The last Royal Castle in existence is in Miami and still serving classic sliders with birch beer
James Brimberry piles diced onions onto sizzling burger patties at the last Royal Castle in the world.
“You can take notes all you want, but you’ll never get it exactly the same at home,” he says with a belly laugh. “This grill is probably older than you.”
It’s older than him, too. James, 27, is now the owner of a restaurant that has stood on this corner of northwest Miami since 1958, when it was one of more than 150 Royal Castles in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
Now, there is only this one, handed down to him by his namesake grandfather, James N. Brimberry, the first black employee to work inside any Royal Castle restaurant as it integrated just ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Miami-based chain folded in 1976, and Brimberry bought seven restaurants, eventually selling off the others until only this one was left — and he was the sole owner of Royal Castle.
Now that legacy is his grandson’s — and he has plans for it.
“I want to take it to the next level,” James said.
He has started to renovate the building. Movie fans might have recognized this Royal Castle in a scene with Mahershala Ali in the Miami-made movie “Moonlight.” There’s also a new sign out front, a replica of the original, announcing to the world that a living piece of Miami history remains on this corner, serving memories in bite sizes.
And to help introduce the name to a new generation, James was to cook Royal Castle’s famous sliders every Wednesday night in July at a pop-up at Union Beer Store, a trendy craft beer bar in a surging Little Havana.
The side door of the all-glass dining room swings open just as James scoops up three tiny perfect patties with a single swipe of his spatula and slides them onto a row of toasted buns, each tiny bottom garnished with a pickle slice and swirls of ketchup and mustard. The man in the dining room, wearing an orange Royal Castle shirt and black cowboy hat, nods at his grandson.
“He’s always in the background, watching,” James said.
“I wanted to see whether he was committed, whether he was focused, if he really wanted to own a business,” Brimberry said.
Together, they slide into a faded orange booth in a restaurant at which James N. Brimberry, 77, was forbidden to eat until the day he started working there.
He points to a wall by the cash register that covers up a walk-up window which was the only place blacks were allowed to be served for decades. A pair of young black women had been carried out of a Royal Castle when they had tried to sit at one of the nine counter seats during the years of non-violent protest.
Brimberry kept the window on the outside of the building as a reminder.
“People that look like me weren’t allowed in here at one time. For him to become the first black to work inside of a store is mind boggling to me,” James says, eyeing his grandfather. Side by side, you can see they share the same nose, the same eyes, even behind Brimberry’s bifocal glasses.
James N. Brimberry knew it would be more than just a job when he applied in August of 1964.
The local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality had picketed Royal Castle, and Brimberry had participated in sit-ins at the downtown McCrory’s and Woolworths.
“We wanted the ability to work and have the same rights that they had — equality,” Brimberry said.
His sister, who worked behind the scenes at Royal Castle’s in-house bakery, told him the company was hiring as the Civil Rights legislation was signed into law. Brimberry, fresh out of the Army where he served in Germany from 1961-1964, knew nothing about food service, but his military managerial skills impressed Royal Castle managers.
“They wanted to know if I could control my passion if someone said something to me,” he said.
Two weeks into his training as an assistant manager, he was at the grill when a white patron sat down, saw him, and said he didn’t want a black man cooking his food. He didn’t say black man.
“That was the first time a white man had called me a n—” he said. “That really hurt me. I started crying I was so mad.”
Brimberry’s manager brought him to the back, sat him down with a cup of coffee, patted him on the shoulder.
“I made a decision that day, sitting on that stool, holding that cup of coffee that one day I would own this place,” Brimberry said.
James N. Brimberry would rise to district manager in a booming publicly traded company that William Singer started with a single store in Miami in 1938 in response to the depression. His five-cent burgers were so successful that when Ohio-based White Castle (Singer’s hometown inspiration for Royal Castle) tried to move into Florida, it couldn’t compete.
“There was a Royal Castle on every major intersection in Miami,” says burger historian Sef Gonzalez, author of “All About the Burger: A History of America’s Favorite Sandwich” and curator of the Burger Beast Burger Museum.
But rising costs and narrowing investor profits doomed the company. In 1976, Royal Castle dumped its stores, offering them at rock-bottom prices to employees — and Brimberry snapped up seven. He stayed on to help the company close the remaining unsold Royal Castles from Key West to Punta Gorda.
He eventually sold off six of his stores. He never could bring himself to sell off the last one.
“Royal Castle has always been a family affair. I decided to do what the Singer family did,” Brimberry said.
He had trained his son, James N. Brimberry II, to take over the family business. But on a road trip to visit family in Georgia in 2002, James N. Brimberry II was shot to death in a roadside robbery along with his two passengers. A man was prosecuted and acquitted of the triple murder, according to newspaper coverage.
Brimberry continued running the restaurant, but his heart was no longer in it.
But everything changed when he called his grandson James in Tallahassee where he was attending college, to tell him he was putting the last Royal Castle up for sale.
“I couldn’t let that happen,” James said.
He returned to the Miami store, where he has been learning the ropes the last three years, from employees who saw him carried into the restaurant as a baby.
Adriana Astwood started working there 30 years ago when she moved to Miami from Turks & Caicos. Laverne Wright has worked there for 22.
“You have people come in and say, ‘Oh my god, I haven’t seen this in years.’ A lot of people grew up eating here, these same recipes, and for some of them it’s nostalgic,” Wright said.
They appreciate how he’s trying to help Royal Castle tap back into its roots.
He recently met at the Burger Museum with curator Gonzalez, who offered to give the younger Brimberry Royal Castle memorabilia for the store. A little historic context is all it needs — old photos, pictures of his grandfather, Gonzalez told him.
“I showed him all the stuff I had, and he was just blown away,” Gonzalez said. “When people come to Miami, that’s a place they should go to. It’s not just a restaurant. It’s Miami’s original restaurant chain.”
Lokal and Kush owner Matt Kuscher, who recently revitalized the 65-year-old Stephen’s deli in Hialeah, gave James ideas about updating the building while preserving its vintage feel. A fresh coat of paint, resurfacing the booths in original orange and fixing up the stools all would go a long way to making the last Royal Castle a tourist attraction.
“People go in there and I don’t think they realize what they’re walking into. James does,” Kuscher said. “It’s an iconic building. It’s got a great story. And most importantly, it’s run by somebody who cares about it.”
Both want the new Miami to reflect the best of Brimberry’s old Miami.
The burgers aren’t five cents anymore. These days, they’re a bit larger than the originals but made the same way for $1.49 (add 10 cents for cheese), or as they used to advertise, buy ‘em by the bagful: six for $9.
“You can order one — but you can’t eat just one,” James said.
He’s brought back Birch beer (something between a root beer and cherry Coke) that was a hallmark of Royal Castle. And he’s serving it in the same frosty glass mugs.
All of it comes under the watchful eye of his grandfather.
“It’s beautiful. Every bit of it is good,” Brimberry said. “He’s shown everything I’d hoped for. He’s very committed to it.”
The elder Brimberry points across the panoramic windows at all the stores that have changed, a neighborhood that went from white to black. But here, inside these walls, where the first black employee became the sole owner, Royal Castle feels just as it always has.
“It doesn’t change. Everything else in the world changes, but Royal Castle stays the same,” James said. “People come here, remember a time when they were growing up, tell stories and I love hearing their stories.”
2700 NW 79th St., Hialeah
Union Beer Store
1547 SW 8th St, Little Havana