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The 'Queen' of State Street 

click to enlarge Mary Hallford said her goal in opening Queen J's Diner was to feed the downtown neighborhood in body and soul.

PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE

Mary Hallford said her goal in opening Queen J's Diner was to feed the downtown neighborhood in body and soul.

A new restaurant has opened on State Street in downtown Rochester.

That in and of itself is worth noting because signs of entrepreneurial life don’t surface every day — or even every year — on that downtrodden stretch of downtown.

But the fact that Queen J’s Diner is an honest-to-goodness greasy spoon with outsized portions and undersized prices makes its presence in the city’s core that much more worth highlighting.

The diner opened in late March in the spot formerly occupied by El Sauza Mexican Restaurant near the intersection at Allen Street. You could be forgiven for missing it, though.

For most of the spring, Queen J’s was obscured by fencing, pylons, and backhoes that were part of a seemingly never-ending Rochester Gas & Electric rewiring job that has torn up State Street and stymied foot traffic.

At night, when Queen J’s is closed, the place can look abandoned because its long red, white, and blue sign spanning the storefront is dark.

Make no mistake, though, between the hours of 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 to “Queen J” and takes nothing from nobody except meal orders.

“I paid the sign guy $1,500 for a sign that lights up,” Hallford said. “He put up the sign, the lights don’t work, and he took off. I’ve been trying to get him on the phone.”

Hallford explained that her nickname stems from her middle name of Joyce and the fact that she’s the boss and the monarch of her family. She’s a mother to four adult children, including a daughter in the Air Force.

“She’s a boss, like her mom,” Hallford said. “The fruit don’t fall too far from the tree.”
click to enlarge Mary Hallford opened Queen J's Diner on State Street in downtown Rochester after decades of working for others. “I always just dreamed,” she said. “I was the one in the back dreaming: One of these days I’m going to have my own restaurant.” - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • Mary Hallford opened Queen J's Diner on State Street in downtown Rochester after decades of working for others. “I always just dreamed,” she said. “I was the one in the back dreaming: One of these days I’m going to have my own restaurant.”
But the diner is Hallford’s first foray into business after decades of working for other people — serving and hosting in restaurants, from the former upscale Manhattan Restaurant on East Avenue to McDonald’s — and cleaning houses.

“I always just dreamed,” she said. “I was the one in the back dreaming: One of these days I’m going to have my own restaurant.”

Calling Queen J’s a “greasy spoon” isn’t a knock. While the term was once reserved for restaurants with unsanitary silverware, it now distinguishes neighborhood joints with short-order grills from eateries with menus as thick as phonebooks.

Nothing at Queen J’s is greasier than any other restaurant. That goes for the silverware, which is plastic and comes in a sealed baggie with a napkin, and the food.

click to enlarge The egg and cheese sandwich at Queen J's Diner comes with bacon or sausage for $4. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • The egg and cheese sandwich at Queen J's Diner comes with bacon or sausage for $4.

Her breakfast sandwich is stacked tall with two eggs made to order and bacon or sausage on a buttered bun. At a mere $4, it feels like a steal. But letting one crumb from that heaping pile of perfection fall anywhere but into your mouth would be the real crime.

I could go on about Hallford’s tasty Queen Omelet with home fries infused with peppers, onion, and spices for $8.50, or her filling two-patty Royal Cheddar Burger for $8.

click to enlarge The Royal Cheddar Burger at Queen J's Diner comes with two juicy patties for $8. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • The Royal Cheddar Burger at Queen J's Diner comes with two juicy patties for $8.
But what you look for in a diner like this is not cookery. There is nothing chichi about Queen J’s, either on the menu or in the atmosphere. The walls are painted gray and purple — intended to convey royalty — and adorned with posters of movies and celebrities that speak to Hallford.

Her favorite is “A Bronx Tale.” She got misty talking about little Calogero and the life lessons he learned about wasting talent from his workaday father and gangster mentor.

Then she turned to an image of Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart raising a glass in a toast. “That right here,” she said of the poster, “is to let people know, listen, anybody can come in here.”

That’s what you look for in a diner like this — red, white, and blue egalitarianism — and Queen J’s has it to the bone.

Whether it was an RG&E worker who clomped in under a hard hat, or Mayor Malik Evans’s security detail who strolled in wearing a suit, or the regular who lives next door at the Cooper Union, all were equally welcome.

“This place offers a different atmosphere, a good atmosphere,” said Steve Ruger, the neighbor, who came for a $2.50 side of home fries. “It means so much because we had nothing here before and there really isn’t any other place to go around here.”

click to enlarge The home fries at Queen J's Diner are loaded with peppers, onions, and spices — a recipe that Mary Hallford learned from her mother. - PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE
  • The home fries at Queen J's Diner are loaded with peppers, onions, and spices — a recipe that Mary Hallford learned from her mother.
Hallford lives off Lake Avenue and grew up on Emmett Street in Rochester. She recalled moving to the city from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with her family when she was 8 years old. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a porter.

She said her goal with Queen J’s was to feed the neighborhood in both body and mind and be a beacon of sorts, like something out of an Edward Hopper painting.
click to enlarge Mary "Queen J" Hallford opened Queen J's Diner at 155-163 State St. in March 2022. - PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • PHOTO BY DAVID ANDREATTA
  • Mary "Queen J" Hallford opened Queen J's Diner at 155-163 State St. in March 2022.
“I want to look after the little boy who’s 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 diner with that light on that you would come to with a little old lady sitting in there that will tell you your horoscope,” she went on. “That’s me. I can read people very well.”

David Andreatta is CITY's editor. He can be reached at dandreatta@rochester-citynews.com.
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