This past July, the Royal Pig Pub & Kitchen debuted in Fort Lauderdale with a smart concept that capitalizes on popular trends. With its ingredient-driven comfort fare, an upscale pub ambiance, and a solid craft-beer and mixology program, the restaurant injects some life into the monotonous dining scene in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The location — in the former Samba Room space on a west-end corner of Las Olas Boulevard — is just across from bar/restaurants Vibe and YOLO and, like them, draws a young professional crowd: men in dark-gray business suits, women in little black dresses and white pearl necklaces.
The 233-seat eatery manages to pull off a clever formula with its atmosphere, mixing the entertainment value of a sports bar — 30-plus high-definition televisions are all tuned to the game of the moment, and some four-seat booths even have a built-in private screen — with tasteful décor. Lamps, hooks, mismatched frames, and bookshelves give the space a cozy feel. Shelves are lined with literature on economics, finance, and even a tale or two of fiction — a subtle message to diners that if they're eating here, they're smart.
The Royal Pig is under the ownership of LTP Management — the same people behind Lulu's Bait Shack and Hooter's across South Florida. Joe Upchurch, general manager and partner, has 24 years in the restaurant industry. With this kind of experience, it's easy to understand why the group has quite the hit on its hands. Despite not offering any happy-hour specials, the restaurant is consistently full with dozens of after-work patrons sipping on a drink and nibbling on chicken wings — even on a Monday night.
An arched red-brick ceiling tops the center bar, revealing the restaurant's open kitchen. This area features a large rotisserie oven, constantly spinning with perfectly browned poultry or pork. An oversized steel shelf holds an extensive array of liquors, slightly obscuring the view into the kitchen. The bartenders and wait staff — most of whom are ladies wearing tight white buttoned-down shirts, black vests, and ties — are consistently busy, attending to the many diners sitting on the barstools or even standing, seeking drinks.
The menu features a wide selection of craft beers, wines by the glass, and signature cocktails. The latter taps into the current mixology trend, with specialty offerings like the creative blood-orange caipiroska — Skyy blood orange vodka, fresh muddled clementines, and lime ($10). The craft beers are a big hit too, particularly the chilled 18-ounce schooners priced at $6 to $7 a glass. Offerings include Magic Hat #9 and Holy Mackerel's Panic Attack.
Previously of Emeril's in New Orleans and Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, executive chef Stanton Bundy helms the kitchen. His cuisine showcases classic American comfort fare: chicken wings, burgers, ribs, and turkey sandwiches. These dishes might not sound exemplary, but the food is distinguished because of attention to quality ingredients.
The poultry, for instance, is free-range, and many of the vegetables are organic (kale salad, potato and sweet potato fries). Some menu items are even locally grown, such as the wild mushrooms accompanying the grilled, free-range turkey meatballs. The menu is packed with buzzwords.
Those meatballs, an appetizer, arrive slightly tough but atop a delectable scarlet marinara sauce, accompanied by a fresh dollop of ricotta cheese and slices of buttered-up bread. Delectable free-range chicken wings are brined in a mixture with brown sugar, then coated with a spicy, full-flavored jerk seasoning and accompanied by traditional thin slivers of superfluous celery. Least successful among starters is a platter of New Orleans barbecued shrimp with a braise of Abita — a Louisiana craft beer. The bland crustaceans hardly absorb the rich Creole flavors in the stewed liquid.
The salad section of the menu features a wide selection of bacon-studded greens. It includes a chopped salad that comes with a choice of duck, pork, or shredded rotisserie chicken atop romaine, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, and crumbled bacon in a sweetened lime-basil vinaigrette. Or a warm spinach offering that's dressed with a bacon-balsamic vinaigrette. The Royal Pig wedge salad comes with corn-bread croutons, Stilton blue cheese, and — making another appearance — bacon.
Burgers and sandwiches can be ordered full sized or as sliders. Both versions of the barbecued pulled rotisserie pork (sliders $9, sandwich $11) feature a fried pickle, the restaurant's house-made mayonnaise, mustard, and a sprinkling of cabbage slaw, for an extra pop of crunch. The restaurant takes pride in making its own impressive dressings, sauces, and dips. Prime beef sliders come with a slightly sweet tomato marmalade, American cheese, and a house-made pickle.
"Pub favorites" — AKA entrées — are served only after 5 p.m. The selection is varied but also includes a set of repeated tunes. Appetizers are enlarged and offered as dinners. Here, the lackluster New Orleans barbecued shrimp make another appearance, as do the house-smoked rotisserie ribs. One distinctive option is a crisp pan-fried chicken fried steak advertised as Kobe ($18), served alongside delectable mashed potatoes, rich sawmill gravy, and stewed green beans with insufficiently rendered bacon.
When I visited the Royal Pig with my two German aunts — both about 80, who originally felt slightly uncomfortable among the restaurant's crowd of people in their 20s and 30s — one of them exclaimed, "What good schnitzel!" With a bite of the Royal Pig's traditional fare, it's hard not to be overwhelmed with unforeseen feelings of comfort.
Even more successful is the fish of the moment ($23) — in my experience, a perfectly cooked grouper fillet paired with buttery Anson Mills grits, tender mussels étouffée, and a refreshing mango salsa. The dishes at the Royal Pig are typically large enough to share, but this one is worth hoarding.
Desserts are the lowest point of an otherwise mostly pleasing meal. They are all oven-baked to order, a detail that servers may or may not remember to inform the table. If it arrives dry, the raisin carrot cake — with mediocre cream-cheese topping, slivers of toasted coconut, and superfluous scattered berries — doesn't merit the ten-minute wait. A broken warm chocolate cake consists of sponges of cocoa cubes with a tart bing cherry compote, served inside a petite red cast-iron Dutch oven atop a cedar-plank tray, with a small bowl of vanilla bean ice cream on the side. A thick whipped-cream top is an unnecessary addition.
Still, so far, the Royal Pig Pub has its formula nailed; it's just the service that needs finessing. Dishes may arrive in a haphazard manner, like appetizers and entrées being delivered together. This is particularly true during busier nights, which, actually, can be any day of the week. But overall, the good-looking wait staff is attending to patrons with genuine grins and an eager desire to deliver a well-orchestrated meal.