Hours: 6 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Closed Sundays.
Atmosphere: Modest luncheonette.
Price range: Most dinners around $3.50.
Credit cards: None.
Reservations: Not appropriate.
Special facilities: Old Town parking; one step into restaurant.
Looking over the menu at the Royal Restaurant is somewhat akin to reading a 20-year-old Sears Roebuck catalog -- the prices somehow no longer seem credible. How about a leg of lamb dinner for $3.75, or a fried chicken dinner for $3.50, or a lumberjack-size slab of apple pie for 65 cents?
To make matters better, the portions range from generous to mammoth, which adds to the economy because you can share orders without going hungry.
But before you expect too much, bear in mind that this is by no means what you could call a fine restaurant. There's not an outstanding dish served, and a few of the offerings are downright poor. On the other hand, there are enough passably good items on the menu -- which consists of standard American fare like steak, ham, chicken, hamburgers and sandwiches, along with a sprinkling of Greek specialties -- that you can eat fairly well here, and you can certainly do so cheaply.
"Cozily threadbare" sums up the environment at this little old place, billed on the menu as "Alexandria's oldest established private restaurant." Bare fromica, stainless steel and semi-gloss paint predominate, with a luncheonette-style counter equipped with what looks like a 1950s Coke dispenser. Come to think of it, if you've seen "Alice" on TV, you'll know almost exactly what to expect, minus the one-liners.
To begin with, you can safely forget the soup, which the menu describes as "homemade cream of turkey noodle." Our impression is that the home may have been a cannery.
In our view there are three requisites for a really good chili: lots for firm beans, a generous proportion of coarsely ground beef, and real chunks of tomato. The Royals's version, which has the consistency of soup, strikes out on all three counts, so you won't be missing much if you ignore it, too.
There are a number of side dishes, some of which come with each entree. Tossed salads are about what you'd expect: plastic bowls of head lettuce with ordinary dressing poured over the top. But the portions are big, the lettuce is fresh and crisp, and there are slices of tomato and beet included.
Some diners may find the cole slaw a touch too sweet, but it's commendably fresh and crisp, and it doesn't suffer from the liquid runniness of so many slaws. The cucumber salad is a gem -- crisp cucumber slices and onion in an excellent vinaigrette dressing.
Rolls are of the soft, white, no-taste-no-texture variety, but they're served warm, which makes them edible. The applesauce is unremarkable, the kind you get in jars.
French fries are excellent -- thick cut, fried quickly in hot oil and served piping hot. With that example of good frying, the onion ring that came with our steak (presumably the same kind of onion ring you get in the side order) was a big disappointment, with a thick, heavy, dark brown batter and totally without onion flavor or texture inside.
On the entrees. The fried chicken ($3.50 with french fries, slaw and applesauce) is a solid bet, half of a big bird nicely battered and cooked so that it's moist and tender within.
Baked Virginia ham ($3.30 with two vegetables) is tender, well trimmed, mildly smokey and not overly salty.
A 10-ounce Delmonico steak, served with french fries and salad, is the most expensive item on the menu at $5.25. It's good beef cooked as ordered, and although the price may be high for the Royal, it's low compared to good steakhouses, which are charging $9 to $11 these days for a small strip sirlon.
If the moussaka we tried ($2.95 with salad) is an adequate indicator of the Greek dishes at the Royal, our advice is to stick with the American choices, particularly if you know and love Greek food.
One of the joys of a good moussaka is its feathery custard layer. The Royal's custard, which contains bits of potato, was nearly as heavy as a flour-and-water paste. The moussaka further suffered from eggplant that seemed undercooked, a runny sauce that was short on tomato, and not enough of the spices -- like cinnamon, nutmeg, garlic or oregano -- that give a good moussaka its delightful flavor and aroma.
The desserts at the Royal are good, big and inexpensive. The apple pie (65 cents for a hugh wedge) is first-rate, with a nicely flaky crust that bulges with a filling of big, firm apple chunks. The bread pudding (65 cents) is a big portion, and once you get accustomed to the odd, bright orange color, it's very good.
The check for four of us, including soft drinks, a couple of shared desserts, tax and tip came to $23.20. And if we'd eliminated the soup and chili and not orderd the steak, the tab for four would have been roughly $19.