In response to our recent exploration of the early history of pizza in Saginaw, several readers responded with fond memories of the pizza served at The Royal Palm Red Vest. We confess, we have not found a recipe for their pizza. And a quote from Robert Gustin, one of the owners, may shed some light on our lack of success.
“‘Many have tried to imitate it, but they never have. The three of us [the co-owners] are the only ones allowed to make the dough or sauce. The secret has never been let out.’ Gustin said.” (The Saginaw News, May 17, 1983.)
For over a half of century, the Royal Palm – for much of its existence its full name was Royal Palm Red Vest - was a State Street landmark. Located just east of North Bond, at 1117 State, the restaurant started as a neighborhood tavern and became a Saginaw dining destination.
According to an article in the Saginaw News chronicling its history, the restaurant traces its origins back to a gathering Fred B. Spero held to celebrate the end of prohibition. The event was in a room inside a building at the corner of Lapeer and Weadock. However, the business soon moved to the State Street location, and by 1936 it was officially known as the Royal Palm.
Although food was almost certainly offered from the beginning, it was more of a gathering spot than a restaurant. Advertising from this period notes that they could cash payroll checks and sometimes featured entertainment. By the 40s, takeout dinners were featured: Rabbitt-on-the-Run and Perch-in-a-Package.
In 1941, John A. Benford bought the restaurant, assisted by his son-in-law, Robert B. Gustin. Gustin took over after Benford’s death. In 1963 he was joined by Jack Mott and eventually, John Gustin, Robert’s son, joined the business.
By the 50s, an expanded menu was featured and an April 20, 1955, an advertisement announced the arrival of what would become one of the restaurant’s signature items--pizza:
“The pizza has been a house specialty for 28 years, starting back in April 1955 when opportunity came knocking on Robert Gustin’s door.
‘I was here counting my receipts on a Sunday morning when a man named Frank Belviso knocked on the door.’ Gustin recalled. ‘I let him in, he said he was from Brooklyn and his in-laws lived here.’
‘He said, ‘I’d like to start pizzas in the Royal Palm. Before that I’d seen ads about pizza in the Detroit paper. My Wife (Merle) said, ‘I don’t know what it is, but we ought to get into it.” (The Saginaw News, May 17, 1983.)
By the 1960s, the Royal Palm was thriving. And a 1966 remodeling helped to cement its position. The restaurant remained open throughout the nine-month construction process. When complete, the capacity was 155 – that included banquet space for 70. Almost certainly, it was shortly after the completion of this project that the longer name was adopted – Royal Palm Red Vest. Staff assumed uniforms reflecting the name. (It seems unnecessary to note its signature clothing component.) And, although already established and popular, the restaurant was advertised as “Saginaw’s Newest and Most exciting Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge.”
The interior decor reflected the name. “The ‘Red Vest’ motif, with its deep wood colors and sunken bar, were unique.”* And the glassware continued the color scheme, shading from clear to red. However, what brought people to Royal Palm was food and service. Prime Rib – was brought to the table flaming for some mid-century glamour. In 1983 the menu featured 28 dinner options. This, of course, included pizza. All carefully prepared. The food might have been great, but what brought customers back was the service.
In September 1980, a fire gutted portions of the building. However, the restaurant was soon repaired and reopened. However, on June 5, 1987, a two-alarm fire leveled the building. In his column in The Saginaw News, Chris Thompson wrote:
“The Neighborhood Location of the restaurant has been a distinctive part of its character for the past 50 ye[a]rs.
Many other restaurants can be found in suburbia – surrounded by huge parking lots and expanses of concrete – away from homes. The Royal Palm has been convenient and close to many of those who patronized it over the years.
It has spelled City with a capital C, acting like a magnet for suburbanites who had left but were drawn back by food and friendship.
But will a new Royal Palm rise from the ashes?
If it is gone forever, Saginaw will have lost one of its few remaining neighborhood restaurants. And another landmark – and some character of this city – will be gone.” (The Saginaw News, June 6, 1987.)
The Royal Palm was not rebuilt. Clark Hardware Store was constructed on the site.
And although we have not located the recipe for the Royal Palm’s pizza, we are able to offer, what we believe, is a somewhat accurate recreation of a Royal Palm luncheon favorite – Cheese Dreams.
* The Saginaw News, June 6, 1987.
The Recipe: A Recreation of Royal Palm Red Vest’s Cheese Dreams
Aside: If you do an internet search for cheese dreams, you will discover a bewildering array of variations of this sandwich – even a few subtle twists that transform it into an appetizer.** At the Royal Palm, it was – of course - a carefully prepared, precisely plated and popular luncheon favorite.
Ingredients (per serving)
2 slices of Spatz white bread**
2 slices of Tomato 4 slices of cooked bacon – well done and crisp
2 slices of sharp cheddar cheese
Toast bread. Spread top of toast with mayonnaise. Place toast on sheet pan and layer in the following order: one slice tomato, two slices of bacon and one slice of sharp cheddar cheese.
Place under broiler until cheese is melted.
Cut sandwich diagonally into two pieces.
At the Royal Palm, four triangles of the sandwich were positioned around the edges of the plate to form a well that was filled with French Fries. The plate was garnished with a lettuce leaf and pickle slice. The plates were oval – leaving a perfect place for a pickle garnish.
-In the Royal Palm kitchen, carefully sourced ingredients of impeccable quality and precise preparation were the rule. Although you might think Spatz bread was chosen simply for convenience, the bakery was directly across the street, the source for each item was carefully vetted. While the source for the bread for this sandwich was convenient, the rye bread for corned beef sandwiches came from a bakery in Detroit. The prime rib was sourced from Kansas City.
The same care went into each dish served. And the quality of the ingredients may well be one of the secrets of the Royal Palm Red Vest’s pizza
-And those of you who have carefully over-analyzed this recipe may claim that it is closely related to a classic grilled cheese sandwich. Also, one could argue it is somewhat related to that cousin of a Welsh Rarebit, a blushing bunny – although that recipe normally uses tomato soup…
-The tomatoes could have been cut thinner and three slices of bacon provides better coverage.