A note to constant readers: I mistakenly published this review two weeks ago, while I was still working on it as a draft. My small subset of subscribers should have subsequently seen it e-mailed to them, but I unpublished it immediately… UNTIL NOW, when it’s shined and polished for public consumption. For those of you who have already read and reveled in my Royal Castle review, regrets for the redundancy.
Growing up, my dad would sometimes get nostalgic about the restaurants he used to frequent in Miami that were before my time. So many dearly-departed delis for pastrami sandwiches, Lum’s for hot dogs boiled in beer (I was so surprised to see Lum’s and those legendary hot dogs referenced in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last year!) and Royal Castle for tiny hamburgers and birch beer. My dad doesn’t consider himself a “foodie” at all, and reads this blog with a mix of amusement and bemusement, but I feel like I became The Saboscrivner due in part to his influence.
A transplanted Brooklynite who moved to North Miami in his late teens, he always knew where to find the best hot dog carts, by-the-slice pizzerias, and all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets. He had no problem packing us in the car for the hour drive from suburban Kendall to the North Miami Beach/Aventura/Sunny Isles area to take us to the much-missed Mister Coney Island and Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House. That entire part of Miami was magical to me from childhood through my college years, with two good comic book shops, the legendary Blue Note Records, and a Toys R Us on NE 163rd Street that always seemed to have a better selection than the ones closer to us. But those places are all gone now, like so much of Miami’s glorious, golden past. (Stick with me, I’m going somewhere with this.)
Anyway, my dad likes what he likes and sticks to the classics, but he was cool enough to step out of his comfort zone a handful of times to take us for Thai food (once; he claimed the spices made him angry), German food (once; he got weirded out when a bunch of people showed up in lederhosen and dirndls, but who could blame him?), and even a live jazz club on Miami Beach that served burgers and ribs, exponentially expanding my limited teenage horizons. These were all big-deal formative experiences for me back then, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s.
Royal Castle always stood out to me because it sounded like Miami’s homegrown version of the White Castle and Krystal chains, much like how Orlando’s beloved and long-standing Beefy King is the last bastion of a local chain that was once poised to compete with Arby’s back in the ’70s. There were once over 150 Royal Castles spanning Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, but only one remains. Founded in 1958, this Royal Castle is a true family business, sold to 28-year-old James Brimberry by the previous owner, his grandfather, “the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” See Carlos Frias, “Miami’s last Royal Castle slings its burgers and birch beer for a new generation,” Miami Herald (June 27, 2019).
Here’s another article about Royal Castle for additional background information:
Miami Herald Archives, “Remember Royal Castle? The burger boom went bust, except for one last survivor,” Miami Herald (February 26, 2019).
By the way, Carlos Frias is one of my favorite food writers and an excellent person to follow on Twitter, whether you live in South Florida or not. Earlier this summer, Royal Castle made his list of Black-owned Miami restaurant recommendations:
Carlos Frias, “Eat like a local at Miami-Dade’s black-owned restaurants. Here are some of our favorites,” Miami Herald (June 2, 2020).
But it was his June 2019 article I linked above that inspired me to seek out the last remaining Royal Castle on a quick overnight work trip to Miami last fall. I had one free afternoon to grab lunch on the way down, so I decided to storm the Castle for myself. Since they don’t have a website with a full menu, I was surprised to see they had a large diner-like menu with breakfasts, sandwiches, and sides — way more variety than I expected from a fast food burger place. It’s definitely more like a diner than fast food as we all think of it.
I already love li’l slider burgers (see my Krystal review from last summer), and despite the other menu options that I wasn’t expecting, I made the special trip out of my way to Royal Castle to try their famous sliders. I grabbed a stool at the counter and ordered this 6-Pack combo with cheese added to the burgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a lemonade, which was a reasonable $12.25. (Unfortunately they were out of their famous birch beer, which I had really been looking forward to.)
Close-up to see that nice melty American cheese, still the perfect burger cheese (and grilled cheese cheese). I had just driven almost four hours and was starving and in a hurry to get to my destination, so I apologize for not taking more or better photos. Rest assured there were steamed onions and pickle slices underneath the thin burger patties, and I made sure to apply plenty of ketchup to those fries and a dab on each slider.
In retrospect, I wish I had ordered more food, but I didn’t have the time to savor it or a fridge in my hotel room to safely store it. They were perfectly fine little sliders that hit the spot and got me through a bunch of work schmoozing, but for me, it was all about making that pilgrimage, feeling that Miami history, and eating where my dad ate when he was probably half the age I am now.
The Northwest Miami neighborhood has seen better days, and the restaurant probably has too, but heck, so have I. After this year, I think we can all say we’ve seen better days. But it’s a testament to the Brimberry family that the last Royal Castle is still standing after 62 tumultuous years, still in the family, still proudly Black-owned, and still serving filling, flavorful fast food and a lot of local flavor as well.