For almost 40 years, the roast beef and chicken kabob sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil from Royal Roast Beef & Seafood were a staple of East Boston’s Orient Heights community. Day after day, everyone from businessmen to construction workers would file through the doors of the squat, red-brick building on Bennington Street, a bustling and beloved place that — even as change swept the neighborhood — stood as a totem of old Eastie.
“They basically invented the chicken kabob sandwich,” says Lisa DeAngelico, 49, a lifelong East Boston resident.
So when a small kitchen fire claimed Royals in late 2018, and “Temporarily closed” signs were slapped to the windows below the blue-and-white awnings, loyal customers awaited word about when the neighborhood favorite would reopen its doors.
And they waited.
With few public updates from the shop’s owners, and little to no news coverage, the future of Royals has become arguably East Boston’s greatest mystery.
In a brief interview with the Globe recently, co-owner Efstathia Hios said that Royal indeed planned to reopen, possibly as early as this month.
“All I can say is we are under renovation and are planning to open [this spring],” she said.
But as the months have piled up — and with little concrete information to go on — longtime acolytes of the local eatery have remained anxious.
More than a year after the fire, Royal has remained one of the most frequent subjects in the East Boston Open Discussion Facebook group. And with official information scarce, some residents have formed their own theories about the building’s future, including speculation that the shop’s owners are holding out for a developer to buy the land from them — which is now worth almost as much as the building itself.
“They will probably replace Royal with condos,” grumbled one commenter in early January.
Replied another: “Probably just waiting for the highest bidder.”
Royal — or “Royals” as its known by locals — has always been a family operation.
It was founded by brothers Steven Hios and Peter Hios, in 1981. The two ran the place together for 18 years before Peter Hios left to open Royal Roast Beef in Stoneham; he later sold the business, but it continues to operate under the Royal name.
In June of 2015, John and Efstathia Hios took over the East Boston location from their father, Steven, according to land records.
DeAngelico, 49, has lived in East Boston her entire life. After Riley’s Roast Beef closed in Day Square when she was a child, she said that Royals became the takeout place for Eastie residents.
She started going as a teenager and would congregate with friends inside late at night for a bite to eat. For DeAngelico, though, Royals is more than where she ordered fries and tartar sauce, her roast beef rare, or Greek salad with square feta cheese topping.
Like many lifelong Boston residents, she identifies strongly with the section of town in which she grew up, and has continued to fight — along with many Orient Heights neighbors — against the crush of new development. Without Royals, she said, the landscape would change.
“We have Burger King and Subway, but Royals was the place,” said DeAngelico, citing a menu that charged an average of just $4 to $6 for sandwiches and subs. “They were friendly, they didn’t mind when we congregated as teenagers and they had reasonable prices. It’s where a family could get a lot of food.
“Places like that don’t exist anymore.”
Matthew Riseman, 29, and his now fiancee, Angela DeMeo, had just started dating when Riseman moved into an apartment in East Boston just behind Royals. While still getting to know each other, the two would often walk over for takeout — a roast beef sandwich for him, a fish sandwich for her — before heading to nearby Constitution Beach to watch the planes land across the water at Logan Airport.
“Because everything with her felt new and felt so good and real and heavy with love between us, Royals felt, to me, like something special,” said Riseman, who moved to Orient Heights from Brockton to live with DeMeo, a Heights native. “That first meal we had and watched the planes land was so special and no other meals I have had since have given me such emotional feelings.”
On Dec. 31, Riseman proposed. DeMeo said yes.
For her part, Efstathia Hios admits that the shop’s reopening process has been a long one.
“We want to make sure we do it the right way so we can be around for 40 more years,” she explained.
The building itself offers a few clues.
Inside, Royal has been partially gutted. As of a few weeks ago, a section of the wooden takeout counter still stood, but a glass display case that once held pre-made salads and bottles of sodas was gone. There wasn’t a single seat, bench, or table inside, but recently, some lights have been left on and a new bathroom sink has been installed — a sign, perhaps, that the plan to reopen this spring might indeed go through.
In the meantime, residents are doing their best to remain patient.
Emma Bonia, 38, said she has been a Royal’s customer for over 15 years, and has grown frustrated with speculative reopening dates regularly posted by commenters on the popular East Boston Open Discussion group on Facebook, which has nearly 15,000 members — mostly past and present residents. In the months since the fire, meanwhile, a $10 million construction project has begun across the street at 917 Bennington St., and Royal’s parcel value has increased by more than $25,000. And while property values in Eastie have increased by 97 percent in the past year and gentrification from Jeffries Point to the Heights ensues — the importance of this roast beef shop remains crucial for some.
Bonia, like many residents, says Royals serves as a symbol of what Eastie once was.
“I miss the bond, the closeness of Royals,” she said. “Royals is family.”
This story was produced in collaboration with the Northeastern University School of Journalism.