Solo diners and full tables all find a place at Durham Queeny’s inclusive restaurant
Queeny’s | 321 E Chapel Hill Street Suite 100, Durham
At the end of 2020, shortly after their separation as a married couple, Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead signed the lease for the space that would become Queeny’s, a cozy neighborhood bar and restaurant on East Chapel Hill Street in downtown Durham that sits above a popular craft cocktail bar which they opened in 2019.
Joining forces in a new venture while romantically parting ways might have been unorthodox, but the two were confident in their compatibility as business partners.
“We really saw the potential and we had already created such a great thing together,” says Vanderwalker. “I didn’t want to let that pass.”
Unlike the aforementioned craft cocktail bar, Kingfisher, which is more distinct from Vanderwalker and Umstead’s long-held shared vision of “what we wanted to put into the universe” – specifically, pushing seasonal crafting, avant-garde product, “from floor to glass”. cocktails—Queeny’s is “more responsive, more responsive,” says Umstead, shaped by community and the moment.
For Vanderwalker, part of this “moment” involved a renewed exploration of his own homosexuality; she had questioned her sexuality as a teenager but was “part of this last generation where being bi wasn’t really embraced by either [the queer community or the straight community]and so had taken the “easy route” – she was attracted to men, so she just said she was straight.
But when the pandemic and marital separation gave her unprecedented time for introspection, she began to acknowledge her bisexuality more directly, a change she says ended up impacting the way she conceived. Queeny’s.
She named the little bookstore at the back of the bar ‘Rubyfruit’ after the 1973 lesbian coming-of-age novel Ruby Jungle and filled the shelves with inclusive literature; she volunteered for Queeny’s as a space to host the monthly Great Durham Bakeoff, a combination baking contest and drag show previously held in an organizer’s backyard; and she branded Queeny merchandise with rainbow-colored logos.
“I didn’t consciously say, ‘I’m going to do a gay mug set,'” says Vanderwalker, an art school graduate who moonlights as a ceramist and whose undercut hairstyle and curls chunky ears give off a “cool high school art teacher.” “energy. “But as soon as I did that rainbow, I was like, ‘Oh.'”
While some of Queeny’s inclusive elements are the work of Vanderwalker’s subconscious, most are deliberate and tailored specifically to bands that aren’t always suited to the food and drink scene.
On any given evening at Queeny’s, you might spot a group of restaurant workers gathered around a cocktail table, fresh off the clock and digging into a bowl of fried pickles (Vanderwalker and Umstead were keen to keep Queeny’s open seven days a week, with food service until two in the morning, in order to be accessible to service workers who drop out); you might see friends taking photos with the Queeny’s resident Polaroid camera and taping them to the corkboard that overlooks the bar; if you’re there before 10:00 p.m., you might spot Rubyfruit kids engrossed in the colorful section of children’s books.
More often than not, you’ll spot a solo diner or two at the bar, sipping a drink or chatting with the bartender, “Nighthawks” style, or digging into a book from Rubyfruit’s selection. In a post-vaccine world, it seems, people find it refreshing to be alone together.
“You can come and hang out for hours, you can come and have a drink and sit in the bookstore, you can come and not drink,” says Vanderwalker. “I think it’s kind of an inclusive thing where it’s not like a ‘bar’ where you feel uncomfortable if you’re alone or you don’t drink alcohol.”
Queeny’s food and drink menus are designed to be simple and nostalgic, according to Vanderwalker, with enough options that every customer can find something they like: a kale salad appetizer; chicken tenders; beer, wine and classic cocktails; sodas and chocolate milk, but not to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Most food and drinks hover around $8, and food is strictly for dinner; “No Takeout”, at the bottom of the menu, “Hang Out!”
You won’t find this directive at Vanderwalker and Umstead’s next restaurant, Queenburger, despite its similar name. This business started as a pop-up in the age of the pandemic – “we felt we needed a way to keep our staff employed and continue to pay rent, so we transformed [Kingfisher’s] back parking in a little oasis of astroturf and a ’90s color scheme,” says Vanderwalker — and was successful enough that after a year they signed a lease to give him his own brick-and-mortar location. mortar.
Queenburger is set to open at the American Tobacco Campus next month, and Vanderwalker says it will be “more of an in and out place” than Queeny’s, with a simpler menu – mostly burgers, cocktails and beer – although a similar “poppy and inclusive” place.
While all of their establishments feature the work of local artists, Vanderwalker says Queeny’s focuses most on serving Durham’s creative community: the bar hosts comedy nights and free use of its podcast studio, which Vanderwalker and Umstead have built in a room which was formerly used as a safe.
Xander Stewart, a restaurant worker and visual artist whose glass bell-shaped artwork hangs on a shelf at Rubyfruit, says Queeny’s stands out as both a late-night refuge and a resource for creative.
“It’s not just about being a space where people get drunk, but a space that honors creative work, both the creative process and the end result of the creation itself,” says Stewart. . “I like a place that will do what it can to provide resources and opportunities that it is absolutely not obligated to.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us ensure the viability of fearless surveillance reporting and coverage of essential arts and culture in the Triangle.