Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Four-Star Food at Two-Star Prices

What keeps a restaurant going for a hundred years? Maybe just luck, or location, or advertising and a steady supply of gullible people. I don't know, though: food might have more to do with it. All the restaurants I know that have been around for so long have great food. They may go through periods when reputation has to carry them through: when the chef is aging or a new one is finding his way; but basically it seems that they maintain a consistently high level of quality year after year. I think first of the great old restaurants in my home town, New Orleans: Antoine's, Commander's Palace, Galatoire's. Their food may not always be the best, but generally, yeah, it is.

Now I can add another old family-run institution to that short list: the Royal Restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.

What's that mean?
The restaurant itself isn't in the same class as those venerable old N'Awlinz dining palaces: it's not as dressy, not as elegant, and certainly not as expensive. Its two dining rooms have vinyl-covered booths lining the windows, and nary a white table cloth in sight. The wine list is limited, and a salad bar lines one wall. But based on the three dishes I sampled there last night, I'll put their food up against anybody's.

I had crab cakes. I had, I should say, outstanding crab cakes. I regret having had to share them with the others at the table, but it was the price I paid for sampling their dishes. Large lumps of crabmeat were packed into two large, thick patties, breaded in a light, tasty batter and fried to perfection. The result was a thin, crisp crust enveloping lots and lots of tasty crabmeat. It was served with a baked potato rolled in cracked pepper; not one of those giant steroid-enhanced things you find at the supermarket, but a nice, normal potato. Okay, the potato could've been hotter, but honestly, I wasn't unhappy with it.

The other dishes I got to sample were roast lamb, seasoned in the Greek style and falling off the bone; served with well-prepared green beans and mashed potato; and a moussaka that made me think maybe I should have ordered that. All of the portions were generous. The meals also came with a trip to the salad bar that offered a reasonably large selection of fresh and tasty items, including excellent stuffed grape leaves.

The staff was attentive, knowledgable, and prompt; special mention to Fasika, our main server, who put up with all our questions and set a pleasant, easy-going tone from our arrival.

The total bill was surprisingly modest, considering the quality of what we had eaten. This pleasant fact was in marked contrast to where we'd had lunch that day, across the river in the prefab future slums of National Harbor (see next post).
Royal Restaurant & Caterers on Urbanspoon

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