Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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My Florida: Jugs of A & W Root Beer and Royal Castle Birch Beer My Childhood Elixers

February 8th, 2011 · 10 Comments

A&W Root Beer Mug for sale on Etsy

Somewhere in my stash of collectibles from my former antique mall booth, I have a giant A&W Root Beer mug from the ’60s. I had found it at a yard sale for a buck. It was the old design, the one with the arrow through the target.

It’s the kind I remember my dad drinking from, getting a foamy mustache and grinning for us kids with it. The foamy, always ice-cold root beer, with licorice and cherry undertones, are forever etched onto my taste buds. I can’t remember a single food that thrilled me at A&W – the root beer alone did it.

We had a big A&W drive-in (so it seemed then) that took up all of one of the points of 5-Points – the intersection of Dixie Highway, Wilton Drive and 26th Street in Wilton Manors. We lived only a few blocks away, so it was a last-minute thing to go get a burger and a frosty cold mug of root beer if we had come back from a day of fishing or some other activity where mom didn’t cook.

Back in those days, you could order a big, frosty pitcher of root beer for your table. To take home, which we did, you could buy a gallon glass jug of it, keep the jug and have it refilled. I bet you only paid a quarter for the jug deposit. Doubt they’d do it today, or even have glass jugs.

A ’50s era drive-in

It was a teen hang-out, a true drive-in, with car-hops to bring out the trays that attached to the car windows. Sonic carries on this tradition with skating car-hops, though it just isn’t the same.

1963 Ford Galaxie 500

The teen guys with souped up cars were forever warning the hops about the tips of the trays touching their paint jobs. My dad’s eye-hurting-shiny black 427 Ford Galaxie 500, with Revlon-lipstick-red leatherette interior and AC so cold it froze to ice on the chrome vents, was his pride and joy.

He’d take the tray from the car-hop and place it himself so as to avoid any chance of a scratch. He called all females “doll,” so it was always, “Thanks, doll.” And he left them a decent tip,¬† so he was always getting extra mugs of root beer or an extra order of fries slipped on our tray with a wink.

There was a giant jukebox on the outdoor patio area under the fluorescent lights, maybe a Seeburg or a Wurlitzer – I’m not sure. All I know is that it towered over me, with big fat buttons I could barely reach to choose the 45s that would click and whir like a black round deck of cards as they they spun by and finally stopped to allow your choice to be plucked for the turntable.

I remember Bobby Vinton’s “She Wore Blue Velvet,” “Hey Paula” from Paul and Paula, and “Sugar Shack” from Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs playing on it. I hated it when I pushed a wrong button and it played some dippy song about cars.

A&W was the only drive-in around for a few miles, so it got a lot of business. There was Jerry’s, a national chain, in Fort Lauderdale on Sunrise Boulevard near U.S. 1. But it didn’t have root beer like this. I think they both closed in the ’70s, giving way to drive-thru spots.

Royal Castle – burgers and a birch

A Royal Castle in the Keys

Down the street on Wilton Drive, next to the “mullet hole” where my neighbor and my cousins walked to fish whenever they were around, was the Royal Castle. It was our version of White Castle. It had a gleaming white and orange tile interior with stainless steel and chrome fixtures, with a bunch of spinning stools at the counter. There was a walk-up window, if I’m not mistaken. More than any other feature, however, was air-conditioning. In those days if you had AC, it was cranked up to “snow” level to impress your guests. On a hot summer day in South Florida, the place was mobbed and there was condensation on the windows; it always looked like it had rained outside.

An ad for them indicated they were open 24 hours, but I honestly don’t recall that.

Here, you could get a whole meal for 50 cents. A mug of birch beer – different in flavor from root beer – was a nickel. It, too, was frosty and if truth be told, I preferred it to A&W root beer, though I can’t say why. I think it had more of a citrus, bright finish – maybe not quite as sweet. It’s been years since I’ve tasted one, but I remember the flavor as distinctly different.

Burgers palm-sized

Their little burgers were perfect for us kids. I could eat one and be done. My cousins Mike and Doug Ward could put away sackfuls – a cheap proposition at 15 cents each. 50 cents each would buy us three burgers and a mug of birch beer; they got my extras. The boys tried to see who could out-burp one another afterward while fishing in the shade of cypress trees in the river nearby.

The burgers were little patties, flattened within an inch of their lives, on a flat griddle that also grilled the onions¬† – so you got an oniony flavor throughout. A smear of mustard and a pickle were slid into the golden brown buns the size of dinner rolls. The tops of the rolls gleamed with a brush of butter. (No cholesterol police in those days.) I don’t think they came with cheese – that was an option, however.

The guy cooking wore a paper hat, and a white uniform with an apron – no gloves. He’d grab a stack of patties, with waxed paper in between, and slap them on the grill with precision and speed. He had a rhythm going with the spatula, flipping and pressing, then turning the onions, using the edge of the tool to chop them up: Flip, press, turn, chop.

If there was anything else at all on the menu, I have no idea. Maybe milkshakes – I do seem to recall you could get a birch beer float. And coffee – the cups were diner-iconic.

There was a resurgence of fondness for these burgers back in the ’80s and White Castle began distributing them in the freezer case. Krystal Burgers, more popular in the South, were reborn and live today. Still, they aren’t quite the same.

Instead of the burgers, I wish they’d have brought back the original root beer and birch beer – not the modern versions made with corn syrup and who knows what flavoring.

(Ed. note: The story that spurred mine is from former Palm Beach Post colleague Ken Steinhoff, who writes a blog about coming of age in Cape Girardeau, Mo. He wrote today about an A&W stand in his childhood city.)

Tags: Old Florida

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken Steinhoff // Feb 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Here’s the link to the A&W story she refers to.

    Every small town in the Midwest had a regular cruising route. We usually started off at Wimpy’s, stopped off at Pfisters, cruised down Broadway to see the Mississippi River, then repeated the loop endlessly burning up 36-cent-a-gallon gas.

    I don’t recall the A&W being that popular as a cruising stop, but the frosty-mug root beer sure was popular.

    One of my classmates talked about old-time football practice in the days when you worked out in the heat and humidity without water breaks. As soon as practice was over, the players would make a beeline for the A&W.

  • 2 thom // Feb 9, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Google Royal Castle Miami and you’ll get hits for two restaurants, one on NW 7th Ave., one on NW 27th Ave., in North Miami. Same guy owns both. Still serves Castle Burgers and Birch Beer.

    When I moved to Miami in ’59, the burgers were 15 cents, birch beer 7 cents, fresh squeezed OJ 10 cents, breakfast of two eggs any style, toast, grits 39 cents, chocolate cream pie 15 cents.

    In Hollywood there were Royal Castles on Taft Street at 67th Ave. and the southwest corner of Hollywood Boulevard and SR 7. Right in front of Lums — speaking of more fond memories.

  • 3 phil // Feb 9, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    when I was a kid my grandparents had “sasperella”
    trees on the land, we would boil up lots of rootbeer tea.This was before they found out it caused cancer! Yikes

  • 4 Pam Richardson // Jun 14, 2011 at 8:01 pm

    I worked at the Royal Castle in Union Park, Fl in 1972/73. I had forgotten about the Birch Beer until reading on here. We were open 24 hours and I worked all shifts at one time or another. The “bar crowd” was always interesting, especially on the weekend’s. I met a lot of people there and wish I could re-connect with them. But the 70’s were a strange time and I don’t remember their last names.

  • 5 Jan // Jun 14, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    Thom: I fondly remember Lums. Great hot dogs. My first date took me there; I still can’t think of one without the connection to him and a dozen other guys who took me there, too – it was a popular hangout on Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale – not too far from the high school for lunch, either. In college, the guys would buy beer and a dog there at one near Broward or Davie Blvd – I forget where it was down south.

  • 6 Jan // Jun 14, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Pam: I think the ’70s were a holdover from the ’60s – if you can remember them, you weren’t really there – ha!

  • 7 rob // Jan 1, 2013 at 8:17 pm

    I am lucky enough to have a coffee cup from Royal Castle that my did got when they closed one of the resturaunts. I wish I had the mug. Good memories when Miami was a nice small town. Jahn’s Ice Cream Parler on Miami Beach was a great memory.

  • 8 Steve Brown // Sep 24, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    What great times in the early 60’s The A&W
    Jerry’s on Sunrise ,The life Guard Stands on
    The beach. Great days in Fort Lauderdale!!
    I was in the class of 1966 at Northeast high.
    Thanks for the memories

    Steve Brown

  • 9 Marc Wagner // Feb 19, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    Another thing I remember about Royal Castle is that you could get a good breakfast there.

  • 10 Mad Max. // Feb 3, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    Wow I remember going to Royal Castle when I was a kid. It was our Friday night dinner . The one we went was on Bird road. Also Went to Pizza Palace when I got older and did the cruzin through the parking lot. Great times.

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