Editor’s note: This article was significantly updated on July 23 with new information from Royal Cafe owner Majid Mahani.
Though the pandemic is far from over, most restaurants that plan on welcoming diners back have, at the very least, announced a reopening date. But Albany’s Royal Café remains dark, with many people asking Berkeleyside if the beloved diner will reopen. Two days after this article was initially published, Majid Mahani, the restaurant’s owner since the mid-1980s, responded to Nosh’s months-long attempts to reach him, and the news is good: If all goes well, The Royal will reopen in August 2021.
The Royal Café
811 San Pablo Ave. (near Washington Avenue), Albany
The family-friendly Royal has been a local favorite since it opened in 1973. Featuring an iconic tower, the pink structure on San Pablo has been owned and operated by Mahani since the mid-1980s. A local merchant confirmed that the cafe shut down in March 2020, with an undated letter posted on the glass door at the entrance that reads: “[W]e have made the difficult decision to close our doors at this time to help prevent and slow the spread of this virus. We want nothing more than to serve our community again, and hope that we will be able to do so again in the near future.”
It’s understandable that many patrons worried that the Royal might not ever reopen. In addition to its lengthy closure, while its website remains online, its phone line just rings and rings, eventually answered with a computerized voice that says “memory is full.” Its liquor license remains active, but expires in September.
Issues like the phone line fell by the wayside, Mahani said, after he received a mid-pandemic diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition that cannot be cured. “I don’t let it define me for sure,” the 71-year-old Mahani said of his illness, which he said is controlled by medication. But getting to that point took some time, which helped delay any work to reopen the business.
Then there’s the pandemic itself. “I can’t go by what public health department says,” Mahani said. “Some of my staff have been with me for over 30 years. I can’t reopen until they feel safe.” Mahani said that with a kitchen the size of the Royal’s, there would be “five or six people in close contact,” a situation Mahani said he didn’t feel comfortable asking his workers to endure during the worst days of COVID-19. But throughout the pandemic, “I remained in contact with our kitchen staff,” and finally, “they are ready to go.”
Less certain is staffing for the Royal’s dining room, a tale familiar to everyone in the restaurant industry. Mahani says he’s been looking for workers to staff the front of the house, pouring coffee and serving plates, but it’s been tough. He’s worried about the vaccination status of prospective servers, too. “I and all my kitchen staff are fully vaccinated,” he said, “but can I ask that of people I am trying to hire as servers?” (According to health officials in many Bay Area counties, it might soon be out of his hands, as regions might actually mandate that businesses require workers to be vaccinated.)
According to Mahani, after such a lengthy closure he’ll also need some final inspections from county health inspectors before the Royal’s distinctive building can again entertain guests, which he hopes to do by the end of next month. It was a Safeway at some point, Albany historians say, although photographic evidence of this has been elusive — and in one photo from the ‘50s or ‘60s, its distinctive tower seemed to be part of a pizza-themed restaurant, its name obscured by the building next to it. In an earlier photo taken in the 1940s, there is no painted pizza sign or anything else to offer a clue about what was going on under that tower, which resembles nothing so much as a bartizan — a 14th-century medieval fortification. One can only wonder what inspired the architect to create such a structure on placid San Pablo Avenue.
In recent decades, the Royal has exuded nostalgia through the knick-knacks and tchotchkes that fill nearly every square inch of the place. Its décor doesn’t fit into a single category: there’s the “don’t touch, just look” jukebox, the collection of old radios and coffee pots, the black and white checkerboard tile, the red stools at the front counter, and the “Oh, I get it,” combination bagels-and-locks clock. It’s a vast collection of cultural artifacts that recalls bygone eras, even though the restaurant was established a mere 48 years ago.
And the food? The waffles (with or without crispy fried chicken), omelets, and variety of French toast and pancake options seemed designed to please everyone from seniors to toddlers. Benedicts and other items served with a rich and creamy Hollandaise merited their own column on the menu. The Royal’s orange juice was freshly squeezed, and its scones and other baked goods were made in house and paired with zingy lemon curd. (My grandson Sam used to call the Royal “the muffin restaurant” because he loved the fresh muffins, which he requested as a breakfast “starter” before his stack of pancakes arrived. We usually left the table sticky, but full of smiles.) There were never-ending coffee refills, and for those skipping breakfast, there were classic sandwiches and satisfying sides.
Like so many East Bay residents, the Royal was a frequent meeting place for me and my family. My son James and daughter-in-law Ashley-Renée live in Albany, just a few blocks from the Royal, and before the pandemic, we’d frequently meet at the cafe for breakfast with the kids. “I liked that it was somewhere I could go with my family (highchair users or not), by myself as a treat, or with out of town guests I wanted to charm,” Ashley-Renée said. And even though they were regular patrons, she said that “we were always spotting pictures and décor we hadn’t noticed before.”
The service at the Royal is also fondly remembered. Ashley-Renée says that workers were always “good about bringing crayons and coloring sheets” to the table, which made it more relaxing for the parents, even, she says, “when the kids were being a little challenging.”
Speaking with Nosh after this article was first published, Mahani said that he was “very touched” by the fond memories of the food and service that he read in this piece and in the comments below. “Reading those words made me more determined than ever before to reopen,” he said.
Eve Batey contributed additional reporting to this article following its publication