Born as a pandemic lifeboat, Durham’s QueenBurger debuts this week as the backyard cookout that never ends.
Michelle Vanderwalker and Sean Umstead, the owners of Kingfisher cocktail bar, will open QueenBurger Thursday, Sept. 15, on the American Tobacco Campus. The restaurant at 359 Blackwell St. will occupy the former OnlyBurger space.
QueenBurger launched in 2020 as a patio pop-up behind Kingfisher, griddling up smashburgers while North Carolina’s COVID-19 restrictions kept the bar closed. Burger fans found Astroturf, a cloud of burger smoke hanging in the air, bottled cocktails and some magic beneath the back alley twinkle lights, lining up around the block for those tasty burgers.
Now with its own brick-and-mortar, QueenBurger aims to bottle some of that magic.
“QueenBurger was such a moment in time,” Vanderwalker said. “The intention then was to bring joy and happiness to people when they were really struggling and isolated and didn’t have a lot of places to go out to.
“I wanted to bring as much of that feeling back as I could (in the design),” Umstead said. “It’s a fun happy place to be. We wanted to bring that backyard vibe inside.”
There are many schools of thought when it comes to burgers. QueenBurger goes to smashburger school. The menu will feature single and double smashburgers, griddled on a flattop until crispy and gooey with cheese. There will also be a veggie smashburger.
The new QueenBurger has added fries to the menu, going with thin and crispy shoestrings, seasoned with plain old sea salt or a dusting of Old Bay and dry hot sauce, nodding lovingly towards the gas station staple: Hot Fries.
“We looked at the landscape of the big burger and fast-food places and didn’t see a shoestring out there,” Umstead said.
On the sweet side, QueenBurger will serve the legendary ice cream sandwiches from Rose’s Noodles, Dumplings & Sweets, also in Durham.
QueenBurger & Queeny’s
Umstead and Vanderwalker also own Queeny’s, a casual lunch and dinner spot above Kingfisher on East Chapel Hill Street. Queeny’s also serves a burger, but it’s different from the one at QueenBurger.
Here’s a handy guide: QueenBurger serves smashburgers near the ballpark. Queeny’s serves a slightly fancier steakhouse burger in downtown Durham, going with tellegio cheese and a yeasted bun.
The floor of Queeburger is green, painted as a tribute to the pop-up’s Astroturf. And like the pop-up, the main lighting will come from strings of lights in the dining room. There will be a small bartop and a few indoor tables. Next spring, Queenburger will build a garage-style door opening up to the Blackwell Street patio.
The bar side is one of Umstead and Vanderwalker’s strongest sides, so expect sharp and focused cocktails to pair with those smashburgers. Look for a cucumber and gin Gimlet, a bourbon-spiked sweet tea and a charred jalapeño margarita, plus a reprisal of QueenBurger’s popular Frose. QueenBurger will also serve four North Carolina draft beers and have some cans and glasses of wine.
With summer’s light fading fast, the baseball sounds from the nearby Durham Bulls Athletic Park will soon be quiet. But with “Frozen” beginning a three-week run Sept. 14 around the corner at the Durham Performing Arts Center, Vanderwalker and Umstead expect to serve newer diners who might not have found them at Kingfisher or Queeny’s.
“Between DPAC and the ballpark, we’re expecting to really introduce ourselves to a wider audience,” Vanderwalker said. “We’re excited, it’s going to be a new adventure.”
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