Above the bar at Royale is a unicornivory head, gold horn. It’s like taxidermy with resin and glitter. If this sounds out of place for an American-French bistro with exposed-brick walls and marble-topped tables, it is. As guests sip cornichon martinis and slurp moules frites, they look up and stare, every so often asking where it came from.
It’s actually more of an inside joke than a design statement.
Owner and pastry chef Jesse Bardyn bought it on Etsy as an homage to co-owner Will Jeffers, whom the Royale staff reveres as larger-than-life. In short, Jeffers owns a woodshop and a farm, is a general contractor and a licensed realtor, plus an MBA candidate and original partner in the prom king of Raleigh restaurants, Stanbury. The more his colleagues brag about him, the more he blushes and shakes his head, smiling in a way that almost lets on pride, but mostly it’s a plea: Stop. Please, stop.
It’s not just him, though.
The unicorn is something largerand less tangible. A few years back, it was Salumeria Biellese in New York City, where owner and chef Jeff Seizer and owner and front-of-house manager Gwen Butler first met. The nearly century-old company changed the way the two thought about business.
That’s saying something, considering that both have been in the industry since they were teenagers. Butler has opened numerous restaurants, while Seizer made a name for himself working for restaurateur Danny Meyer in iconic New York spots like Union Square Cafe and Maialino.
To Butler, Salumeria Biellese was more than just great charcuterie. It had great staff, great hours, great pay. It was “a unicorn! Just everything about it. Jeff and I used to say, ‘Some day, we’re going to have a unicorn. Our restaurant, it’s going to be special.’”
And it is.
Royale opened in Raleigh, right across from Moore Square, in November. Its dining room straddles the street corner, framed by vast windows that commuters and dog walkers can’t help but peer through. In this sense, the restaurant advertises itself simply by existing, like a celebrity who becomes more famous by pumping her own gas.
But for Royale’s owners, the location was only half the draw. The early-twentieth-century building was the other.
“There’s not many buildings like this anymore,” Jeffers says. “We can’t re-create that old plaster and brick.”
Instead, they exposed ittore up the linoleum floor, peeled back the walls, even punched a hole in one of them between the foyer and dining room. As the day progresses, the sunlight seeps through it as through a keyhole.
Something strange happens when you turn away from those windows and take in the brown leather banquettes, the peeling wallpaper petals, shimmery champagne flutes, the two-hundred-year-old headboard that Jeffers found in the attic of his woodshop, the unicorn above the bar. One moment, you’re in Raleigh. The next, you could be anywhere.
Because, in this area, there isn’t anything quite like Royale.
French food reigned over the culinary world for a long, long time, but it took a bumpy fall in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Diners wanted less creamy and rich, more crunchy and raw, less Europe and more Asia, less froufrou and more fun. Mostly, they wanted something differentand that is exactly what the owners thought when they chose their concept: French is different.
“No one is doing a fun, classic bistro,” Seizer says. “If there’s something we could hope for, it’s to be the Balthazar of the South.”
The menu is less the French we ran away from and more the French we are beginning to miss. It is a frisée salad draped with gooey egg yolk and bacon fat. Duck à l’orange with syrupy sauce that you lick off the side of your thumb. Gruyére cheeseburgers with sauce au poivre on a locally made English muffin. It is tarte flambée, the Alsatian pizzanot pizza, Seizer says with an emphatic shakeflatbread with fromage blanc, onions, and bacon. And it is wine.
Butler, in fact, is so excited about the wine and the menu and how the wine goes with the menu, that as soon as I say tarte flambée, she says Riesling, then proffers a bottle and pours some to try.
“They say it’s the perfect pairing!”
I never liked Riesling. Yet in this moment, with this not-pizza tarte, I adore it. I could drink it forever.
Which reminds me about that unicorn.
Wander into Royale on any given night and all the owners might be there, somewhere, but Butler is the one you will see. She’s the biggest smile in the dining room and, as Jeffers puts it, “the whole aura.”
She’s the unicorn. Because besides the team and the location and the concept and the food, the aura is what makes Royale. And auras are tough to pinpoint, but I can try: someone, someone you love, draws you a bubble bath with soap that smells like lavender and they hand you a really, really cold glass of Riesling and you slip into the water at just the right moment, when it is hot, but not too hot, and you stay there forever and then you get out and your fingers are wrinkly and you feel so much more than just clean. You feel like magic.
200 East Martin Street, Raleigh
Royale photos by ben mckeown