In downtown Durham, less than five minutes from the Durham Convention Center and The Carolina Theatre, one of Durham’s newest restaurants lies on the ground floor of a small brick building. Marked by a simple yellow sign with stylized red letters, the outside may not inspire awe, but inside is Queeny’s, one of the best spots in Durham for people looking to have a great meal and an even better time.
Upon entering, guests can grab a menu and seat themselves before ordering at the bar. The interior is a mix of exposed black and red brick walls decorated with drawings and wood paneling painted in soft shades of purple, green, yellow, brown and white. Stools, couches, a booth and chairs are available for seating, which, together with the walls, create an eclectic yet very comfortable environment. Heading further to the back, one can enter the Rubyfruit Bookshop, a wood-paneled reading space with an exposed ceiling and a wide selection of books, making it perfect for a quick reading break. Next to this is a free podcasting studio for community members — a sound-proofed space with basic equipment and software which can be reserved on Queeny’s website for any project — and a free Mardi Gras mask-making stand. With its warm lighting, the multi-sized disco balls and lamps hanging from the ceiling and the simple music playing in the background, the restaurant overall exudes a very comfortable and friendly vibe, which according to its owners was just what they intended.
Speaking of owners, Queeny’s is owned and operated by Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead, who are already well known in the Durham food and drink scene as the owners of Kingfisher Cocktail Bar (in the basement below Queeny’s) and QueenBurger. Originally, the space was going to be developed as a gluten-free bakery before that business canceled its lease due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing an opportunity for their next project to be in the same building as Kingfisher, Vanderwalker and Umstead leased the space. Their goal was to create a place that would serve as both a casual restaurant/bar and an all-inclusive spot, open to everyone and for all purposes, a place that would foster social connections. This goal was inspired by what they felt was a lack of a place like this in their community despite how beneficial it would be. At the same time, they wanted Queeny’s to have its own personal touches, which inspired them to model aspects of it after items from Vanderwalker’s past and to recycle materials from Queeny’s construction back into its interior. Their desire to create a welcoming place that would also foster social connections translated into their decision to make it dine-in only and their choice of menu items. Vanderwalker said the items were to “feel familiar and a bit nostalgic, but also have the execution to exceed expectations”, resulting in what could be described as elevated bar food with extensive options.
Speaking of the menu, Queeny’s has a large and varied one – divided into the twin categories of Chef’s Mix and The Usual. From Chef’s Mix, guests can choose between a creamy tuna dip, glazed sweet potato, roasted acorn squash, spiced lentil soup, sabich (a fried eggplant sandwich), chicken salad sandwich and a big kale salad. For the Usual, you can have fried chicken tenders, a birria french dip, cheeseburgers, sheet pan nachos, caesar salad, a bánh mì style sandwich called the Mt. Airy, fried pickles, fries or chips and salsa. Nothing on the menu costs more than $14.50 before tax, making it extremely affordable, and the portion sizes are more than adequate. According to Vanderwalker, the crowd favorites are the birria french dip, the chicken tenders and the cheeseburger. For my meal, I had the birria french dip — a new take on a french dip that substitutes adobo braised brisket for roast beef – with a side of fries. I found it to be an amazing dish, with a sandwich whose perfect mix of absorbent yet firm bread, flavorful beef and gooey melted cheese paired perfectly with the savory braising broth. The fries were equally good, perfectly salted and very crispy. For dessert, I had an ice cream cake made of an oreo base covered with ice cream and chocolate mousse, which I felt was just the right amount of sweet with great texture.
The restaurant’s delicious food, manageable prices and relaxed environment make it a perfect spot for eating and gathering with friends or meeting new people. And its late hours – it’s open from 4:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. every day – and location in downtown grants easy access for students to visit before or after attending a show at DPAC, the Carolina Theatre or even Shooters.
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Zev van Zanten is a Trinity sophomore and campus arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.