The “Queen” of State Street | Restaurant Reviews
A new restaurant has opened on State Street in downtown Rochester.
That in itself is worth noting, as the signs of entrepreneurial life don’t surface every day — or even every year — in this downtrodden part of downtown.
But the fact that Queen J’s Diner is an honest greasy spoon with outsized portions and undersized prices makes its presence in the heart of the city all the more noteworthy.
The restaurant opened in late March in the location once occupied by Mexican restaurant El Sauza, near the intersection of Allen Street. However, you could be forgiven for missing it.
For most of the spring, Queen J’s was obscured by fences, pylons and backhoes that were part of a seemingly endless rewiring job by Rochester Gas & Electric that tore up State Street and blocked foot traffic.
At night, when Queen J’s is closed, the place can look abandoned as its long red, white and blue sign spanning the storefront is dark.
Make no mistake, though, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, Queen J’s is alive with comfort food from a no-frills menu and a character in the form of Mary Hallford, 63, who answers “Queen J.” and doesn’t take anything from anyone except meal orders.
“I paid the sign guy $1,500 for a sign that lights up,” Hallford said. “He put the panel on, the lights don’t work, and he left. I tried to get him on the phone.
Hallford explained that her nickname comes from her middle name, Joyce, and being the boss and monarch of her family. She is the mother of four adult children, including a daughter in the Air Force.
“She’s a boss, like her mother,” Hallford said. “The fruits don’t fall too far from the tree.”
But the restaurant is Hallford’s first foray into business after decades of working for other people — serving and hosting restaurants, from the former high-end Manhattan eatery on East Avenue to McDonald’s — and cleaning homes.
“I always dreamed,” she said. “It was me who dreamed in the back: one of these days, I will have my own restaurant.”
Calling Queen J’s a “fat spoon” isn’t a knock. While the term was once reserved for restaurants with unsanitary silverware, it now distinguishes neighborhood joints with short-term grills from restaurants with menus as thick as phone books.
Nothing at Queen J’s is fattier than any other restaurant. This goes for silverware, which is plastic and comes in a sealed bag with a napkin, and food.
His breakfast sandwich is stacked with two made-to-order eggs and bacon or sausage on a buttered bun. At just $4, it feels like a steal. But letting a crumb of that heap of perfection fall anywhere but your mouth would be the real crime.
I could go on to Hallford’s savory queen omelette with house fries infused with peppers, onions and spices for $8.50, or his two-patty cheddar royal burger for $8.
But what you are looking for in a restaurant like this is not cooking. There’s nothing fancy about Queen J’s, either in the menu or in the ambiance. The walls are painted gray and purple – meant to convey royalty – and adorned with posters of films and celebrities who talk Hallford.
His favorite is “A Bronx Tale”. She got foggy talking about little Calogero and the life lessons he learned about wasting talent from his working dad and gangster mentor.
Then she turned to an image of Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart raising a glass in a toast. “It’s here,” she said of the poster, “it’s to let people know, listen, anyone can come in here.”
That’s what you look for in a restaurant like this – red, white and blue egalitarianism – and Queen J’s has it to the core.
Whether it’s an RG&E worker who collapsed under a hard hat, or Mayor Malik Evans’ security detail who walked around wearing a suit, or the regular who lives in side of the Cooper Union, all were also welcome.
“This place has a different vibe, a great vibe,” said neighbor Steve Ruger, who came in for $2.50 home fries. “It means so much because we had nothing here before and there’s really nowhere else to go here.”
Hallford lives on Lake Avenue and grew up on Emmett Street in Rochester. She remembers moving from Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her family when she was 8 years old. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a carrier.
She said her goal with Queen J’s was to nurture the neighborhood physically and mentally and to be a sort of beacon, like something out of an Edward Hopper painting.
“I want to take care of the little boy who is at the end of the school line with a hole in his shoe and a hole in his jacket,” she said.
“If you can imagine being on a dark street, I’m that restaurant with that light on that you’d come to with a little old lady sitting there telling you your horoscope,” she continued. “That’s me. I can read people very well.
David Andreatta is the editor of CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].