In late 2020, shortly after they separated 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 they opened in 2019.
Joining forces on a new venture while parting ways romantically was perhaps unorthodox, but the two were confident in their compatibility as business partners.
“We just really saw the potential, and we had already created such a good thing together,” Vanderwalker says. “I didn’t want to let that go.”
Unlike the aforementioned craft cocktail bar, Kingfisher, which is more distinct to Vanderwalker and Umstead’s long-shared vision of “what we wanted to put into the universe”—specifically, pushing seasonal, produce-forward, “ground-to-glass” craft cocktails—Queeny’s is “more responsive, more reactive,” says Umstead, shaped by the community and the moment.
For Vanderwalker, part of that “moment” involved a renewed exploration of her own queerness; she had questioned her sexuality as a teenager but was “part of that last generation where being bi was not really embraced by either [the queer community or the straight community]” and had thus taken the “easy route”—she was attracted to men, so she just said she was straight.
But when the pandemic and marital separation afforded her an unprecedented amount of time for introspection, she began to acknowledge her bisexuality more directly, a shift which she says ended up having an impact on the way she designed Queeny’s.
She named the small bookshop in the back of the bar “Rubyfruit” after the 1973 lesbian coming-of-age novel Rubyfruit Jungle and stocked the shelves with inclusive literature; she volunteered Queeny’s as a space for hosting the monthly Great Durham Bakeoff, a combination baking competition and drag show previously held in an organizer’s backyard; and she branded the Queeny’s merchandise with rainbow-hued logos.
“I didn’t consciously say, ‘I’m gonna make a gay set of mugs,’” says Vanderwalker, an art school grad who moonlights as a ceramicist and whose undercut hairstyle and chunky earrings exude a distinct “cool high school art teacher” energy. “But as soon as I made 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 toward groups who aren’t always accommodated by the food and beverage scene.
On a given night at Queeny’s, you may 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 a.m., in order to be accessible to service workers getting off the clock); you might see some friends taking photos with the Queeny’s resident Polaroid camera and tacking them up on the corkboard that overhangs the bar; if you’re there before 10 p.m., you may see some kids in Rubyfruit immersed in the colorful section of children’s books.
More often than not, you’ll spot one or two solo diners at the bar, nursing a drink or chatting with the bartender, “Nighthawks” style, or burying themselves in a book from Rubyfruit’s selection. In a post-vaccine world, it seems, people are finding it refreshing to be alone together.
“You can come and hang out for hours, you can come and have one drink and sit in the bookshop, you can come and not drink,” Vanderwalker says. “I think that’s a sort of inclusive thing where it’s not like a ‘bar bar’ where you feel awkward if you’re alone or if you’re not having alcohol.”
The food and beverage menus at Queeny’s are designed to be simple and nostalgic, according to Vanderwalker, with enough options that every customer can find something they like—an entrée-sized kale salad; chicken tenders; beer, wine, and classic cocktails; soda and chocolate milk—but not so many that they feel overwhelmed. Most dishes and drinks hover around $8, and the food is strictly dine-in only; “No Take-Out,” the bottom of the menu reads, “Hang Out!”
You won’t find this directive at Vanderwalker and Umstead’s forthcoming restaurant, Queenburger, despite its similar name. This venture began as a pandemic-era pop-up—“we felt we needed a way to keep our staff employed and continue to pay the rent, so we transformed [Kingfisher’s] back parking lot into a little oasis of astroturf and a ’90s color scheme,” Vanderwalker says—and was successful enough that, after a year, they signed a lease to give it its own brick-and-mortar spot.
Queenburger is set to open in the American Tobacco Campus next month, and Vanderwalker says it will be “more of an in-and-out kind of place” than Queeny’s, with a simpler menu—mainly just burgers, cocktails, and beer—though a similarly “poppy, inclusive place to be.”
While all of their establishments showcase work from local artists, Vanderwalker says Queeny’s has the greatest focus on serving Durham’s creative community: the bar hosts stand-up comedy nights and free usage of its podcast studio, which Vanderwalker and Umstead constructed in a room that was formerly used as a safe.
Xander Stewart, a restaurant worker and visual artist whose glass cloche artwork is displayed on a shelf in Rubyfruit, says that Queeny’s stands out as both a late-night haven and a resource for creatives.
“It isn’t interested in just being a space for people to get intoxicated at but a space that honors creative work, both the process of creating and the end result of the creation itself,” Stewart says. “I love a spot that will do what it can to provide resources and opportunities that it absolutely isn’t required to.”
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