Extinct Restaurants

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Royal Castle

CBD: 100 Block of University Place
French Quarter: 100 Block of Royal St.
Metairie: Airline Hwy. @ Maple Ridge Rd.
Jefferson: Jefferson Hwy. @ Iris St.
Lake Terrace: Robert E. Lee @ Hamburg (!) St.
West End: Robert E. Lee @ West End Blvd.
Algiers: Gen. Meyer @ Huntlee
Harvey: Manhattan Blvd @ West Bank Expressway
Arabi: St. Bernard Hwy @ LeBeau Ave.
Mid-City: N. Broad @ Bell St.

Since Katrina, New Orleans has gleefully embraced the national “Better Burger” trend. Everywhere you go, new and old hamburger specialists are rolling out hamburgers with a panoply of convincing claims to better quality. We bit for that big-time, with the result that there’s a burger war–not at the low end, where it usually has been, but at prices that would have been unthinkable before the storm.

It’s not the first time such a thing has occurred here. In the late 1940s, a regional southeastern chain of hamburger shops opened a few locations around New Orleans. The Royal Castle was patterned against the White Castle, a Midwestern chain that can claim to be the first fast-food hamburger specialist in the world. Its Art Deco shops began selling little square hamburgers steamed with onions–the original sliders–in the 1920s. It’s still around.

Royal Castle first appeared in 1938. Founder William Singer–an Ohioan who no doubt knew of the success of White Castle in his neck of the woods–saw that there were no White Castles in the South. He filled that gap, building over twenty Royal Castles in Miami. They were so successful that he looked to other big markets nearby, and chose New Orleans as one of them.

Royal Castle arrived in New Orleans about the same time that the Krystal did. Based in Chattanooga, Krystal made hamburgers almost identical to White Castle’s, and still does. It also seemed to think that the Art Deco design was essential to the operation, and copied that, too.

Royal Castle’s logos and design were Art Deco, too. But whether by chance or design, Singer developed gave his square hamburger a nudge upscale. Unlike Krystal’s and White Castle’s perfectly uniform, machine-punched, frozen hamburger patties, Royal Castle made its hamburgers by hand from fresh meat. They came off the grill with the chopped onions, slice of pickle and mustard, and landed on the same White Castle-style square bun.

Royal Castle’s burger patties were round, irregular, and browned a bit more emphatically than Krystal’s. When eaten right after being grilled, they were distinctly better than their competitors. They even sold at the same price.

Royal Castle’s motto was “Fit for a king!” As far as the hamburgers were concerned, that was a bit of hyperbole. Sometimes Royal Castle’s hamburgers weren’t fit for a serf. Part of their system was to make large numbers of burgers ahead of time, keeping them warm and drying them out in heated drawers. This didn’t work as well as the method used by White Castle and Krystal, which was to just leave them on the just-warm grill until needed. (Later, Wendy’s used that idea to sell its “hot and juicy” hamburgers.)

But there was more to Royal Castle than hamburgers. Because it (and its competitors) were open twenty-four hours, they served breakfast. Breakfast at White Castle and Krystal was made to order, but pretty ordinary. But breakfast at Royal Castle really was fit for a king, at least by the standards of the time. It started with orange juice freshly squeezed to order. I said, “freshly squeezed to order.” I cannot name a restaurant that does this now. It probably had something to do with the Florida connection. They had an amazing machine that did the squeezing. It was great juice.

The Royal Castle’s breakfast went on to serve eggs cooked to order in butter. Butter is also what you got with the toast and the waffles. In those days, inexpensive restaurants (and some expensive ones) used margarine exclusively.

I fell in love with the traditional American breakfast combo at Royal Castle. I remember the circumstances vividly. Summer of 1969. After working my way through high school and first year of college at the Time Saver–a now-extinct but then-dominant local chain of convenience stores–I was the most experienced part-time worker they had. During the summer I would take over the management of stores while their regular managers were on vacation. For two weeks I was posted at Time Saver #10, the fanciest store in the chain, on the corner of Robert E. Lee and Paris Avenues. One morning before opening the Time Saver, I had breakfast at the Royal Castle on the other side of the parking lot. I couldn’t believe how good it was. Bacon! Scrambled eggs! Orange juice! Buttered toast! I began going there every day for breakfast. I think I even took up the coffee habit there.

Like the other first generation of fast-food hamburger joints, Royal Castle took a hard hit when McDonald’s began spreading across the country in the mid-1960s. I don’t remember when the last Royal Castle closed in New Orleans, but I’m pretty sure they were all gone by around 1975. The chain’s map shrunk back down to Miami, where it started. At least one Royal Castle is still making little round-patty-on-square-bun burgers in Miami. Those who remember eating Royal Castle hamburgers here would recognize the place immediately. A web search for “Royal Castle hamburgers” will turn up some nostalgic images.

And this final memory: now as then, the beverage of choice was Birch Beer–Royal Castle’s version of root beer, found nowhere else.

10 Readers Commented

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  1. John on April 24, 2014

    I think you missed a Royal Castle location on Carrollton at the river bend across the street from the Camellia Grill. It was in the same location that later had a Burger King, and now is an Iberia Bank, I believe.

    • George on August 1, 2015

      And there was my great Royal Castle near Gentilly and Elysian Fields, great for a quick breakfast on the way out of town to the fishing grounds out in the bay. Don’t forget the grits, and leave the eggs runny. Coffee was always fresh. And the orange juice, so true, fresh and cold and sweet. MickeyD’s is a dump compared to RC.

  2. Denise on April 1, 2015

    I must say readin this rings nostalgic! Thinkin bout Royal Castle from when I was a child Livin in Houma LA in the 60’s! We traveled quite a bit back then with our Dad, he took me to Royal Castle in New Orleans regularly! Especially since they were 24hrs. Cuz we drove all hours of the night and day! We couldn’t wait for those lil square fresh burgers! Yummo

  3. Phig Naccari on October 17, 2015

    Question: wasn’t the root beer at Ted’s Frost-Tops also called “birch beer”? You right about the breakfast. The RC near Paris I think was open 24 hours a day and satisfied the munchies of many a bibulous UNO student late or in the wee hours;it also had a TAC or Lucky Coin jukebox to feed.My first memory of fast franchise or chain food is of Ted’s near the Dixie Maid on Metairie Road and that Airline near Maple
    Ridge RC–nostalgia for the donut-like cardboard boxes that would carry home a dozen little Castle Burgers–by the time we got them home the cardboard was thoroughly soaked with cooling grease,which had not yet become Evil. The “gras” in Mardi and in Bouef Gras was good.

    • Tom Fitzmorris on October 17, 2015

      Birch Beer–and who knows what was meant by that–is what Royal Castle called its root beer. This made it special in the eyes of a lot of people.

      Tastefully yours,
      Tom Fitzmorris

  4. Judith Briseno on December 30, 2015

    I can remember going to royal castle in cleveland,ohio as a kid! I loved the birch beer and the burgers were fantastic!! My brother and I would get $2.00 from our mom and we would get hamburgers and a birch beer and then go to the movies and get popcorn all for $2.00!!! Those were truly the days,!

  5. George Stanfield on March 2, 2016

    My wife still has her name tag from 1971 when she worked at RC in New Orleans.
    In the French Quarters on the corner.

  6. John lenz on March 26, 2016

    There were also royal castles in Cleveland Ohio as far as I can remember three of them on the Eastside Very early 60s Used to love the place don’t remember any white castles McDonald’s definitely put them out of business

  7. Don Rua on March 20, 2017

    I worked at Royal Castle every summer when I was in high school beginning the summer of 1958. It was my first REAL job. I can’t start to list all the important life lessons, and cooking (and cleaning) things I learned there. I started on the 5 pm to 3 am cleanup shift at $1 an hour, 60 hours a week, and all you could eat!

    Every good thing you said about the Royal Castle experience was true. However, you failed to mention there delicious chili made from scratch with hand chopped hamburger meat, and the delicious unparalleled pies … apple, coconut custard, pumpkin, chocolate, lemon meringue, and pecan. I had a personal goal of eating a complete pie every shift! 🙂

    I got married the weekend after I graduated from high school, and even though I had a scholarship offer, I needed to find a job to support myself and my new life. I lived in Ta,mpa during the school terms, but always spent summers in Miami. As soon as I returned from my honeymoon my wife and I headed south, and I went back to Royal Castle. I was then 18 years old, but was promoted to Assistant Manager of a shop, and went through their management training program. I still cherish a personal note written on my completion certificate, and signed by William Singer congratulating me for my achievement at such a young age.

    I still use the same frying pans we had there, and flip my eggs. I even bought one (and 5 dozen eggs) for each of my sons and grandsons one xmas so I could teach them how. I learned the correct way to mop floors, clean large glass windows with a squeegee, peel potatoes, and onions, and serve a good looking breakfast! 🙂

  8. Barbara Snetiker on July 7, 2017

    I always will remember the Royal Castle on South Dixie and S.W. 27 Avenue and the one on Coral Way and S.W. 22 Avenue, both in Miami. My family was friends with the Singer family, who owned Royal Castle. The Singer family actually lived near the one on Coral Way and 22 Avenue. I was in Brownies and Girl Scouts with one of the Singer daughters, so I went to the Royal Castle Commissary many times! I forgot about their great pies! We always got our pies for Thanksgiving there! I loved Royal Castle!