Image: Arepa, dinner version.
Last Updated: May 2023
Certain places find a niche that didn’t really exist before. (Did we know we needed a hummus bowl spot before Little Sesame?) The Royal is an all-day café that starts serving coffee and breakfast at 10:00. At lunch the menu rolls over to focus on small plates and sandwiches that draw mostly on South American elements. By evening the café gives way to a bar and restaurant. Michelin is in love with the arepas in the morning. Locals fill up the bar seats for the drinks as the sun sets. The menu deserves even wider acclaim. Did we know that we needed a day café/bar/Colombian-ish restaurant? No, but we are glad it exists. Though conceived as a hang-out spot with coffee in the morning and drinks at night, the food fought and eventually got equal billing. It still deserves its moment in the spotlight.
The masa gnocchi are smaller than the Italian ones you might be thinking of, but they work with the shredded braised beef – though it is not light on the salt. The shrimp and the avocado dishes both come with quinoa. The skewered shellfish is served over cold grains. With the avocado, it is a warm crispy version. For lunch and dinner the arepas come three ways – cheese, pork or beef. In addition to the rotating smaller, sharable plates there is a parillada for two, heaped with meat, seafood and vegetables. For more classic bar-food hankerings there is a burger and a fried chicken sandwich along with fries that comes with aji amarillo mayo and ketchup. One of the cooks came to drop off a couple of the dishes and announced them with fatherly pride. It might have been chef Cable Smith who has helmed the kitchen here since 2017.
For breakfast, in addition to arepas, there are sandwiches, very good pastries (tres leches cinnamon bun, blueberry Danish, guava in buttery choux pastry)and a few more dishes. On the weekends they do a vegetarian arepa ranchero. The power move is the calentado of rice, potato, sausage, peas topped with egg. It can power you for hours of sightseeing and a week of desk time. The coffee and tea program are serious with many different and creative options.
They use QR codes, but you can also order at the bar. There are fewer servers on the floor, but there are enough bodies quickly gliding to deliver dishes with alacrity.
Wine by the glass list is short. A longer bottle list includes relatively cheap options, making the bottle attractive if you have more than one to split it. The cocktail and spirits list is deeper.
Paul Carlson owned the great wine bar Vinoteca a few blocks down U Street, made its name with quality wines and surprisingly good food out of a tiny kitchen, when he decided to open a second spot giving birth to The Royal. Vinoteca closed and eventually became Lulu’s Winegarden. For The Royal, he brought in his family to help. Carlson didn’t move to the U.S. until he was 16, having lived in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala, as a result of his father who worked for USAID. His Colombian mother influenced his palate and provided some direct input on the menu. Rounding out the team was his sister Katrina.
Other Guidance: Most of the space is located at street level with some outdoor seating, but there are a few steps up to parts of the dining area and the bathrooms. A handful of vegetarian dishes and a reliance on non-gluten grains makes it manageable for GF and V.
Washington Post: No reviews, but a preview.
Washingtonian: Preview from 2015.