I lasted 11 years in a 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment. Technically, there was a small office with a window that looked out onto a bricked-in elevator shaft, a room that only a real estate agent would call a second “bedroom.” Nobody in his right mind would want to sleep there.

When I left, the building’s landlord grumbled, then relisted the unit online. After a few months without a new renter to pay the price he sought, he changed tactics. Rather than drop the rent, he audaciously pitched the apartment as a four-bedroom space.

For potential tenants without enough imagination to envision life in a 21st century tenement, he included a blueprint illustrating how beds could be sardined around the one bathroom.

It should come as no surprise when I tell you he didn’t rent it. Not even Charlie Bucket’s family could have made that arrangement work.

Brazen floor plans came to mind frequently during my first meal at Portland’s Royale Lunch Bar, which opened in April. For the first 10 minutes, as my two guests and I shared a supercharged Lord Goat Boy milkshake ($6) – a Vietnamese-style iced coffee frappe with enough caffeine to qualify it as a pre-workout supplement – things seemed cozy but manageable at our wall-adjacent table.

Then food began arriving, piling up in a logjam of sheet trays and utensils, and it became clear that our table (and all the others in the rough shiplap-paneled room) was actually a two-top. Ours was ambitiously set with three chairs, while others were surrounded with an even more aspirational four.

So when you read that there are 30 seats in the quirky, French-Canadian-inspired lunch joint, be forewarned: A little fanciful math went into that calculus.

A classic smoked meat sandwich: smoked beef brisket and house-made yellow mustard on rye with a sour pickle spear. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Around noon on a weekday, solo diners and duos stand the best chance of finding a place to devour their hefty, homemade-mustard-slathered smoked beef brisket sandwiches ($11) or delicately smoked, deep-fried half-chickens ($12).

If you cannot find a seat, you’ll want to take your order somewhere with a flat surface – Royale’s are not meals intended for on-the-go consumption as you stroll around the Old Port. It would be difficult to imagine scarfing the Caesar Royale ($8) – a hearty, albeit gloppily overdressed salad bulked up with Kalamata olives and toasted farro – while in transit.

So too, the undersalted (yet accurately named) Smokey Tomato Soup ($5), and the bland-and-wet, extremely healthy-tasting fluorescent cauliflower “Mac N Cheese” ($7). Frankly, you’re better off not bothering with either of these two sides, both of which start with a  vichyssoise base that deadens all other flavors.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for one of Royale’s signature dishes, its poutine ($7). Each element is special on its own: skinny fries hand-cut from Green Thumb Farms potatoes; lush house-made gravy that burbles in puffs of rosemary and thyme; squeaky, savory cheese curds; and if you’re game, a scattering of Montreal-style smoked brisket (add $4).

But as I discovered during two visits, combining the components into poutine diminishes them all. Under a flood of cool gravy, the fries wind up mushy and the cheese stubbornly unmelted.

Still, chat with co-owner and executive chef Joe Farr for a few minutes, and you get the feeling that he’s got the skills to sort out a soggy poutine. Trained locally at Back Bay Grill, then a caterer at Bread & Butter/158 Pickett St. Café (along with two of his business partners), Farr envisions Royale Lunch Bar as a modern response to fast food and downtown sandwich shops that source everything from corporate distributors.

“We’re using as much local produce and ingredients as we possibly can,” he said. “All the breads, buns and bagels we use come from Southside Productions, another 158 Pickett connection. Our gravy is made from backs and necks from whole chickens, we’re making our own mustard and of course all of our own pickles.”

While not strictly French-Canadian, Royale’s tangy, fermented vegetables are exceptional. Most sandwiches are served with at least one portion, like Fresno-chile turbo-boosted bread-and-butter pickles that the kitchen slips into a potato bun alongside a concussively crunchy deep-fried chicken thigh ($9). It is a gorgeous and deceptively spicy combination.

Or discs of sweet-pickled carrots spooned into an orange border around a Philly-meets-Sherbrooke mashup, Farr’s excellent Bifteck Sandwich ($9), featuring shavings of red-wine-marinated smoked eye-round mounded with tart, sweet onion jam, all obscured by a gauzy film of melted American cheese.

But to get a real sense of Royale’s pickling prowess, order the five preserved vegetables served with chips the kitchen makes from bagels left over from its bustling breakfast service ($7). Snappy sour dill spears, garlic-marinated mushrooms and dilly beans as fat as your thumb arrive in an overcrowded paper boat (along with bread-and-butter slices and pickled carrots). Remove one of the superb pickles and several will tumble from the container onto your aluminum sheet tray, but you won’t mind. This is one situation where overambitious space planning is easy to forgive.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]


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