It’s a long way from Paris, but in a sense, Seattle’s new Royal Drummer Cafe has its roots in the French capital. Taking inspiration from Au Tambour Royal (“at the royal drummer”), a cabaret/tavern that was frequented by the likes of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, Royal Drummer is a nod to the “tasty tomfoolery” of the 18th-century Parisian haunt, which in its day welcomed a variety of characters from all echelons of society.
On a sunny spring Saturday, I pop in to take a look at the new space. When I ask about the name, owner Jill Killen hands me a heavy book from the 1920s titled All About Coffee. Killen points me to Chapter Five—“The Beginnings of Coffee in France”—which has an engraving of the famed Tambour Royal, the epicenter of good times in 18th-century Paris. She leaves me to enjoy the book, my cup of coffee, and my history lesson.
Royal Drummer might be a little less boisterous than its namesake—there was no cabaret in sight as far as I could tell—but it does want to play a similar role as a social hub, even giving away free coffee in the days leading up to its official grand opening at the end of April. “We’re trying to get people from the 10 blocks around us,” says Royal Drummer director of coffee Neil Oney. To some, opening a cafe in Seattle might seem almost unnecessary. There’s no denying that the Seattle coffee market is saturated, but Oney points out that “this neighborhood doesn’t have a lot.” That means that when it comes to serving coffee, this part of Ballard is full of potential.
Part of the new Ballard Public Lofts & Market complex, Royal Drummer occupies the former space of the now-defunct Viking Tavern, a beloved drinking hole. While Royal Drummer is far from a dive bar, it’s a welcoming space that is catering to the entire neighborhood’s eating and drinking needs, inspired by Australian cafe culture. “Because it’s a part of the neighborhood, we wanted to be open all day,” says Oney. “Good food, coffee in the morning, beer and wine in the afternoon.” Unlike the former bar, Royal Drummer is kid-friendly, with Italian sodas on the menu to keep them happy.
But when it comes to coffee, the Royal Drummer team knows their stuff. Owner Killen is also the owner of Cloud City Coffee and El Diablo Coffee. This third cafe gives her the chance to do something a little different. “I’m a total brew nerd,” says Killen, “so we’re refracting all our brews every day.” Shots are pulled on a custom Synesso MVP Hydra (bend down and you’ll spot the Royal Drummer logo at the base), the team uses a Curtis Seraphim single-cup brewer, and the beans are sourced from a list of rotating roasters.
The coffee offerings aren't what you’ll find at most Seattle spots. “We wanted to do coffee that wasn’t available in Seattle,” says Oney. In fact, the original intent was to feature a roaster from each of the four United States time zones. That got a bit complicated to execute, so Royal Drummer is sourcing from four different independent roasters they like and know are hard to find in Seattle. The house espresso blend, Antoinette Espresso (its namesake was, after all, a woman of luxurious tastes, including coffee), is sourced from Bellingham, Washington’s Camber Coffee, and while the source will change, Oney says it will always be a roast that’s intended to do well in milk drinks.
Rotating roasters currently on offer include Plowshares, Ceremony, and Q.E.D. Royal Drummer plans to switch out one per month in exchange for something new, to keep the selection interesting. “We want you to walk in and say, ‘These people are making really good coffee,’ ” says Oney. For those who need a reminder of the cafe’s commitment, there’s a card at the register with a drawing of Marie Antoinette and the phrase: “coffee so good you’ll lose your head.” (Let’s hope we’re speaking only metaphorically.)
With a full kitchen in its big space, Royal Drummer's idea is to do traditional cafe-style foods—sandwiches, salads, etc.—but all with a little more flair than usual. “We want it to be accessible but delicious,” says Oney. That means a spinoff of the classic BLT might involve an upgrade of pork collar and chorizo. In the kitchen, there’s a fryer used to make fresh doughnuts every morning, and the yogurt is also made in-house. There is talk of someday making butter in-house too, an admirable goal.
Besides traditional coffee drinks, Royal Drummer offers wine and beer, with a plan to offer seasonal coffee mocktails. “Everyone who works here is really into flavor pairing,” says Oney, who points out that ultimately, be it coffee or food, Royal Drummer wants to “give people something interesting.”
Going a step further, eventually there will be coffee and food pairings as well. Oney mentions the oyster/coffee pairing that Scandinavian Embassy did earlier this year as inspiring. “I would love to be able to blow someone’s mind by putting an oyster next to coffee.”
When that time comes, I am sure it’s something that would get Marie Antoinette’s approval.
Anna Brones (@annabrones) is a Sprudge.com staff writer based in the American Pacific Northwest, the founder of Foodie Underground, and the co-author of Fika: The Art Of The Swedish Coffee Break. Read more Anna Brones on Sprudge.