Cocktails on the bar at Royal Tavern. The interior has a few new touches, but remains a cozy neighborhood hangout. (Rachel Del Sordo)

Royal Tavern returns today after 43 months with a soft reopening scheduled for 4 p.m.

The South Philly neighborhood bar had been closed since March 2020, or “ever since the world stopped,” general manager Sam Benson told Billy Penn. 

With owners Stephen Simons and David Frank spending the pandemic focusing on their other, more takeout-friendly restaurants like Triangle Tavern and Cantina Los Caballitos, it took some time to get everything back in motion again at the Royal, Benson explained.

The interior was renovated shortly before the pandemic. Since then, a few newer features have been installed, like additional bench seating in the dining room and ornate wood and stained-glass touches throughout. The overall layout with its 12-seat bar, however, remains “the same as it always has been,” Benson said. “A gorgeous hole-in-the-wall with an elevated dining room.”

The menu has also been updated — with the exception of one key item. “We are, of course, keeping our burger,” Benson said.

The tavern’s namesake burger had long been its most popular menu item, its loss still lamented online since the Royal’s closing. It’ll be making its return unchanged, from the beef patty’s topping of smoked gouda, chili mayo, caramelized onion, pickled long hots, and bacon to the sesame seeded bun and the malt vinegar mayo that comes with the fries. 

Beyond that, it’s an all-new lineup, courtesy of executive chef Nic Macri, coming to Royal Tavern from Khyber Pass Pub, another Simons and Frank venue, where he spent a year and a half. Prior to that he ran his own butcher shop, La Divisa Meats, at Reading Terminal Market, before joining the opening team at the Four Seasons where he oversaw the hotel’s butchery department.

A selection of plates by chef Nic Macri at the reopened Royal Tavern. (Rachel Del Sordo)

For the Royal, he’s bringing porchetta, smoked beef round, and housemade sausages and charcuterie, part of a rotating selection of accouterments and local cheeses that make up the menu’s royal pantry plate.

The place is not just for carnivores — far from it. “The restaurants in the company do have a pretty big vegan focus on their menu,” the 39-year-old chef said. “We wanted to keep that going.” He’s keeping the balance with a vegan gyro and cheesesteak, seitan skewers and wings, and a radish tartar, alongside a selection of smaller vegetable sides.  

It’s all part of a vision that’s “similar but different,” from the pre-pandemic Royal Tavern, Benson explained.

Besides his duties as a general manager, the 37-year-old also oversees the Royal’s bar alongside the venue’s director of operations Lopi Asch and assistant general manager Brian Martin Scott, a veteran of the tavern and who, like Benson, bartended at Triangle Tavern for years.

Royal Tavern at 937 E. Passyunk Ave. in Bella Vista. (Rachel Del Sordo)

The beverage menu is a collaboration shaped by their individual areas of expertise; Benson with his love of American whiskey, Asch with a deep knowledge of beers, and Scott with an experienced view of “what he believes the neighborhood might want, or what was popular in the past.”

Two of the bar’s 12 taps will be devoted to wine, a house pinot grigio and a semi-sparkling frizzante, “our house bubbles,” Benson said. The draft beers will express a variety, he explained, with a hazy IPA line, a sour line, and locally brewed Kenwood as a light option.

Expanded options for amari and agaves — sotols, a pechuga, and a bacanora — are also available. “We do anticipate a nice industry crowd of people getting off work and coming in,” Benson said, appreciating the “offbeat selections.”

There’ll be a grand opening in early December, and weekend brunch hours launched with the new year. For today’s opening, and moving forward, visitors can expect “the same close-knit neighborhood vibe,” Benson said. He stressed that the tavern would not be taking reservations in order to always remain accessible to neighborhood residents.

“We’re just ready to get back into that,” Benson said. “Your local bar on the block that you just love to walk to, and go get a great meal.”

937 E. Passyunk Ave. | 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily | $4-$27 |

Ali Mohsen is Billy Penn's food and drink reporter.