The Royal is many things to many people. It's a latte art coffee stop on the way to work; a quiet place to catch up over arepas during lunch; a no-fuss dinner pick; a well-stocked cocktail bar. But, most importantly, The Royal is a family business. Paul Carlson (who is also behind U Street bar Vinoteca) runs the daily operations, but his mom, dad and sister (Katrina Carlson) pitch in, too.
Seeking to pay tribute to their Colombian heritage and global upbringing, the Carlson's opened the bar a year ago, drafting LeDroit Park as the destination. They were attracted to the tight-knit community that remains underserved when it comes to dining (save for a few options like Thai X-ing). They even named the business after the former tenant, The Royal Liquor, after excavating old signs.
There have been marked changes since the doors first swung open. Opening chef, Lonnie Zoeller, and opening bar manager, Horus Alvarez, have both departed. In the first half of 2016, Lee Carrell stepped into the lead role behind the bar and Anna Miller became the chef of both The Royal and Vinoteca. The former Rogue 24 sous chef has already delivered new dishes like fried pig ears on coconut rice with herbs. Vermouth poured through a D.I.Y. fire hydrant tap, boozy shaved ice from a Guatemalan machine, and cocktails with Latin lead spirits like aguardiente remain bar highlights.
Eater talked with Paul and Katrina Carlson about their first year in business, what lies ahead, and one unfortunate tweet.
Being a neighborhood place was a big part of your business plan. Is that how it turned out?
Paul Carlson: It was very important for us to stick to that because we are so small. We've partnered up with Howard University hospital, WeWork at the Wonder Bread Factory and some of the small offices in the area. If you really lock down your ties with the community, it creates longevity for you. It's not a formula, but I think when as business owners you sit down to think about your next move, you identify an area that isn't saturated and start building relationships slowly. Bloomingdale is hot. North Shaw is hot. Strategically, we wanted to be between both because we do think that in due time, these two corridors are going to merge. By coming in early, we're not slammed all the time. In the interim, we can patiently build relationships with people who aren't going anywhere. These parts of D.C. have people who have lived here forever.
Was being open all day always part of the plan, because dual coffee shop/cocktail bar concepts are really trending right now?
P: I've always wanted to do it. I love coffee; I start my day with a cup of coffee. I love the concept of the Cheers thing with drinks at night. I've been the same way with coffee. I think it's important because of how the industry is changing in the city. You need to find ways to reach clientele and have some relevancy. I think we're limited in D.C. a little bit because of our hours. Like in New York, places are open from morning until 3 a.m. serving food. We haven't had that here. We wanted to find a way to do that and that's why we incorporated the coffee program because that's a way to draw people in, and it's an avenue to sell food.
You've said there are "no rules," at The Royal. What does that mean?
P: We wanted it as simple as possible. We have two menus. We didn't want to have a rule for this or a rule for that. Like if you sit outside, you have to eat or if you sit inside, you have to eat. Or if you sit at a table, you have to order an entrée. No. I think that's one of the things you see everywhere in the industry. If you sit there, you can't sit there. You can have this, but you can't have that.
Then, would you classify The Royal as a bar with really good food or a restaurant with a really good bar?
P: When we were conceptualizing this, we thought the food portion was going to be a very secondary thing, but it's probably [a] 50/50 even [split] of food and booze. It was shocking. We had to hire five new employees within two weeks of opening because we never thought it was going to be that way. Currently, saying we are a bar with really good food is a good way to go. With restaurants, people think table service. But, we're built and structured to be a bar. The first month we were open, we all had to be here all the time and one of our roles was to greet people at the door to explain.
Maybe that's why Tom Sietsema never came in and did a review? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
P: It would have been great to have their thoughts, but we're happy with how The Royal turned out. I learned this from Vinoteca — I really like that our neighbors feel like they don't have to fight the crowd. Even if we were to be written up, I don't think we'd lose that, because the concentration isn't that huge yet. Either way, I'm happy how it turned out over the last year food wise and service wise, we're happy.
Katrina Carlson: Our idea is that we're not doing food for critics, we're doing what we like, what we love, what is special to us and our group of friends and family and we just want to share it with people.
Speaking of the food, are most dishes family recipes?
P: A lot of the staple Colombian dishes have a major family recipe component, but there's a difference between cooking for four and being able to serve a la carte, so there's some variation.
K: Dad was a foreign service officer with USAID, so we spent our younger years not living in the States. I was born here, but didn't come back until starting college. We were all in Latin American countries. My mother's Colombian and even though my father was born in the States, my grandparents were Swedish. My dad spent a lot of time in Latin American growing up. He lived in Cuba. He lived in Chile. So far, it's been a lot of Latin influence, but we're talking about introducing a few things from our Swedish side.
P: It comes across as Colombian-focused and very Latin-inspired, but really our idea is to play with the menu. It doesn't have to fit a mold. What we wanted to do is showcase a little bit of what a family eats that travels so much and D.C. is made up of so many of those people.
The food menu changes quarterly with the seasons, but what dishes have to stay on the menu to prevent rioting regulars?
P: The grilled avocado and the beef arepa. I would say those two. People would have a heart attack if we got rid of those. The grilled avocado has been such a great dish for us. It really satisfies vegetarians and meat lovers because it's really hearty.
There are seven different types of arepa on your menu. What's the secret to a good arepa?
P: I would have to say, it's the person who is putting it together because you have to always make them the right thickness. If they're too thick they can get mushy, if they're too thin, they can get dry and it's not like we use a machine. It's done by hand—they don't use a mold. The ladies just go down there and do their arepas and somehow they always come out the same size.
You've managed to get the city to go out on a Monday night with Royal Knights (their guest bartending event) and it's been a big hit with the bar industry. How [did that get started]?
P: I wanted to do something where we could showcase one thing and do it really well. We have such a great relationship with LeDroit Brands. Chris [Schmid] used to work for me years ago and in talking to them, I was like maybe we can partner up once a month and focus on one product and really identify it. It helps our staff grow; it allows them the opportunity to showcase a product. I think a good example is Singani [a Bolivian brandy]. You don't go to a bar and say ‘oooh can I get a Singani and this, please.' That was the tiki-themed one with Lukas Smith. That was a really well-attended one.
There was that one unsavory blip with the Bill Cosby tweet that mentioned Quaaludes. What happened and how did you deal with it?
P: Oh god, that was a terrible day. It was poor judgment on the staff person that we had. At the beginning we had such a great opening team with such creative minds and one to of the things we talked about is allowing our staff to photograph and use social media as a way to market the restaurant in the moment. And, we had an individual who was extremely talented and a good person. I still think she's a good person, but we don't have the same beliefs. She decided to make a very off-color joke — it was extremely inappropriate. There isn't much more to say. I think we dealt with it well, we had to acknowledge that the mistake was made by the restaurant, even though it was made by one person, so we put out a public apology. Unfortunately, that individual lost her job. I think the city, as a whole, was pretty understanding. We had to work with our staff to go back through our training, make sure everyone was understanding of our policies as a company.
Did you change your social media strategy?
P: Oh yeah. Brittany [Garrison, the restaurant publicist] and I do it. I'm really bad at it. You can tell when I post because it's a picture and four words.
What was the biggest surprise over the past year?
K: The food being so popular. And, how much my mother has enjoyed being a part of this. She's here every day. Someone has come up to her and said, ‘are you the Colombian lady that I've read about?' And, my dad is so into marketing. He spreads the word like no other.
Besides the tweet, what was the biggest challenge in year one?
P: Pre-opening, it was construction. It took us almost two years to open from the day we signed the lease to when we opened the door. After opening, the hardest thing for me is to be open for so many hours. At Vinoteca, you open at 5:00 p.m. and close at midnight. Here, we were opening really early in the morning and staying open really late at night. As a business owner, you're always on call. To me that was a hard adjustment.
What can people look forward to?
P: I think we're going to see some really interesting things in the food area now that Anna's on board and collaborating with us. She's a young chef so she's really eager to collaborate in all parts of the business and just has a lot of energy. She says, let's do it, let's find a way. And then as a whole, I'm excited to implement the things we learned in our first year. The first year you're still guessing, as much experience as you might have.
What's next for you as a restaurateur? Are you still hungry?
P: I'm content for the moment. This city is great and I like what we're doing. I'm really excited to see what's next in the industry before blindly jumping in. There are a lot of big changes happening in the next couple of years. That doesn't mean we won't pass up on opportunities, but we don't have anything in the works.
There will be celebrations galore to mark The Royal's anniversary this coming Monday, including all-day happy hour, free cold-brew ice pops, the launch of its new house vermouth, and more.