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Healdsburg restaurateur's inside glimpse at the royal family

Charles Bell doesn't run about claiming he once was chummy with Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, nor that his brush with the British monarchy gave him an insider's view of the benefits and consequences of royalty.

Rather, if casual conversation should turn to places lived and jobs worked, Bell might mention that he grew up in Detroit, started out as a professional musician, studied cooking, enrolled in a English butler school and, by the way, became a caterer to the royal family when he happened to be in the right place at a frightful time.

As he recalls, the Prince of Wales addressed him directly exactly once. Still, Bell did serve the royal family throughout 1984, the year that Prince William, who's just now preparing for his Friday wedding to Kate Middleton, turned 2.

The experience nearly three decades ago placed Bell frequently in Kensington Palace, where Charles and Diana lived, as well as Guildhall and St. James Palace. It seems to him that, then and now, most Britons and former Britons hold one of two extreme opinions of the royal family.

"You either love them or hate them," he said.

What he saw of the royals while helping to feed them leaves him appreciating and pitying them, as he might any pampered birds confined to a gilded cage.

"They were all lovely. They were all nice," Bell said. But their lives of isolation and unblinking public scrutiny, even before the press frenzy over Diana and her divorce and death, he found terribly sad.

Diana was a young mother, just 22, the first time Bell was in her presence. He was 30, having studied at the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco and then come to London to train at the Ivor Spencer School for British Butlers and Administrators.

"I was trying to build a resume," said Bell, a lean and muscular man of 57 who all these years later is preparing to open The Wurst, a sausage restaurant in Healdsburg.

Upon graduating from butler school he took a job with the top-drawer catering firm of Searcy Tansley & Co. Ltd., which was founded in 1847 and was busy serving at endless social functions hosted by members of the royal family.

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