Vine-covered Beaujolais hillsides in the summer of 2007; the 2014 Georges Dubeouf Beaujolais Nouveau

It's been three decades since restaurateurs Mick McHugh and Tim Firnstahl organized the first Beaujolais Nouveau parties in Seattle, even flying several cases from Paris to Seattle on the Concorde. I'd been invited to join the scouting trip, an experience that would set me on an unexpected path as the organizer of luxury wine tours to France and Italy under the name France In Your Glass.

In the meantime, the French-American Chamber of Commerce, Pacific Northwest Chapter, has taken over sponsorship of the Beaujolais Nouveau Wine Festival as an annual fund-raiser. This year's event takes place on Friday night at the Columbia Tower Club. French-born Dominic Holden will return from New York to act as master of ceremonies. (Sheesh! He's only been there three weeks!) Last I heard they'd sold out of VIP and Young Professional tickets but had a few of the "regular" ($85) tickets available.

I had the chance to taste the first wine of the vintage from the largest importer, Georges Duboeuf, whose wines usually have a characteristic fruity aroma from the proprietary yeast he uses for the wine's unique fermentation process known as carbonic maceration. Not the case this year, at least not in the sample bottle. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since BN is often criticized for being too "simple" a wine; this year, it seems we'll have more dark cherry notes.

And if I haven't said so before, BN makes a great wine for Thanksgiving turkey.

The King of Gypsy Guitar is Dead

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Three years ago, at a roadhouse called El Patio outside the Provençal town of Arles, a Gypsy singer named Chico and a couple of Flamenco dancers wove their way around the tables. Not, technically, the famous Gipsy Kings, although it was sometimes hard to know which cousins were still part of the group.

Gypsies (Gitanos in Spanish, Gitanes in French) are neither Spanish nor French but Romani. No matter where they congregate, they are regarded by locals with grave suspicion if not outright hostility, showered with mistrust and calumny (as "thieves," as "lazy," etc.). And yet. One of Spain's best sherries is called La Gitana; the top-selling cigarettes in France are Gitanes. And their music, well, simply the most romantic in the world. Every female on the planet, it would seem, dreams of the moment, from the time she was a little girl (whether she admits it or not) when she will be touched by an angel dressed in red and summoned to the stage to dance Flamenco.

Now, the musician they called Manitas de Platas ("Little Hands of Silver"), whose real name was Ricardo Baliardo, has died at the age of 93. He was the mentor to the original Gipsy Kings and their various successors including Chico from El Patio.

As the evening three years ago came to a dramatic close with guitars strumming and Spanish melodies filling the night. Sheathed in red silk, Karina del Oro, who'd been writhing decoratively behind the singers, descended from the stage and began anointing members of the audience. Thrilled and breathless, barely able to believe their good fortune, the chosen women let their shoulder bags fall, loosened their hair (and dropped their inhibitions). They stretched toward the ceiling with a practiced twist of the wrist, as if changing a light bulb, reaching as Gatsby did for the green light. It was a scene of longing and redemption, of Goethe's Ewige Weibliche, set to Andalusian music.

The American Diner (Seattle Edition)

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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.

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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.

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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  Skillet Diner on Urbanspoon

Additional locations in Ballard and at Seattle Center; the food truck's location varies around South Lake Union.

You no longer deserve a break today

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Why it's important to read the trades: otherwise we'd never know that McDonald's has abandoned its longtime signature jingle "You deserve a break today."

It was the basis for Mickey's first national ad campaign over four decades ago. And it had nothing to do with healthy or unhealthy, those not being big issues in the early 1970s. Rather, it was the perception that "fast food" was "dirty food."

And to get to the "break," you had to clean up, you had to work! You could indulge in a treat only after you'd earned it.

Grab a bucket and a mop,
Scrub the bottom and top.
There is nothing so clean
As my burger machine!

With a broom and a brush
Clean it up for the rush
Before you open the door,
Put a shine on the floor!

When we've finished, what then?
Start all over again!
Tell me, what does it mean?
At McDonald's it's clean!"

Now, at last!

You deserve a break today!
So get up and get away!
To McDonald's! McDonald's! McDonald's!

The key to the whole thing, according to Burger News, is the "You deserve" part of the jingle.

So what's Mickey D up to these days? Commercials and videos that defend the production process of its much-derided McRibs. Squooshed together from various porcine bits, it turns out. Show some respect, Mickey! McEve wasn't molded under steam pressure from McAdam's body parts, was she?

And, the million-dollar jingle? You can license it for $159.


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