The Karl Strauss in La Jolla is now Queenstown Village. It’s a transformation, dangly waterfalls made of plants and bioluminescent sheep scaling the wall. It’s got trademark QTown whimsy, and it’s the biggest project yet for co-owners PJ Lamont and Matt Baker. It’ll eventually have a cafe with things called “fluffies” and “toasties” (more on that in a sec).
In 2005, the duo started with a little burger bar, Bareback Grill in Pacific Beach. What made them a hit? New-Zealand-style burgers with grass-fed beef. “I’m pretty sure we were the first to use grass-fed in San Diego,” says Lamont. “We had to grind it ourselves because no one sold it.”
Grass-fed beef would eventually become a significant food sector for good reason (grass is cows’ natural diet, as opposed to eating corn, which while producing a nice fatty burger causes some problems for the animal), and Bareback was the trailblazer. The city bestowed gifts upon them for that. They rode that grass-fed money to build Raglan Public House in Ocean Beach, Queenstown in Little Italy and UTC, and Dunedin in North Park.
The New Zealand angle also wasn’t a gimmick. Lamont’s wife is Kiwi. Lamont and Baker were in Queenstown and fell in love 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.”
Anyway… point is…. from a little burger bar they now find themselves in a big ole space in La Jolla Village, right next to Marisi and down the way from Catania, around the corner from Nine-Ten and George’s. Fancy.
The original Queenstown in Little Italy was trendy before TikTok said so—an old house with large windows, exposed wood beams, gardening supplies staged around every corner, and cozy patios that feel like grandma’s (if she studied interior design post-2000s).
It’s made that place a brunch magnet, a place where phone cameras eat first. They spun off a smaller version at UTC Westfield. And La Jolla’s new iteration has a lot of that, with maybe a crisper pleat in its pants.
Designer Michael Soriano brought a bright yet warm palette of greens and blues, plush booths, large rectangular mirrors framing the walls, and a retractable garage door in the bar. “It’s a combination,” Lamont says about the decor. “It comes from various parts of New Zealand, but it also has touches of the town it’s in, like in Little Italy. A lot of the structure and character came from that building.”
Chef Yohalmo Rosales is in the kitchen at Queenstown Village. Rosales has worked at other NZ Eats properties and is already up to speed. Lamont says Rosales’ menu will be a more refined take on what they’ve been doing in Little Italy. 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.
The cafe will offer grab-and-go items like caramel slices, toasties (akin to a panini), scones, meat pies, and bundt cakes, which you can pair with cappuccinos, flat whites, long blacks, and fluffies (a kids’ drink of steamed and frothed milk). Other preexisting plated dishes in their brand will be converted for hand-held enjoyment and will join an expanding meat pie program.
Assuming the concept is received well, NZ Eats hopes to expand with more cafes that have less square footage than a full restaurant build-out. Similar to their Queenstown Bistro model. And above all, he hopes his brand can continue spreading knowledge on what’s been cooking down in New Zealand.
Queenstown Village: 1044 Wall Street La Jolla, CA 92037
Have breaking-news, exciting scoops, or great stories about San Diego’s food scene? Send your pitches to [email protected].