Seeing the lines waiting to get in at Skillet Diner, you would think that the image of Jesus had appeared in one of their biscuits. And the way the local press and populace gush praise upon the place, you would think that they had developed the cure for cancer. Given the hype and the fact that the concept began in a food trailer (and I love street food), I was, of course, eager to try this place. The aforementioned lines were a barrier for a while, because I do not usually plan ahead enough for meals to leave time for long waits before I start consuming whatever semi-edible things I can find lying around. One magical afternoon, I was driving down Union, contemplating a snack, when I drove past Skillet. There was nobody waiting outside. After the required double-take, the car screeched to halt and I pulled over. The errands could wait, but would this place live up to the hype?
The stakes were high...
The interior is nice. Traditional diner touches like a counter with vinyl upholstered stools and booths by the window, are modernized with new urban touches such as lofty ceilings and an open kitchen. If you have been to the Waffle House chain in the south, you have seen a diner with an open kitchen, but this one is way more upscale and modern. We ordered a burger, since that seems to be one of their specialties, each made with local painted hills beef. We ordered the one called “the burger,” topped with bacon jam, arugula, and creamy blue cheese. Sounded amazing. Bacon, blue cheese and arugula are some of my favorite things. It was good, but did not blow me away as much as I expected. The fries were hand cut and fresh. It was a great burger and fries, but my problem was that it cost $14.00. I thought maybe the owners went crazy with the buildout and needed to repay it. Or maybe they just thought that they needed to raise the prices over the food trailer that started it all, to cover the costs of a full service restaurant, but then I found out that the truck charged the same prices. There are plenty of restaurants in town selling burgers that are as good or better which cost far less, and many of them use painted hills beef. The bacon jam was great, but it only costs $2.00 to add to another dish, so it could not justify the price. The veggie burger is $12.00. I just don’t get it, but more power to them if they can get away with it. I just decided I would not be one of those people standing in line.
Some time later, my friend Travis came into town from Atlanta on a business trip. He went to Skillet on his own for breakfast one morning, and posted his pictures and accolades on Facebook. He was clearly having foodgasms all over the place, because he was back a day or two later. Travis seems to know his food, so maybe I had missed something. As luck would have it, the next weekend Steve and Imelda were visiting from Chicago. We needed a place to eat breakfast Saturday morning to give us energy for a hike. I thought if we went early, there would not be too much of a line. I was right and we got right in.
We started with the caramelized grapefruit and cinnamon roll. Travis had talked both of these items up. The cinnamon roll is only offered on weekends and it is huge. The four of us shared one and each felt that we had plenty. I must say that this is probably the best cinnamon roll I have ever eaten. A Swedish diner in Chicago called Ann Sather used to be my gold standard for cinnamon buns, but no more. Of course, I should probably take a trip back there soon and taste them again to make sure.
The caramelized grapefruit had sugar on the top bruleed with a torch. Very creative idea that sounded great, but it was not as exciting as we hoped. Ours did not match Travis’ picture as ours looked like someone had gotten carried away with the flame. It was almost burnt. Again, the $5.00 price for one grapefruit did not seem much of a good value. I do not mind paying extra for exceptional food, but this was not that for me.
When eating out with most friends, I like ordering different things so that we can all try each other’s dishes. However, Steve does not like to share... even with his wife. So for entrees, they both ordered the pork belly and cornmeal waffle. Imelda was taken aback by the big slab of pork belly plopped on top of the waffles. It did seem a little odd, and you sure have to love meat. However, the taste was good, especially the interplay between the two. The savory pork belly was actually quite sweet because of the maple braising, and it went so well with the almost savory waffle. The flavors were surprising, and in a good way. The fried egg thrown in did not add much to the dish and everyone thought it was unnecessary.
Greg ordered the little rob, sort of the breakfast sampler. One egg was sandwiched between two griddle cakes and served with American cheese and apple smoked bacon. It was as it sounded, good but nothing too creative. He admitted that maybe he should have ordered something more exciting.
I was tempted by the deconstructed corned beef hash, but decided to go with the skillet scramble. It changes daily, and I love ordering specials. Sometimes that is when chefs get the most inspired. Sometimes not. This scramble contained goat cheese and chanterelle mushrooms. It was decent, but just not as flavorful as it could have been. Maybe it needed some bacon jam. Everyone knows that bacon makes anything better. The small salad on the side was fresh and had a delicious, bright, citrus, vinaigrette dressing. I would order a salad from here after trying this sample.
Overall, I had a better experience this time. The prices for brunch/breakfast seemed like they were more in line with similar restaurants. We all agreed it was good, but nothing mind-blowing. Good comfort food made upscale (and a little over the top). I think this is what some people are calling "stoner food." This was not the first thing to fail to live up to impossible expectations (see the movie Titanic). I am sure that I will be back, but I am still not sure I would stand in much of a line. I will leave that to the many other willing groupies.