic location where you see a convergence of multiple neighborhoods on a single corner. We saw this as a unique opportunity to revitalize what was once a $4.99 Chinese buffet that served a niche of the neighborhood, and create a more inviting and welcoming spot to attract more people to Chinatown. My family has been in Chinatown for three generations now. We’ve seen how the neighborhood has evolved, and I saw that this was a central location where we could introduce quality hospitality, freshness and cleanliness while being inclusive. Our initial feedback from the neighborhood has been great. The local residents have been like, “Oh my god, where have you been?! We’re so glad to have you in the neighborhood!”. We’re still waiting on our liquor license to go through in Albany but we’ve had overwhelming support from the neighborhood. We’re also working on a sidewalk license so we can be pet-friendly – we’re constantly thinking about how we can make this a more inviting, neighborhood-friendly location.
How would you describe the dining experience here?
J: Although the inspiration is the five-and-dime lunch counters back in the day, it’s not your typical diner experience. You come in here, and it’s supposed to be casual, but what you get is Michelin-starred excellence in terms of preparation, ingredients, and the overall end product. Getting quality food doesn’t have to mean sitting through a stuffy, tableclothed three hour meal. You can come in here and order something light, or you can opt for the dry-aged steak at dinner and it’s as good as any other steak in the city, just at a fraction of what the other places are charging for the white tablecloth experience.
What inspired the design of the space and details in the décor?
I: Very early on, Selwyn worked on the aesthetic with his friend and AvroKO design director Andrew Lieberman. They laid the framework and then they introduced us to Dutch East Design, which is a firm founded by a few ex-AvroKO alums. The whole process took about a year to build the space out. In terms of the actual design, we were heavily inspired by the Art Deco period, which you see in all the contrasting, clean, black and white lines. We wanted the interior to work well with the exterior of this beautiful, Chinese pagoda-style building. Chinese design is very similar to Art Deco in that it uses a lot of minimalistic lines and patterns. We integrated those very contrasting black and white lines into the aesthetic of everything – from the wallpaper to the brand collateral. I designed the collateral – all the little pieces that make up the brand identity of the restaurant, like the menus down to the cups. For the tables, we thought carefully about how to use the Art Deco lines on the surface and how people would photograph the food. I’ve seen a lot of people arrange our plates based on the lines on the table and take aerial photographs of their food. The photography has been a great means of publicity for Nickel & Diner, like when influencers come in and post photos of the space and tables on Instagram.
We love your plateware aesthetic. What was the process of sourcing your plates?
I: It was a collaborative effort between Chef James, Sel, and I. Sel sourced a company from Japan for our plates, and our teacups came from right around the corner, in Chinatown. This is our second food and beverage concept within the last year, so we’re familiar with a lot of restaurant supply locations in the neighborhood. It’s really nice to source locally and help the local businesses out.
Is the menu a collaborative effort?
J: Chef James is the visionary for a reason, so he’ll present us with a dish and we go through various rounds of tastings. Sel, Ivy and I have all eaten a lot of meals together over the last couple of years and we know how to tweak things.
I: Our chef knows that our mission is to execute elevated comfort foods that are reminiscent of diner-inspired cuisine, so he always starts with that idea to put together a few items for us to try. We taste everything and it’s very collaborative – we brainstorm about what can be tweaked and how we can make it better. We reassess it over and over to make sure that it represents the root of our concept. That’s really our process of putting together a dish on the menu.
How else do you elevate the traditional diner menu?
J: Our chef is very mindful of incorporating ingredients from surrounding neighborhoods – we source locally whenever we can. The cheese we use in the ricotta dumplings is very evocative of Little Italy, which is right near us.
I: We don't have that large menu that you'd typically see at a diner. To accommodate so many menu options, a lot of ingredients would need to be frozen. That’s why our menu is focused and curated, so that we use only fresh ingredients. We order things daily and nothing is ever frozen. Chef James is always experimenting with seasonal items and ingredients and refining the menu all the time. Even our dessert menu has a fine dining touch to it – our pastry chef makes all the pastries and ice cream in-house.
Are there any signature dishes or personal favorites on the menu?
I: When we did those dinner parties at Selwyn’s, he was excellent at making sliders – there’s just something really addictive about them. He uses old school techniques to make sliders with griddled onions, and they’ve made their way to the menu here as the “Nickel Slider”. A lot of people also love the chicken soup, which was featured on Tasting Table. It really embodies the concept of Nickel & Diner, in terms of taking an old school diner item like chicken soup, and then elevating it. Chef uses ginger from the neighborhood to add a kick to the broth, and he does his own spin on matzoh balls by making ricotta-filled dumplings.
J: I personally like the Eggs Benedict. It’s pretty much what I have every other day. Again, it’s very accessible comfort-based food that you can still feel good about. We’re not giving you Oscar Meyer ham – you get fine cuts of pork with those eggs.
In what ways do you culivate your own culinary lifestyles?
J: We source all of our ingredients for our homecooked meals locally in this neighborhood, with the exception of sometimes using a butcher uptown or in West Village.
I: A lot of people don’t know that there are street markets in Chinatown that sell a ton of fresh fruits and vegetables at really reasonable prices because they don’t have to pay for overhead. I’d encourage people to shop there. The seafood in Chinatown is great too. One of Jon’s favorite meals that I make is a Chinese steamed fish, and I always go to the seafood market on Mott Street – they always have freshly caught fish.
J: There’s so much to draw from locally, it’s just about finding operators and chefs and a team that are willing to take the time and put a little extra care and love into what they offer. We hope that our hospitality concepts will sort of set a trend and that others will start to try to elevate their offerings as well.
Kitchen Snapshot - Ivy Tsang and Jonathan Chu
Go-to homemade meal: we like to make a gourmet Chinese hotpot in the winter and grill rib-eye steaks in our Big Green Egg in the summer.
Culinary quirk: we always have Napa cabbage in the fridge – we use it for hotpot or we’ll eat it boiled/steamed with a little soy sauce as dressing. Other times we’ll eat it with quickly seared shabu shabu slices of beef.
Kitchen tool we can’t live without: a blender for smoothies. Jon doesn’t cook at all so he doesn’t use any of our tools!
We never use: a meat thermometer. I (Ivy) always grill steaks by feel.