Like the Ivy League grad who wouldn’t dream of putting a college sticker in the back window of his Saab, The Royal at The Raleigh is too cool for self-promotion. It just is, and for as long as I can recall, the place where locals and celebs feel equally comfortable lounging by the pool or doing shots inside the pinky-sized bar tucked off the lobby.Even after ultra-hip hotelier Andre Balazs quietly offloaded the 1940s Deco gem in 2009, the spot remains a favorite — mostly because of its irresistibly romantic or really more sexy, tropical vibe. Despite the gorgeous quotient, the food at the stunning mostly outdoor restaurant now dubbed The Royal has never been top notch, even when one of my favorite French chefs, Eric Ripert, was in charge of the menu. Now that New Yorker John DeLucie has changed the focus from French to American comfort fare, the food still takes second place to the exquisite setting. It’s not that it’s bad, but, as the chef said about his New York eatery The Lion, “It’s a lifestyle thing; it’s not a culinary endeavor.” So, too, here. You cannot beat the vibe. White wooden tables are scattered beneath a canopy of shady sea grape trees where low-slung benches with gray cushions make for cozy if slightly awkward eating. . What threatens to ruin the otherwise perfect scene is the incredible incompetence of the handsome, well-intentioned but hopeless staff. Waiters dressed in white with a slash of black apron seem hired more for their headshots than for their expertise in the hospitality field. One night we had an English-impaired bartender pour shots into tumblers more suited for iced tea and press a cold Amstel Light (instead of the non-alcoholic beer ordered) on my husband. Another night, our friendly but drifting waiter couldn’t remember the names of the two types of oysters offered and forgot to mention any specials until after we ordered. Several wines from a limited and nervily priced menu were not available. And though we struggled to read the menu in the dark, our waiter couldn’t help. When we asked for a flashlight he shrugged and said “I used to have two.” Good thing we knew what we wanted. De Lucie is known for his simple American comfort fare, and his roast chicken is a signature. Our chicken, lightly seared under a brick, was indeed moist, tender and comforting, with its braised cipollini onions as golden and sweet as caramel, nicely browned cubes of pancetta, slivers of tart apple and a flourish of wilted watercress. A side of creamed spinach with loads of butter and breadcrumbs completed the meal, which came off like a warm hug from a long-lost cousin — nice, if not particularly exciting. Local grouper, grilled and served with chewy faro and shallots, was satisfying, as was an adequate New York strip steak served a la carte. The lunch menu offers such classic country club staples as chicken club and shrimp cocktail. But the way to go is with salads. A casually composed chopped salad with hearts of palm, radicchio and Manchego, and a Nicoise with gently boiled quail eggs and freshly grilled tuna are as scantily dressed as the ladies who lounge poolside. An arugula and Asian pear number is bracingly peppery and sweet, while an expertly seared octopus salad is tender and well composed. Desserts, too, fall into the elegant comfort food zone. Both a tidy little stack of silver-dollar sized crepes sealed with a touch of caramel and a baked cinnamon pear infused with cinnamon make nice finishes. The food here as imagined by DeLucie and executed by Jimmy Corona is neither haphazard nor artful, but something in between. It’s casual and easy and mostly what you want to eat. Even if the staff and prices sometimes make that challenging.
If you go
Place: The Royal.
Address: At The Raleigh, 1775 Collins Ave., Miami Beach.
Rating:★ ★ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 305-612-1162; www.raleighhotel.com.
Hours: 7 a.m-11 p.m. Dinner from 7 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $14- $16, entrees $26-$55, sides 10, desserts $8-$11.
FYI: Valet parking $15 with validation; full bar; $25 corkage; Reservations suggested. AX, MC, VS.