Every country has its own favorite place: in France, it's the café, in England it's the pub. Here it's the diner, a place as American as apple pie; in fact, it's where you go for apple pie. For burgers and meatloaf, too. Hot turkey sandwiches, chili con carne, bottomless cups of coffee. Politicians turn up at small-town diners in the heartland to court voters; artists paint all-night diners in big cities to portray loneliness. Much of Seinfeld, and most of Alice, took place in diners. On the Food Channel, the witless Guy Fieri stalks diners with a single-minded intensity normally reserved for sacred sites in the Holy Land.
Skillet Street Food's triumvirate, l to r: founder Josh Henderson, exec chef Nick Novello (with doughnut holes), president Jon Severson
A step back now, with a reminder that Seattle didn't always have food trucks. Not long ago, in fact, established restaurants lobbied heavily against them; their friends at City Hall and inspectors at the Health Department did everything they could to keep them off the streets. But they showed up nonetheless, much the same way ride-share services like Uber and Lyft snuck into town: because their time had come. Among the early favorites were two well-run, meat-centric mobile units, Maximus Minimus (a Kurt Dammeier venture) and Skillet (wielded by Josh Henderson), whose tasty sandwiches involved both beef and bacon. In fact, Skillet became known for a condiment he called Bacon Jam. When he finally opened a brick-and-mortar location on Capitol Hill in 2007, he called it Skillet Diner, and burgers with bacon jam were the centerpiece of the menu.
Others might have been content to leave it at that, but not Henderson. He wasn't going to overlay Skillet Diner with foreign concepts; it would remain a diner, and proudly so. What Henderson did, instead, was start other restaurants under a different umbrella, the Huxley Wallace Collective: Westward, overlooking Lake Union (with a grocery store, Little Gull, attached); Cone & Steiner, a grocery on Capitol Hill with a wine bar; Quality Athletics in Pioneer Square; Hollywood Tavern in Woodinville. But in the meantime, there's also a second Skillet Diner in Ballard, a "counter" at Seattle Center, a food truck in South Lake Union, a big online marketplace and a multifaceted catering operation.
This sort of rapid expansion is beyond the abilities of any one human being; in fact, it demands both structure and discipline. Yes, that raises the dreaded spectre of a "corporate" restaurant, but chains, let's not forget, are not all created equal, and certainly not all bad. We've had the good fortune, in Seattle, to see several talented restaurateurs expand steadily from a single shop to a small empire by sharing responsibility with an assortment of professionals: Tom Douglas with CEO Pamela Hinckley; Ethan Stowell with his wife, Angela; Renée Erickson with business partners Jeremy Price and Chad Dale; Rachel Yang with her husband Seif Chirchi. In the relatively recent past, Mick McHugh and Tim Firnstahl, not to mention Jeremy Hardy and Peter Levy. In Henderson's case, his Skillet Street Food unit had the good fortune to land Jon Severson, who had run food service at the Clink for Compass Group (as president), businessman Chris Petrillo (as CFO), and to bring over from Toulouse Petit and Local 360 a serious convert to the diner concept named Nicolas Novello (as executive chef). Henderson's inspiration remains at the core of what Skillet does today, and though he's one of Skillet's owners, he no longer provides day-to-day input. That's where Nick comes in: it's Nick who guards the flame, keeps the faith, feeds the hungry.
Skillet itself, the Capitol Hill original, at any rate, is self-consciously retro (Mason jars as water glasses, kale Caesar, "deconstructed" hash) yet welcoming. No hipster attitude, not even with smoked quail on the 3-course, $30 Dine Around menu. When Skillet opened, the burger with "bacon jam" was noteworthy because it hadn't been done before; it's no less delicious today but it has become part of Seattle's furniture. Pushing the envelope these days are dishes like cheddar grits, which start with toasted white corn, like a risotto, and get their tang from Crystal hot sauce. Serious Toast starts with brioche soaked in a custard, like an English trifle. The thick-cut, house-made bacon for the BLT comes from pork jowls. And made-to-order doughnut holes (simple cake batter, a little Hawaiian-Polynesian spicing, a little Russian tea-cake texture), rolled in powdered sugar so they turn into hot snowballs, available pretty much anytime, six for $6.
Skillet's cheddar cheese grits with braised pork belly, berry curd dessert, JBLT sandwich, "Serious Toast"
The menu at Skillet is ambitious, with "fancy" flavors but not fancy prices. In fact, the average check here is only half the Seattle average. Of course Skillet gets many more turns than the average dinner house. Coming in December and January: Friday specials of braised meat: goat, lamb, pig, beef.
The place to sit is the counter where you can marvel at the energy of the warriors in the kitchen as they turn out traditional American dishes. This isn't tweezer food, Seattle, it's (just) a diner. It's home.
Skillet Diner, 1400 E. Union, Seattle, 206-512-2001
Additional locations in Ballard and at Seattle Center; the food truck's location varies around South Lake Union.