Live Like (Burger) Royalty at Royal Tavern

Burger Breakdown

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Bacon, caramelized onions, smoked Gouda, pickled longhots and chili mayonnaise. It's part of a new reality television show on food network called The Gastrointestinal Olympics.
Included, golden brown, skin-on medium cut.

Behind the unassuming exterior of Royal Tavern is an unassuming interior. It's a dim, wood-finished neighborhood bar with classic molded tin ceilings. The lighting is understated but vaguely festive, with supplementary Christmas lights to make it feel as though you are on the set of a student film. Overall it's not the kind of place that necessarily sticks out in your memory. This is precisely what I find so appealing about it. You won't find a hipster crowd, a frat crowd, suits from the investment firms, construction workers... Royal just has people, all different sorts, all interested in some good food and good drink.

The Burger: At first glance the burger doesn't seem anything special. It's an Angus patty topped with bacon, caramelized onions and smoked Gouda. The kicker comes later in the list. The burger is also rocking pickled longhots and a chile mayonnaise, all for the very reasonable price of Alexander Hamilton. And no, I'm not referring to a $10 bill, they actually require Hamilton (or a piece of him) in exchange for the meal. It's a weird arrangement, but in the end it works out. We got two burgers. Don't ask where we got two Hamiltons. Really. Don't ask.

Photo of the burger at Royal Tavern

Laurence: We've sort of flipped the adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." We wouldn't have much of a blog without venom and sarcasm. Truth is, insults are funny and we insult even the places we like. That makes it very hard to write about Royal Tavern. As hard as I try, the only real knock against it I can think of is that it is in South Philly. I'd insult South Philly more but I fear hate mail.

What Royal lacks in the showmanship of its physical space it makes up for in its assumption of burger excellence. When we arrived we were greeted by a sign inviting us to sample the city's best. That kind of hubris isn't particularly appealing. I personally find the philosophy of quiet excellence detailed in the 1992 Geto Boys song, "Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangster," to be more endearing. And I quote: “Real ganstas don't flex nuts, cuz real gangstas know they got em.”*

photo of sign at Royal TavernAs you might guess, the sign lied. Royal doesn't have the best burger in the city. But it was damn good and adventurously utilized spice, which we haven't seen often. The longhots add kick to the burger. The heat isn't overpowering partially because there are so many flavors simultaneously in play, but if you are very sensitive to spicy foods, this burger may not be for you. It's a slow burn that builds with each bite but never quite reaches problematic levels as it is kept in check by the slightly sweet onion and the rich Gouda.

The bacon was thin, savory, and lean but not otherwise notable. The patty, however, was excellent. It should be. After all, it's the most important part of the burger, the real meat of the meal if you'll pardon the awful pun. It was tender, seared outside and slightly pink inside (a perfect medium-well). The fries too were very good. They were obviously house-made with skin still on (all good fries are) and were a lovely golden brown. In the end the chile mayonnaise was the least exciting addition to the burger. It had mild flavor that simply disappeared under the mountain of flavor-rich, high-calorie food on my plate. And so in an effort to get in the necessary insults into this article, I will conclude that this mayonayse is the most vile substance on Earth and it's mother looks like a cross between Dolph Lundgren and a chihuahua. Yeah! Fuck you, mayo. Rating: 7/10.

*This quote has been edited from it's original form for pretty clear reasons.

Fries at Royal Tavern

Kyle: Back in 2007, my friend Maria said those words which today hold so much meaning: "... has the best burger in Philadelphia." The ellipsis was filled with Royal Tavern, which I had previously avoided as I didn't meet the two-tattoo minimum and, come on, Passayunk? Please. Sensing my reluctance to go anywhere near SoPho, she uttered the second most magical and powerful phrase known to man, first discovered in the alchemical research of John Dee and capable of forever swaying the hearts and minds of all who hear it: "They have the best whiskey I've ever tasted."

I've returned to Royal several times since, and the burger hasn't changed. There are two distinct tastes in this meal that touch different parts of your tongue. Immediately off the bat you get the spicy, sweet flavor of the chili mayo and longhots, peppers so juicy and tender they rupture in your mouth at the slightest pressure. Once the heat cools off, the smoky pairing of bacon and Gouda fills every cell in your mouth with a potent-yet-soft flavor and aroma, emphasized by the caramelized onions. Every bite is met with this same back and forth play between the ingredients, and while it may sound like they contrast or compete, it is an absolutely complementary combination.

The beef in the burger itself is good. It's very good, in fact. It isn't of a mind-blowing quality nor the product of an amazing recipe; it's just a good, solid, above average burger cooked to request. On the same token, both the slightly dry roll and mildly seasoned fries are not great, but good, and to criticize either is just to complain for complainings sake.

Maria was wrong: this is not the best burger in Philadelphia. But it is an excellent burger that I wholeheartedly recommend, and at $10, it is one of the best deals you'll get in the city. It's also the only reason aside from a learning disability to go to South Philly. (Send all hate mail to laurence[at]burgerdelphia[dot]com.) As for the whiskey mentioned, that 2007 evening was when I fell under the spell of Redbreast, and in that at least Maria made me a convert: it is easily the best Irish whiskey I have ever tasted. At least until we get funding for Liquordelphia. Rating: 8/10.


Looking for somewhere to eat in South Philly? Why? Seriously, the Broad Street line is, like, right there. But if you insist, go to Royal Tavern. Good burger, good beer, good bar.

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