November 16, 2011

Royal Tavern

If I had to list some of my favorite restaurants in the city, I tend not to put the fancy-schmancy spots on the top of my list.  Maybe because we're just poor twenty-somethings and tend to eat at those places less frequently, but I also think it's due to the great number of affordable, fun eats.  Many of the cheaper spots happen to be bars, or "gastropubs" if you will.  You don't have to make a reservation, you don't have to dress up, you have ample people watching opportunities, you won't break the bank, and best of all, the food is both creative and high-quality.

South Philly tends to have more of these spots than anywhere else (perhaps to appease the large number of hipsters?), including Royal Tavern, a bar I've heard serves delicious eats for quite some time.  Run by the same group that owns Cantina Los Caballitos, my tipping point came when I heard their burger was the best in Philly- an opinion which also reverberates across Yelp.

The space, in one of my favorite areas of the city, is long and narrow, with a good number of tables, indicative of their emphasis on eating here.  A half hour wait was almost expected on a Friday evening, but the waitstaff was great at getting people in and out.  The menu isn't too extensive, and includes a lot of bar food staples- still, we had a hard time making decisions since everything sounded so delicious.  I had "heard" via Twitter about a new menu item, Duck Confit Potato Skins ($??- somewhere around $10), and I knew I needed to try them.

One thing bars are horrible at: good lighting.  Apologies.

Four small half potatoes are baked, then their innards are scooped out and replaced with shredded duck confit, bacon and truffle butter, then topped with thin slices of Gruyere and chopped scallions before going in for their re-baking, with a final dollop of cool sour cream added at the end.  These are in no way healthy, but when you combine every rich savory ingredient, the delicious result is absolutely worth it.  Shared among four of us, the few bites of moist duck (which tasted a lot like Thanksgiving turkey to me) and the melted cheese were a good start to our first meal here.

We also had no problem choosing the Fresh Popped Popcorn as a second snack to start ($3).  A big paper bag is filled to the brim with steaming hot popcorn, coated in truffle butter and parmesan cheese.  The truffle flavor was very subtle, but just enough to make this popcorn highly addicting.

While several seasonal dinner specials are available, we all chose to try a sandwich selection.  J decided on the Chicken Frankie ($9), a unique name for an interesting wrap of shredded chicken slow-cooked with peppers and onions in an Indian-spiced sauce, along with a bit of coleslaw all stuffed into a thick, chewy lovash.  The Indian-inspired flavors are a bit unexpected in an all-American place such as this, but they did it right- just a bit of curry and spice without being unapproachable by your average palate.  The lovash also held up well to the mix of wet ingredients.  Another fun thing about Royal Tavern is that they allow you to substitute any of their side options for the typical fries, allowing you a chance to sample anything from Refried Beans to Spicy Greens or Grilled Asparagus for no extra charge.  J went with a side salad, which was a regrettable decision after being served a very simple soggy romaine and parsley mix.

The burger, of course, was a must order by at least one member of our group ($10).  There are many contributing factors to the making of one of best burgers around, that I can't quite put my finger on what makes it so good.  The brioche bun is large and fluffy, providing enough substance to prevent sogginess or tearing, but being light enough to not detract from the main event.  The meat itself is pretty substantial, and cooked perfectly to order.  It's topped with bacon, caramelized onions, smoked gouda, pickled longhots, and chile mayonnaise- a combination that seems somewhat overwhelming, but is actually a brilliant concoction.  The side of fries is served with a malt vinegar mayonnaise- a combination that almost reaches "pure food genius" status.

Another menu item that seemingly everyone raves about is the Tempeh Club, one of many vegetarian and vegan friendly items available (hipsters, right?).  I knew before arriving it was my top choice of eats, so I had no problem adding it to our order.  This sandwich is pretty epic- and I'm pretty sure would be loved by even the most meat-centric eater.  This picture does it no justice, as this sandwich is massive, a triple stack of grilled multi-grain bread, slices of vegan bacon (which my bacon-fanatic-fiance agreed tastes remarkably like the real thing), grilled tempeh, romaine, tomato, and a basil aioli ($8).  Some people have issues with the texture of tempeh, but here it blends well with the toasted bread, the soft tomato, and the crunchy lettuce, just providing a great nutty, smoky flavor.  The half I saved for the next day's lunch was just as good- almost like a good soup, the flavors amplified as they sat overnight.

I couldn't pass up fries, but opted for the Old Bay spiced fries instead of the regular.  The same hand cut fries (with skin-- my favorite) were potato perfection- thick, but still crispy, with the spicy seasoning giving it an extra pop of flavor.  Kind of weird with the malt vinegar mayo- or ketchup for that matter- but delicious all on their own.

The last sandwich choice of our group was the Grilled Chicken Sandwich ($9), which to me sounds like an absolute yawnfest.  BUT.  This is Royal Tavern-- this is no ordinary chicken sandwich.  Toasted sourdough encases a pile of delicious ingredients, including chicken, of course, as well as prosciutto, blue cheese, thinly sliced pear, arugula, and lavender-honey mustard.  Again, at first glance, I thought this sandwich would be flavor overload, but each of the toppings paired well and complemented instead of clashed with one another.  Mashed potatoes > fries, apparently.

Even though we were all stuffed, there is always room in our stomachs for 1/4 of a dessert, so we decided to split one as a table.  Although there are just a few options listed on the chalkboard menu (5 out of 6 of which were cake), we still had trouble deciding, and had to ask our waitress for dessert advice.  She steered us towards the Cookies 'N Cream Cake ($6), which was much appreciated advice (although I'm willing to bet the other options are just as good).  I doubt these cakes are baked in-house, but when they're this delicious, does it really matter?  Dense, cold chocolate cake (temperature matters, in my opinion) is smothered in a creamy icing speckled with cookie crumbs, visually like a cake version of an Oreo, but a bit plainer in taste.  A sweet ending to a good meal, although next time I probably wouldn't order dessert.

While the Philly food scene has so much to offer in terms of five star restaurants, a huge variety of ethnic eateries, and of course, a million cheesesteaks, the gastropub deserves more recognition, especially places like Royal Tavern.  This visit also helped move their other sister restaurant, Khyber Pass Pub, to the top of my must-eat list.  Good thing I have a visit planned for next weekend!

Royal Tavern
937 East Passyunk Avenue


  1. The nachos here is by far one of the best in the city. give it a go sometime