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.