You know that old parenting trope, beloved of every bad multi-cam sitcom: “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed”? It’s rare that a canned sentiment so perfectly maps onto how I feel about a restaurant, but that’s precisely how I felt about Queenies, the alleged supper club that opened last year inside the United Center. It went from such a promising concept to such a messed up reality.
I first covered Queenies for Chicago Magazine last September a few weeks before it opened. Chef Dan Snowden was temporarily off duty during the “short” closure of Bad Hunter (which is still closed, six months later), and had taken on the job of creating this new concept, which was to be a collaboration between Heisler Hospitality and Levy (which controls the United Center’s food and bev ops). Snowden had big plans, including traditional supper club dishes, tons of tableside items and a custom-brewed beer. It seemed like the perfect idea for stadium dining – a super approachable style of cuisine that would appeal to the jersey-wearing masses, but one that offered a lot of opportunity for fine-tuning that could elevate it above the hot dogs downstairs and justify high prices.
Wow, did that idea go off the rails quickly.
It took me about six months to finally visit Queenie’s, and it was the worst meal I’ve had in 2019 thus far. In part, the disappointment stems from the fact that I love the Wisconsin Supper Club as an art form, one that celebrates the simple, non-snobby food that an ordinary cook can make pretty great. So when someone both destroys the integrity of that concept and charges a fortune for it? You’ve made me about as sad as I can be.
Let’s start with the space. It somehow straddles the line between “charming” and “airport lounge” – lots of blond wood, a huge piano with a bar stretching around it, faux windows with cool curved screens inside showing whatever is happening inside the arena at the moment. It’s even got that staple of high-end 90s malls – a high balcony looking out over the interior of a large atrium. A balcony effect, as it were.
Unfortunately, that balcony is a huge problem for the restaurant. When we entered the United Center, a horrible cover band was blasting out 80s hits at eardrum-rupturing volume inside the main atrium, and once we got up to Queenie’s, we were seated at a table near the door to that damn balcony. I’m not quite yet at the age where it’s my god-given right to bitch about noise in every restaurant I visit, and I’m fairly tolerant of bustle, but this was so loud it made my head hurt and the sound waves made it impossible to converse – my date and I basically sat there in bemused silence. I asked to be moved to another seat in the still-empty restaurant. My server shrugged, and promised she’d try to keep the door shut. Every time a party was taken to the balcony, the pressure change from the massive speakers actually made itself physically felt; unsurprisingly, every party taken out there loudly demanded to be taken inside immediately.
However, I was immediately placated by a relish tray. Oh, how I love a relish tray. Oh, how I’m easily manipulated. A first round of cocktails arrived, including a dirty vodka martini with a sherry rinse and a surprisingly excellent take on a Wisconsin brandy old fashioned. The menu looked like what I’d reported on, though there was a suspicious lack of tableside items – except a Caesar, so I opted to try that. Beef tartare is hard to screw up and classic, as is fried chicken and a bratwurst platter. I was pulling for Queenies, not attempting to order weird obscure items just to watch the kitchen trip over its own feet.
What was billed on the menu as a “Tableside” Caesar … wasn’t. The salad station has been moved into the dining room and onto a cart, but the cart doesn’t move, so if you happen to be on the proper side of the dining room, you can watch a supremely bored chef toss the same salad all night long. Since you don’t speak to this chef, the “made your way” claim on the menu is a straight up lie. Plus, this salad is unnecessarily massive – a literal beach ball of lettuce that was too much for even two people to finish. Beef tartare turned out to be flavorless pink mush, looking like some kind of meaty playdoh when spread on bread that wasn’t so much toasted as dried, and the dish was so bad that I stopped eating two bites in for fear of potential food poisoning.
Fried chicken isn’t easy to perfect, but it’s easy to make adequate – and remember, there’s an outpost of Honey Butter Fried Chicken literally feet away, so it’s not like they don’t have an example to draw upon. My date, upon receipt of the mess that was his chicken, joked we should order HBFC delivery to the restaurant as a commentary on the experience. The chicken had clearly been sitting under a heatlamp for a while, the skin was separated from the bones, the meat was dry as sand and the whole thing had no hint of the alleged “maple-chili” glaze. Have you ever had a bratwurst platter where the meat had less flavor than the French fries that came with it? I hadn’t either, until that night.
Queenies tries to make up for the awfulness it must know is coming out of the kitchen with huge piles of accompanying carbs – there were enough French fries to feed a family of six on the plate, and they weren’t bad. However, a strange ramekin of sauce on my plate (alleged to be beer mustard cheese) almost put me off even my beloved fries; it somehow both had the consistency of modeling clay but wouldn’t stick to anything. It was so weirdly cold and solid that I instagrammed a video of myself holding it upside down and poking it; anything to entertain and distract myself from the noise, the food and the fact that I was about to spend a small fortune when the check came.
There’s no reason why you can’t make decent food in a high volume restaurant. It’s just a question of will. But when the hordes filling Queenies are clearly charmed by the idea of being in a nice restaurant before a game, regardless of the experience, I guess the restaurant doesn’t have to try.
On the way out, I ran into a Chicago food celebrity, and he beckoned me over. We put our heads together, and he quietly said “How was your meal?” with a tone of mild disbelief. I admitted, “abysmal.” He sighed with relief and admitted that he, too, had one of the worst meals of the year. We looked at each other with that mutual sympathy that comes from knowing your awful dining experience wasn’t a fluke, and headed off into the arena.
Supper clubs are about comfortable abundance; large portions of simple flavors like fried fish, grilled meat and strong spirits. You should never leave one feeling anything other than happy and maybe slightly ill, but in a pleasant, intentional way. Queenie’s isn’t a supper club; it’s a sad cafeteria for rich sports fans. There’s so much potential, but as of right now, it’s wasted.