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May 31, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Skillet Diner: lovestruck on Capitol Hill

I’ve found my dream diner. It sits on the corner of 14th and East Union, stocks its branded jars of Bacon Jam (if you’re lucky and they haven’t run out), and if the place were any friendlier it would have gotten up and kissed me.

When I walked in, a big guy with a miniature version of a Snidely Whiplash mustache smiled and called me “love.” Then, a darling waitress with strawberry blond hair and matching freckles showed me some love, filling my mug with strong coffee while I sat at the counter perusing the place-mat menu.

Seated at my elbow in view of an open kitchen, a fellow polished off his cornmeal waffle with pork belly and fried egg while I bit my lip trying to decide between that — or the mile-high stack of griddlecakes with rhubarb compote being ferried to a nearby booth. Kim, the feisty floor manager from Kent, insisted I’d made the right decision when I opted for the deconstructed corned beef hash with eggs.

“Why is this so good?” I swooned, as I lit into the best version of that diner staple I’d ever eaten, polishing off the caramelized carrots and fennel and one last bite of fingerling potato dripping with egg yolk. “Because it’s made with love,” he insisted.

Corned beef hash with eggs: Just like they serve at the diners I grew up with. Not.

Hot damn! It’s a regular love-fest here at Skillet Diner, the sit-down version of Skillet Street Food. That Airstream trailer has been leading Seattle’s slow-to-go street-food revolution, plying its trade as a bistro-on-wheels since 2007. This bricks-and-mortar ode to culinary Americana opened its doors May 18 in the Chloe apartment complex straddling Capitol Hill and the Central District, and it’s been hopping ever since.

Expect to wait for a seat: I’m apparently not the only one who’s lovestruck by this modern take on the old-fashioned American diner. [Seattle Times/Ken Lambert]

Running the joint for Skillet’s founder Josh Henderson is the diner’s head honcho: chef and GM Brian O’Connor — the man behind the mustache. He loves his job, and it shows. Here’s what he has to say about it:

Chef and GM Brian O’Connor says, “Welcome to Skillet!”

Q: I see you’re offering breakfast daily from 7 a.m. till right about the time Cinderella’s coach turns into a pumpkin. And while you’re pouring expensive scotch to go with dinnertime offerings like “Salisbury steak” (a rib-eye), you’re also hawking “cheap beer du jour” to swill with poutine — and Skillet’s famous grass-fed burger. What’s the diner’s biggest seller, so far?

A: The fried chicken-salad sammy. It’s chicken thigh, brined, buttermilk-floured and fried, with pickled and charred jalapeno, and lemon aioli on a Macrina roll.

Q: Speaking of chicken, I noticed your monthly changing menu features chicken potpie, a diner classic, but also rabbit from Washington farmer Bernie Nash’s Mad Hatcher Farm. Wabbit at a diner? What’s up, Doc?

A: We’re serving some of the best meat products you can use. The rabbit is a grilled loin with a braised leg. It’s one of my favorite things to eat. Rabbit is simple to prepare, but people don’t do it justice, and though it may be unexpected at a diner, I’ve been working fine dining for 17 years (most recently at Blueacre Seafood) and it’s hard for me to get away from that. But here I’m elevating the quality of diner food — from burgers to rabbit — and that’s pretty awesome.

Elevated? He’s got that right. Here’s a stack of griddle cakes, looking good with some fresh rhubarb compote. [Seattle Times/Ken Lambert]

Q: I’ll say. Hey, I didn’t see a wine list? Why’s that?

A: We’ve got four wines on tap: keg wines from Proletariat Wine Company, blends of great juices from vineyards around Walla Walla: No bottle. No cork. No label. The kegs are stainless-steel, and the wine sees no air, it goes straight to the glass, or we’ll fill a bottle and put it on the table.

Q: I think music helps make — or break — a restaurant. From the sound of things, Skillet’s got my number. Who’s in charge of the playlist?

A: It’s randomly done through our iPod, and the music depends on the mood. Sometimes I’m feeling all ’50s diner and play James Brown funk or Elvis Presley. By midday I’m more of a classic-rock guy, and we listen to the Doors, Clapton, AC/DC. We have speakers running though the kitchen, and that’s essential. There’s something about dancing and singing while you’re cooking — and I do that. I like being in an environment where I’m having a good time.

Q: I know folks are welcome to stop by for a quick bite or a dessert (I’m coming back for banana cream pie). But this place is already so slammed it’s not uncommon to see an hourlong wait. Any tips for my readers who don’t care to cool their heels?

A: We’ve gained a lot of street cred from our truck followers, and we’ve had a great response from our neighbors. Being busy is a good problem to have. I’d suggest coming in between 9 and 11 a.m., or from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

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