Personality is an important element of any restaurant. When done well, the interior design and its flourishes perform in concert with the menu. Little Nickel gets this and knows how to do it well.
Designer Dean Giavos, son of prolific restaurateurs Johnny and Katrina Giavos, is a master when it comes to lovingly creating a space that is not bashful about its personality or sense of humor. That includes clever menu jokes, like at Continental and Perly's, and signs like one in Little Nickel's pink bathrooms that warn visitors not to flush Chainsmokers' CDs, fidget spinners or Cleveland Browns jerseys down the toilet.
Little Nickel's name nods to the now Seven-Nickel Bridge and adds to the impressive Giavos restaurant empire with a Tiki-inspired vibe. Chef Loretta Montano, also of Stella's Grocery, crafted a menu that artfully blends a wide range of culinary influences including Philippine, Hawaiian, and Mediterranean with a base of classic diner. It's the kind of place where you expect to hear "Mele Kalikimaka" playing unironically at the holidays. A lot of fusion is happening here, and I recommend avoiding the impulse to analyze it all, lest you miss a good meal from a range of options under the umbrella of "vacation food," in the words of Dean Giavos. Think of the Nickel as a place that has a creative flavor palette and knows how to play well thanks to Montano's imaginative spirit and breadth of experience.
For starters, you can't go wrong with the lumpia ($6), a Philippine spring roll good for date-night splitting. It passed the toughest authenticity test, says chef Loretta Montano, who asked her husband how she fared in recreating a dish she first ate at his family gatherings. Our table also tried the Hawaiian nachos ($11) with pork, which came in an incredibly generous portion, fit to feed either a large happy hour party or the Virginia National Guard. Pineapple, you might have guessed, made these nachos Hawaiian, but the white cheddar and queso made them memorably delicious. If you're feeling adventurous, the pu-pu platters range from General Tso's wings to pineapple skewers.
Pay attention to the sandwich menu. The options are wallet-friendly and include some intentional pairings between breads. The lamb cheese steak ($11) is served on a hoagie roll from local baker Flour Garden. Other sandwiches — like the patty melt club ($10) — are on breads from Lyon Bakery in Washington. The Ipanema ($9), a vegetarian option, was my personal favorite with its melt of Gruyere cheese and lemon aioli with sweet potato, kale and caramelized onion on multigrain.
The beverage menu includes some of the most entertaining glassware I've seen in town. Cocktails ($9-12) like the Saturn, served in a faux coconut shell, are easy to savor with a heavier container. Bail Money and Naval Base Baby also have great flavor profiles. The Winterspice Painkiller ($12) reigns over the menu in price and comes in an imposing dark Tiki glass. For my taste, it was a tad strong and a hint medicinal, but I can understand the appeal for folks who prefer a spice-forward libation, especially on a cold night. And it's executed well in the true Tiki tradition of house-made syrups.
As for main courses, the salmon l'orange ($15), one of several gluten-free options, was sumptuous, prepared with an orange-honey-ginger glaze. The dish felt slightly shortchanged, coming with only a bed of rice. Adding a green vegetable would have rounded it out nicely. The Hawaiian pork bowl ($13) is a reprise of most of the great cast members from the nachos, but substitutes coconut black beans for the chips. It was equally as good and can easily make a second meal with leftovers.
Build-your-own lamb shank tacos ($16) come with the lamb shank ready to carve, and there's also a whole fish option. The tacos were delicious, but know that some assembly is required, in case that's a deal breaker.
Your visit should definitely end with a slice of the coconut cream pie ($6), a perfect combination of light, airy and sweet. This particular pie, along with the other dessert options, is exclusive to Little Nickel, and it's worth the trip.
A few more exciting things are in the offing at Little Nickel, including the debut of a brunch menu on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Chef Loretta Montano also wants to hold occasional special events like roasting a whole pig, luau style. And plans are afoot to add outdoor seating.
What's also cool to see is when a lengthy wait time during the gold rush at Little Nickel pays dividends for O'Toole's, an old staple of the neighborhood. A rising tide does lift all boats.
"We actually enjoy seeing that," says co-owner Katrina Giavos. "Anytime we've opened up a place, we believe it's important to support the neighborhood. The more that opened up, the more people came and that's good for everyone."
Little Nickel's personality stands out, but the menu's variety is equally impressive. It's a great neighborhood spot, and Little Nickel might be just the change Forest Hill needs to lure more people across the bridge to experience South Side. S
Mondays – Saturdays , 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
4702 Forest Hill Ave.