There are those who claim that the “Happiest Place On Earth” is located in Anaheim, however, they probably work in the publicity department at Disneyland and hyperbole is part of their job description and can be forgiven. With an Insiders’ aversion to hype we’re trying to (with little success) temper our gleeful enthusiasm for the newest eatery to open in La Jolla, where “happy” welcomes you at the hostess stand, is printed on the comfort-food-driven menu and personably carried from table to table by the “glad you’re here” Queenstown serving staff (many of whom were imported from the now-closed Herringbone by former Herringbone General Manager Alex Fernandez).
The perfectly located restaurant at the corner of Wall and Herschel Streets, where Karl Strauss was housed, has added substantial foot traffic to the once lightly travelled block with a whimsical pedestrian-stopping brunch and dinner spot cleverly decorated outside and in. La Jollans may wonder at the five fleecy sheep grazing on artificial grass stuck vertically to the outside wall near the Queenstown entrance, yet that’s only a precursor to what other Queenstown Village eye-catchers have in store: the strung together garden watering can chandeliers, the wringer washing machine planters, bioluminescent sheep stuck near a ceiling between the bar and the dining room, the tastefully bright yet warm green and soothing blue interior walls, plush booths, large rectangular mirrors, and retractable garage doors throughout, all accomplished by creatively quirky designer Michael Soriano. A contemporary and playful sense of hip is easily heard from the sidewalk and spread throughout the room from the overhead sound system with a curated rock soundtrack programmed by an L.A. production consultancy.
Queenstown (in Māori: Tāhuna) is a village resort town in Otago in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island with an urban population of 15,800, migrating to La Jolla (not the people, just the dietary culture) and settling in close proximity to the successful La Jolla newby, Marisi (Italian), and well-established Puesto (Mexican Artisan) restaurants.
Queenstown is the biggest investment yet for co-owners PJ Lamont and Matt Baker, beginning their mini-empire in 2005 with a small New Zealand-oriented Pacific Beach burger bar, Bareback Grill, featuring a new take between the buns with grass-fed beef that they hand-ground themselves; no place else stocked or sold it at that time, which explains the DIY action. But that was then. Fast forward to today and the emergence of their other grass-fed beef outlets: Raglan Public House in Ocean Beach, Queenstown in Little Italy and University Town Center, and Dunedin in North Park.
What’s with the grass-fed attraction?
A little history: Grass-fed beef has become a significant gastro draw for good reason; grass is a bovine’s natural diet, as opposed to eating corn, which while kernels produce a nice fatty burger it causes some problems for the animal. (There’s that “happy” link again.)
Now, let’s rewind to the owner’s grass-fed epiphany. Lamont’s wife is Kiwi. While in QTown, NZ, P.J. and Matt became enamored with Fergberger, a classic burger joint. “We went up to the owner and asked if we could buy his recipe to open a restaurant like it in the U.S.,” Lamont explains. “He said, ‘No dice, but you can work in my kitchen and learn on the job.’ So we did.”
Chef Yohalmo Rosales is in the kitchen at Queenstown Village with experience gained at the other NZ Eats properties (their corporate name). Lamont says the La Jolla menu is a more refined take on what they’ve been doing in Little Italy (the model for the La Jolla store). “The hanger steak and salmon, for example, will still be sourced from New Zealand but will receive more modern plating, a few more hits of acid, and tons of fresh herbs.” Insiders’ recommendations: the Creamy Chicken Pot Pie for two, the garlicky Spaghetti Squash, the Sammie and Soup (grilled cheese with chunky tomatoes and avocado coupled with a bowl of terrific tomato soup), the Flank Steak with Caesar salad and either of the great hamburger plates with sides of lively spiced fries. Five yums all ‘round! Don’t forget to have a look at the exclusive weekend and brunch menus; ask your server for copies to study for future visits.
The full bar features patio seating and on-trend craft cocktails, local draft beers, and the first retail wine list for a restaurant in La Jolla. Oh, yes, lest we forget, Queenstown Village is dog friendly. We spied two golden retrievers with wagging tails tucked under a booth table between their dining owner’s legs. A very happy place, indeed.
Queenstown Village is now settled in the heart of La Jolla and you don’t have to fly for 14 hours to get there.
1044 Wall Street La Jolla, CA 92037, 858-352-6595