Three Square Meals at Skillet
Seattle's New Favorite Diner: The History, the Upholstery, and a Review
Skillet has come a long way. It started in an Airstream trailer in 2007—real, good food on wheels, the first non-hot-dog cart Seattle had seen in possibly forever. People fell in love with "the burger" (and its savory bacon jam), with the poutine (new and exciting!), with the Cornhole beanbag-toss you could play while waiting for your food in an industrial alley where, now, big buildings are full of Amazon workers.
Back then, Skillet was Josh Henderson and Danny Sizemore—Danny was the one with the balming Kentucky accent. They got shut down by the health department more than once ("stupid health-department shit," Josh said in 2009), and the trailer broke down, and once they reported it stolen then realized they'd just parked it in a tow-away zone ("ummmmmmm... it was impounded... josh felt dumb... end of story..." said their e-mail).
Four years later, Danny has moved on, bacon jam has been both Martha Stewarted and QVC'd, the Airstream continues to roll around town, and the new Skillet Diner is doing a roaring business on the corner of 14th and Union on Capitol Hill. Now you may park your behind and enjoy the fruits of Skillet from seven in the morning until midnight—and until 2:00 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays—with breakfast served all damn day.
One room has skillets on the wall and jars of pickled things on a ledge; otherwise it's clean lines, cushy counter seating (with backs on the stools), a row of coveted booths, and big windows all around. The vinyl upholstery is cream-of-avocado, a color that's almost institutional yet completely pleasing. The few conceits: The waitstaff all wear plaid shirts; the menus are printed like placemats (though, sadly, they take them away from you rather than setting your food on them); your napkin's a striped dishtowel, which comes wrapped around your cutlery and stuffed in a Kerr jar, which is your water glass. Craft cocktails come in jars, too, and there's an admirable beer list; the house wine's on tap, from Proletariat (and arguably rougher to drink than some other, equally cheap options would be). The bar and kitchen are unwalled at the center of it all, and it looks very much like a new-century diner should.
I'm not on board with the street-food backlash (if you haven't heard about this, you're at the correct level of awareness of food trends—stay there), but I will say that one day at the Skillet trailer this spring, it was half-raining and chilly and gusty, and people were huddled waiting under a four-legged awning set up in front of the Airstream, and the awning was attempting to become airborne such that the shivering customers felt they had to hold it down with their cold hands, and the food took a long time, and by the time I got somewhere warm, my fries were all wrong. There's a time and a place for street food—maybe even in Seattle—but an upholstered booth is always in season.
Breakfasts at Skillet are lumberjack-sized—the size of an actual lumberjack. (Hint: For split orders, they bring two separate plates all served up, at no extra charge.) Each griddle cake contains the goodness and volume of an entire short stack elsewhere; they are at least an inch-and-a-half high (approximately the size of an entire English muffin), dense but not dry, all sweet-cream goodness, and you get four of them ($8). Mine weren't quite hot enough to keep their big ball of butter melting, and one was a little gummy in the middle, but given the cinnamon peach compote, I didn't much care, and didn't even use syrup. The "barry" (Barry? The menu cares not for capital letters) sandwich ($9) is configured on an enormous biscuit (the drier, crumblier, and substantive rather than light-and-layery kind), with house-made guanciale playing the role of bacon, two eggs, and the welcome glueyness of good ol' American cheese. It came with baby greens, which were underdressed, but if you're eating this, you're not too worried about salad anyway. The only real letdown was the "spiced morning taters," aka home fries ($5), which were not especially spiced and somewhat desiccated (with a tough piece of fennel root, too). However, the caramelized grapefruit ($5) will make you forget all your problems: It is candy-brûléed on top, which turns out to be what grapefruit never knew it needed.
In additional reporting on breakfast, I've heard that the scramble with snap peas, goat cheese, and chanterelles (which changes daily and is served on top of presumably gigantic brioche toast, $9) was outstanding. The weekends-only cinnamon roll ($4) is said to be equally efficacious while drunk at night or hungover in the morning. And the strawberry-thyme fresca (also changes daily, $3) and Fonte coffee ($2) have also earned honorable mentions, and both are bottomless.
If you can still think about food (and if you're not already on your way to Skillet Diner), a few words about lunch. The hand-cut fries are of the dark and crispy variety, but still tender-potatoey inside (except the little ones, which are just all crispiness; little fries are the best fries). They are hot and delicious, and you'll get approximately four large potatoes' worth alongside the burger ($14)—Painted Hills beef that's ground finer than some for a soft, toothsome texture. Mine was cooked perfectly medium rare, with the justly famous bacon jam adding flavor without the pulling-out-of-the-burger strip-of-bacon fuss. There's also arugula and blue cheese, all on a Macrina roll; it's big but not sloppy-huge. In a city with many, many more fancy-burger options than there were in '07, the burger remains at the top of the heap.
"the ultimate grilled cheese" (their quote marks) is Brie, cheddar, and American on Texas- toast-style brioche ($9, add $2 [!] for bacon jam). Either you will want to live in the bosom of this sandwich forever (probably because your mother never loved you enough—no one should need their food this comforting), or you will find the Brie/American thing a bit too viscous, with the rind of the Brie adding a musty note, and you will be vividly nostalgic for the flatter, un-updated diner version.
Elsewise at lunch, be warned that the "fried chicken sammy" (what is so wrong with the word "sandwich"? $12) has a highly fennel-seeded crust (it's on the menu, but it should be in bold); the chicken salad ($11) probably doesn't stint on the tarragon, either. In the tempting-but-frightening category: grilled peanut butter and jelly with banana ($7).
If everything at Skillet is good, dinner is great—except for fried chicken with "honey drizzle." Maybe some people like their fried chicken sweet, but the sight of the golden, greaseless, crispy crust made me hope anew for salty-savory joy with each bite, only to be disappointed again. The chicken-fried rabbit loin in a rabbit duo—with braised leg, on a bed of tender "BBQ beans" with house-made chorizo ($18)—was everything I wanted the fried chicken to be and then some, and dots of cherry chermoula took the rabbit duo from upscale-backyard to fantastic. In-season Washington cherries also showed up pickled in a green peach slaw heaped down the middle of a sautéed rainbow trout ($16), to practically spectacular effect—the slaw was like a green papaya salad, with plenty of acid and fresh herbs, and it was exactly right with the mild fish.
The "macaroni and cheese" (their quotes; $14) has changed since I tried it, but the pesto one Skillet Diner's serving now sounds grand. I've also heard the Salisbury steak ($19) and chicken potpie ($12) are excellent. If the prices at dinner seem high for the contemporary-cafeteria setting, the portions are gargantuan throughout. I only made it to dessert once—banana bread pudding with calvados caramel, whipped cream, and brûléed banana ($6), which was exemplary. And big.
Service at Skillet Diner can be squirrelly—they'll bring you the wrong wine, or fill your entire table with three dishes followed by one lonely one afterward, or give a monologue about how they always want to box up their own leftovers when they're out—it just freaks them out to have the server do it—before they take away your leftovers to box them up for you. But they'll immediately bring you the right wine, they'll take that lonely dish off your bill, and their chatter will be weird but winning.
The music at Skillet Diner can be a Pandora odyssey through a loud Auto-Tune nightmare—Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Britney Spears, Usher featuring Pitbull doing "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love" (not so much). The time it was all Guns N' Roses was, comparatively, awesome.
And, lastly, a note to the management: When I saw that server who knew me, my wait for a table went from 40 minutes to 6, then I got glared at by everyone around me when my food came before theirs—well, I would've been happy to wait. And a last note to you: Ask nicely for where you want to sit, or you're liable to get shunted to the counter even if you're not alone. The booths are worth asking extra nicely for.