The first finish I tried was a gel stain. General Finishes "Java" was recommended in some Popular Woodworking book or article. It looked like a nice, easy, almost single-step finish, so I picked up a can at a local Woodcraft store, and tried it on a sample board. It was too dark for my tastes, and more importantly, it colored the wood VERY differently depending on how the surface was finished. Surfaces smoothed with a hand plane were darker and the stain absorbed differently than sanded surfaces. I'm sure I'll have some of each. Yikes.
Another Popular Woodworking finish recipe I found called for a layer of oil stain (Olympic "Special Walnut"), followed by a coat of Watco "Dark Walnut" followed by amber shellac. As I am lazy, I skipped the first stain, and used Watco "Black Walnut." I think it looks pretty good. Watco is super easy to work with, and gives a little more protection than stain alone since it contains some varnish resin. The color went on the same on sanded and planed surfaces, and it gives just the right amount of contrast to the ray flake in quartersawn oak for my tastes. Here are some parts from the end panel assemblies.
I'm not sure what clear protective finish I'll apply on top of the Watco. I've never used shellac before, so that's a little scary on such a big prominent piece of furniture. Polyurethane varnish has always been my topcoat of choice, and it's tough, but also not very repairable.