Gus Souris remembers the first time he ate at the Royal Restaurant, as a young Army soldier stationed at Fort Myer. One day, he took a bus to Alexandria and came upon the restaurant while exploring Old Town.
"I just walked in and I liked the people and I liked the food," Souris recalls. "They served the best beef stew I ever had."
That was close to 70 years ago and Souris, 96, is still a frequent diner at the Royal. Indeed, until recently, when he moved from Alexandria to live with his son in La Plata, he ate there almost every day. "I just love the place," Souris says earnestly. He even celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary there.
Souris is not the only customer who is loyal to the Royal, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Many others are equally passionate about the casual, family-style restaurant, known for its nightly dinner specials (Monday is beef stew night), its lavish weekend and holiday brunch buffets, its killer milkshakes and, until 2001, its twice-annual Elvis celebrations.
For a group of friends from the District who call themselves the Liver Lovers, it's the diner's classic beef liver and onions with mashed potatoes on the side that keeps them coming back.
For David Holt, it's the weekday breakfast. The retired lawyer started going to the Royal 20 years ago, "when Old Town was cheap."
A creature of habit, Holt gets the same thing every day: "Oatmeal with hot milk, brown sugar, raisins and/or strawberries, an English muffin, no butter, two cups of coffee and a glass of water. It's good and good for you."
"I'm finicky," said Holt, who lives in Alexandria. "The oatmeal's got to be hot. The milk's got to be hot. And the brown sugar is crucial."
Holt is so well known at the Royal that he no longer has to give his order to the waitstaff.
Royal owner Charlie Euripides knows that it is such personal touches along with the restaurant's reliable presence that inspires loyalty in his customers, in spite of the restaurant's utter lack of trendiness and a decor that features dropped ceilings, red vinyl-upholstered booths and navy-and-white vinyl-checked tablecloths.
"We are a very traditional restaurant," says Euripides, a soft-spoken 70-year-old with a ring of white hair and bespectacled, soulful brown eyes. "The heart and soul of this restaurant has always been the idea that the family was involved, at the door shaking your hand when you come in, greeting guests just like you do when they come to your house."
A century ago, the Royal Cafe, as it was called then, was in the heart of Old Town, at 109 Royal St., right next to City Hall. Euripides's uncle bought the restaurant in the 1930s, and it has been in the family ever since. It was, as a blurb on the menu describes it, the place where "local politicians, attorneys, businessmen and downtown citizens discussed the hot topics of the day over hearty southern-style dinners and rice pudding desserts."
But during the Depression, Euripides said, it was also a place where, according to his uncle, ordinary people would come in search of work or a meal, offering to scrub floors in exchange for a bowl of soup.
Euripides, a native of Cyprus who arrived in the United States in 1951 at age 17, began working at the restaurant after a stint in the Navy. In 1964, when the city tore down the building that housed the Royal, the restaurant moved to its current location, on North St. Asaph Street.
Euripides, who eventually took over the business, credits his late wife, Barbara, with maintaining the Royal's success over the years. The spirited Tennessee native was known to take employees under her wing, including a teenage boy from El Salvador named Oscar Ramirez, whom she sponsored to become a U.S. citizen.
"My wife checked his homework every day and made sure he finished high school," Euripides said. Now, 14 years later, Ramirez still works at the Royal, as a chef. The restaurant's other main chef, Garry Cook, has been there even longer -- 20 years.
Barbara Euripides was also responsible for starting the twice-a-year Elvis parties, one celebrating the singer's birth and the other commemorating his death. Son Chris recalls that she even played matchmaker on a couple of occasions.
"There are a handful of people that she introduced and who got married at the Royal," Chris Euripides said. "She had a great personality; she took the good in life and shared it with everybody."
The restaurant held its last Elvis party in 2001, a few months before Barbara Euripides succumbed to cancer.
But family is still at the center of the Royal. Chris manages the restaurant and is currently planning the centennial celebration, which he says will take the form of three parties in the fall. Euripides's brother, Richard, joined the staff as a chef and can be seen on weekends behind the brunch buffet tables turning out perfect, vanilla-scented Belgian waffles.
You can also see Cook and Ramirez in action on weekends: Cook mans the omelet station on Saturdays and Ramirez, on Sundays. Just watching how they control three sizzling cast-iron skillets at the same time, expertly flipping and folding the omelets with a flick of the wrist at just the right moment, is worth the more-than-reasonable $8.50 price of the brunch buffet.
When it comes to the rest of the menu, you can't go wrong if you stick with the traditional diner dishes and steer clear of fancier fare. The crab cake sandwich, for example, has more in common with tuna salad than a true crab cake, and the New York strip sandwich, served on Texas toast, is overcooked, as are the vegetables -- the usual mix of carrots, corn and green beans.
But Charlie's royal club is one of the best club sandwiches I've ever had. It's stacked high and has plenty of bacon and thick slices of freshly carved turkey. In fact, anything from the menu that has turkey in it is almost certain to be a good call; the kitchen roasts a fresh turkey every day. The grits are basic and buttery, and the Virginia ham is real: salty, shaved into thick slices and pan-fried until the edges and parts of the surface are nicely browned.
As for Gus Souris's beloved beef stew, the secret, reveals Charlie Euripides, is in the equipment. "We have a big, 50-year-old pot that we use only for beef stew," he says. "Whenever somebody new comes into the kitchen, that's the first thing we teach them."
Of course, you can't have dinner at the Royal without having dessert. Will it be blueberry cobbler, fresh peach pie, Cook's rice pudding or the old-fashioned chocolate cake? They are all good, but the cake is superb: dark and rich with a thick layer of frosting. Like the Royal itself, it's a trip back in time and well worth the visit.