By: Michael Wechsler
There are many restaurants in this city, and so many of them are good, great, or exceptional. A select few, however, have qualities that are much harder to nail down, intangible attributes that you might miss if you blink. For me, it’s Royal Sushi & Izakaya that comes to mind when thinking about such elusive traits.
For the uninitiated, the izakaya is Japan’s contribution to the category of taverns and gastropubs: a place of food, fun, and comfort that every neighborhood contains. While the last few years have brought the format a wave of recognition, it’s brought me a wave of nostalgia for time spent in the real thing. With such a small Japanese population in Philadelphia, I didn’t really expect anywhere to evoke the memory of a fun night in the establishments under the train tracks in Tokyo’s Yurakuchou or alongside Osaka’s Dotonbori Canal.
How is it then that I find this small Philly bar to have the same soul as those places? It’s not physical appearance: there are plenty of other Japanese restaurants done up in sleek zen simplicity or rustic traditional design that don’t feel as authentic. If anything, Royal has spent the least amount of time trying to look like its contemporaries. Occupying what clearly was once a typical corner bar, the room is long and narrow, decked out in exposed brick, topped with a copper ceiling, and boasting a massive carved saloon counter. Only small touches like the Noren curtains at the back, the bottles of sake behind the bar, and the playful projections of anime on the front wall suggest anything Asian.
Rather than a lack of attention to detail, that disregard for expectation is the first way in which Royal proves itself. An izakaya is not supposed to be a theme restaurant and need not look like one; it’s a neighborhood stalwart like the classic corner bar, and it feels right for it to channel what we expect from such in Philly.
Familiar elements of the genre come through in smaller but quintessential touches like the red lantern outside the door, the picture menu, and the food menu of classic fare like yakitori skewers, karaage fried chicken, gyoza dumplings, and sashimi. The service is friendly, the ambiance dimly lit but lively, the drink list extensive, and the food both legit and delicious: Everything one could want from their neighborhood pub is here in spades.
Not surprisingly, Royal is owned by one of Philly’s most pedigreed teams. After a painstakingly long five year conception, David Frank and Stephen Simons of several beloved institutions like Khyber Pass Pub and Royal Tavern collaborated with the father/son duo that ran South Jersey’s legendary sushi spot Fuji.
Together, they also managed to incorporate another improbable feat into the restaurant: Royal Sushi is essentially a separate, semi-secret concept operating in the same location. Behind the lively front room is a contemporary 6-seat sushi bar channeling an entirely different aspect of Japanese cuisine. The everyman’s charm of pub food gives way to an elegant, exclusive environment where master Jesse Ito personally prepares what most critics agree is the very pinnacle of authentic sushi in the region. His omakase tasting menu starts at a not unreasonable $65 and uses fish flown in directly from Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market, providing an unforgettable experience.
Front or back, this place is one of Philly’s coolest hidden culinary gems.
If you ask a newer resident of the city, they likely will have never heard of Royal Izakaya. More surprisingly, they may not have heard of the neighborhood it resides in either. With neither the prominence of Center City mainstays like Rittenhouse and Old City or the booming exuberance of newer trend-setters like Fishtown and Passyunk Square, Queen Village does not always get its dues. The residents of QV might just prefer it that way: Why share the secret when you occupy one of Philly’s most idyllic and enviable neighborhoods?
A relatively small neighborhood, Queen Village is boxed in by the tourist trappings of South Street to the north, oversized Washington Ave to the south, The Delaware River to the east, and larger Bella Vista to the west. As it’s not particularly convenient to a rail line or full of tourist attractions, most won’t ever make it to this perfectly convenient but somewhat removed corner of town. If they did, they would find clean, tree-lined streets consisting of elegant rowhomes more spacious than the norm in South Philly, a comparatively small but well-curated dining scene boasting places like rave-worthy all-day eatery Hungry Pigeon and chic Italian hotspot Ambra, easy access to I-95 for travel, and close proximity to the waterfront for leisure.
A few fantastic eccentricities like quaint mom-and-pop shops, a cat cafe, and some of the grandest mansions and architecturally interesting homes in the city contribute their charms to make this neighborhood truly unique. Tourists may stumble on some of QV’s splendor unintentionally when they visit the iconic Famous 4th Street Deli or Fabric Row garment district within its borders, but this upscale locale otherwise seems to be left to ubiquitous moms pushing strollers, couples walking dogs, and families playing outside.
To fully enjoy life in Queen Village, it’s hard to imagine a better setting than the gracious Federal-style home at 783 S Front St. Behind the grand but inviting exterior with cheerful blue doors and shutters lies an extra wide layout with an abundance of space.
Built over two centuries ago, the home still maintains the best elements of times past with exquisite moldings, hand-carved doors, intricate decorative fireplaces, and gorgeous stained glass accents. Tons of character can be found in everything from the extra tall ceilings to the tradition-worthy layout featuring a front vestibule, relaxing parlor room, and massive dining room.
Modern comforts are paired seamlessly with the home’s historic splendor thanks to an updated kitchen with stainless steel appliances and breakfast bar, as well as completely updated bathrooms clad in white marble flooring and white subway shower tiling.
An incredible five bedrooms provide more than enough space for any household. The huge second-floor master is resplendent with original hardwood floors, wood trims, and blue marble fireplace. Two large bedrooms on the third floor and two super-cute attic level bedrooms are joined by a sizeable basement bonus room and a lovely back garden to complete the home.
Bucolic Front St places this home among stately historic residences, lovely views of the river, and plentiful access to outdoor spaces. Located only a few doors down from nationally acclaimed Cypriot cuisine specialist Kanella and barely a block from the aforementioned Royal Izakaya, 783 S Front is well positioned for access to all the best amenities of the neighborhood.
This incomparable blend of space, style, and location is listed by Deidre Quinn at Keller Williams Center City and available for $899,000. With an open house taking place this Sunday, October 22nd, there’s no excuse not to check out this enthralling estate for yourself!
Go see the grand dame of a house with the blue shutters. When you’re done, the bar with the blue door and the red lamp will be waiting for you.