For months now, it’s been hard to escape Kiwi singer Lorde’s “Royals” song. Love it or hate it, it’s hard to unhear the tune. In Phoenix, a humble version of royalty has returned to Downtown. After the 2012 demise of the indoor portion of the Downtown Phoenix Public Market, Royal Coffee Bar was left without a home in the urban core and was operating only at Biltmore Fashion Park. Its presence at that upscale mall is greatly appreciated, but Royal’s absence from the city center created a hole in Downtown Phoenix coffeehouse culture.
Now, Royal has returned to Downtown Phoenix with a new location in the historic carriage house at Heritage Square, a few blocks from the 3rd St / Washington (westbound) and 3rd St / Jefferson (eastbound) light rail stations. As if that weren’t enough of a comeback, Royal has also opened a Tempe location on College Avenue, just half a block from the Tempe Transportation Center and the Veterans Way / College light rail station. Both locations serve Royal’s own coffee, roasted in house at Heritage Square, along with teas and a daily selection of pastries.
In the downtowns of both Phoenix and Tempe, Royal benefits from the talents of its owner Hayes McNeil, who is also an architect. In fact, his office is located in the second floor of the Heritage Square carriage house. The interiors of both shops showcase reclaimed wood and vintage furnishings. Somehow, the approach works in both an historic structure in Downtown Phoenix and a modern building in Tempe. The Tempe location adds a scholastic touch with a few traditional college chairs with writing surfaces evoking Arizona State University’s nearby campus.
Royal’s beans are packaged by the pound for home consumption but also available to enjoy on site in the usual gamut of coffee and espresso beverages. The baristas can describe the particular coffee available. At both locations, the menu is focused, so there won’t be unlimited flavorings but instead a well thought-out list of half a dozen coffee drinks along with a few varieties to tea and a refrigerated case of bottled sodas and juices. The basics of espresso, cappuccino, and caffe latte can be augmented with caramel, mocha, and white chocolate drink options.
Tea drinkers have their choice of a few blends at each store brewed to order and served hot or iced. For a robust black tea with gentle citrus and floral notes, the Blue Lady Black at Heritage Square is a pleasant sip. The Vanilla Mint green tea adds bit of flavor to tame the normal grassiness of green teas. Of course, more traditional Indian black tea blends and jasmine green are available. All coffee and tea drinks can be enhanced not only with cow’s milk, but also with almond milk, which lends a bit of sweetness to the beverage.
For something much sweeter, these two locations of Royal Coffee Bar offer a daily pastry or two from Nami, the vegan bakery on Seventh Street. The rotating selections include flaky turnovers filled with fruit, little coffee fritters that yield just two or three satisfying bites, and, most often, donuts in flavor configurations such as maple pecan and lemon poppyseed. Fortunately, none find themselves in the sorry category of vegan baked goods that taste like mere substitutes for the real thing. Fats from plant sources do the same job as butter with no loss in quality here.
Lorde insists “we’ll never be royals,” but thankfully we can obtain “a different kind of buzz” (from caffeine, not alcohol) at Royal Coffee Bar in the urban cores of both Phoenix and Tempe. Of course, Royal Coffee Bar is still worth visiting when shopping or dining at Biltmore Fashion Park, but the new locations serve vital purposes. The Heritage Square shop brings Royal back to Downtown Phoenix, and the College Avenue site addresses the surprising shortage of independent coffee shops in Downtown Tempe. Let us live that reality.
612 E. Adams St., Phoenix AZ 85004
502 S. College Ave., Tempe AZ 85281