Due to unforgiving schedules that come with running restaurants and magazines, the Royers Café family and I talked food over the phone. It was four to one: Tara Royer Steele and her husband, Rick, and J.B. Royer and his wife, Jamie Len. Frankly, I was outnumbered by a family who works together, plays together and finishes each others’ stories. Our conversation was colored by the same funky, free-wheeling, friendly vibe that characterizes a meal at the Round Top original. Laughter was the order of the day.
RTR: Who taught you to cook?
Rick: My wife. When I started here nine years ago, she said she’d teach me to cook, and we’d work in the kitchen together. She taught me to cook—and then she left the kitchen.
Tara: None of us are trained chefs, but we all have sophisticated palates thanks to Dad. Depth of flavor is key. For the record, at her first Thanksgiving with us, Jamie-Len needed a hit from McDonald’s—and Rick used to ask to eat at random Chinese buffets. They’ve come a long way.
RTR: Which TV cooking show would you want to star in?
J.B.: Triple D (Drive Ins, Diners and Dives) or Iron Chef if they had a pie challenge. I’d kick butt in a pie challenge.
Tara: Throwdown with Bobby Flay. I’d throw down either our BLT or our apple pie.
Jamie-Len: Barefoot Contessa.
Rick: What, you don’t like shoes?
RTR: Who is your celebrity chef crush?
Tara: The Pioneer Woman.
J.B.: Who is that Italian woman with the “attributes?”
Rick: Yes, her and Justin Wilson. He never measured anything.
Jamie-Len: Alton Brown because I love the science behind everything.
RTR: If you could eat only one food forever, what would it be?
Tara: French fries.
Rick: Rice. I can fix it 50 different ways and never get tired of it.
RTR: Must-have kitchen gadget?
Rick: Good tongs.
J.B.: A good knife.
Tara: A kitchen towel or rag.
Jamie-Len: A spatula. I love a good grilled cheese.
RTR: Kitchen pet peeve?
J.B.: People who overcook food.
Jamie-Len: Hair in the food.
Tara: People who don’t clean up after themselves. That’s why I need a rag.
Rick: Don’t think I have one.
RTR: What is the one thing the public doesn’t understand about running a restaurant?(Answers flew too fast and furiously for attribution.)
“It’s not as easy as people think.”
“Even though we’re not open Monday – Wednesday doesn’t mean we’re not here working.”
“You better have good employees—and a good team isn’t easy to find.”
“You never leave your work at the restaurant. It’s a consuming life.”
“We’re not loaded.”
RTR: Least favorite thing about running a restaurant?
All: The hours.
RTR: Favorite ingredient?
Rick: Fresh basil.
Rick: Crushed red pepper.
RTR: Meat or potatoes?
J.B.: Meat, meat, bacon.
Rick: Can I braise the meat with potatoes? If not, I’d take potatoes; carbs always win with me.
RTR: What will never cross your lips?
Jamie-Len: Foie gras.
J.B.: Pig’s feet. I had trotters once. Never again.
Rick: I eat everything.
Jamie-Len: Yes, he even eats bugs.
RTR: Barbecue, chicken-fried steak or enchiladas?
Jamie-Len: My mom’s chicken-fried steak.
RTR: Your dog-eared cookbook?
All: The Internet.
Tara: If I had to choose a cookbook, I’d choose ours. (It’s out of print.)
J.B.: Me too, even though I have it memorized.
RTR: Go-to fast food joint?
Rick: Taco Bell.
Tara: McDonald’s because of the kids.
Jamie-Len: Taco Bell.
J.B.: Chick-fil-A or Popeye’s or Whataburger.
RTR: Favorite food memory?
Jamie-Len: Valentine’s Day 2007 when Jonathan (J.B.) put me in the car and drove me to the café. He set a table with a white cloth, candles and rose petals, and he had convinced a friend of ours to get dressed up in a three-piece suit and be our waiter. Jonathan fed me all of my favorites: mac and cheese, grilled cheese and the Café’s rolls with herb butter. It was perfect.
J.B.: Friday, May 6, 2005. My dad and I got up and drove to New Orleans in time to eat at Ugelsich’s before it closed permanently at 2:00 p.m. Then we ate at Jacque-Imo’s at 5:00 p.m. and at Commander’s Palace at 9:00 p.m. We got up the next morning at 4:00 and drove home. It was insane—and delicious.
Rick: Anytime I get to eat with my wife—and we don’t have to cook it.
Grill 1/4-pound of shrimp for each sandwich. Season both sides with our Café’s Grillin’ Seasoning (available at www.royersroundtopcafe.com) and butter. Don’t overcook. Grill just ‘til both sides turn pink.
Grill 1/4-pound of thick bacon for each sandwich. (We cook the bacon in a stack using a grill weight to get a super thick stack of bacon perfectly crisp.)
Spread both sides of the toasted hoagie with our Café’s Smokin’ Mesquite Mustard (available at www.royersroundtopcafe.com).
Add green leaf lettuce, fresh sliced tomatoes and red onion.
Cut and eat. Or just come get one at the café!
The Recipe for a Restaurant
In 1987, Bud Royer transplanted his wife Dr. Karen, their four children and his then-20 years of restaurant experience, including a stint working at the original Ninfa’s with Momma Ninfa, from metropolitan Houston to Round Top. He purchased the Round Top Café from the Pecks; the Goads, long-time family friends, had introduced the Royers to the Pecks. The deal was sealed with a handshake. The Royers started with $200 in the till.
From the beginning, the restaurant has been a family business. The Royer kids grew up working alongside their dad learning how to care for customers, create delicious food and market with the skillful creativity of Barnum and Bailey. Together they created an iconic Texas institution with a far-flung reputation for pie, pie and more pie. (Between early November and late December, the fam-team baked and shipped 6,500 handmade pies at a rate of 800 per week to addresses across the nation.) While the restaurant family loves their pie, the sweet treat sometimes threatens to overshadow the restaurant’s other stellar attributes.
“The pie may be what gets people in the door, but it’s the food, the service and the relationships that keep them coming back,” J.B. said.
The fam-team considers its menu of sophisticated country comfort food, ranging from the Sunday special fried chicken that benefits from a 24-hour marinade bath to multi-flavored, multi-layered pasta dishes and “steaks that will run a ring around anyone else’s,” as its hidden gem. Oh yeah, they also have a “hell of a wine list” with selections numbering around 60.
“When people push away from our table, we want them to feel as if they’ve just left their own family table,” Tara said. “Our customers should leave feeling wanted, needed, appreciated and satisfied. We provide food not just for the body but for the soul.”
According to all reports, Bud “the Pieman” Royer’s health and strength continue to improve after his heart attack. These days Bud only inhabits the Pie Throne on occasional Saturdays, but his legacy is alive and well.
“He taught his family how to be fully present in this restaurant—how to love on people and feed them,” Jamie-Len said. “He’s here in every bite, in every laugh and in every good memory that’s made.”
105 Main Street
Round Top, Texas 78954
Spring and Summer Hours:
Wednesday 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Thursday – Saturday 11:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Sunday noon – 3:00 p.m.
Reservations are taken only on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and during the Round Top Antiques Shows. For the Spring 2016 Show, reservations—only available by calling 979-249-3611—will be accepted beginning March 10.
Priority seating is available the rest of the year. Patrons can call ahead on the day they’re coming to the restaurant to put their name on the list. While priority list guests might not be seated immediately upon arrival, the wait will be short and sweet.
by Lorie Woodward Cantu