And the reign of casual perfectionism
story & photos by Torrey Douglass
“I like eggs. Eggs are my thing,” says Lynn Derrick, owner and chef of Elk’s beloved breakfast and lunch restaurant, Queenie’s. And she’s right. No matter what form they come in, Queenie’s eggs are a thing of beauty. Personally I’d venture through hellfire in flip flops for her Eggs Benedict—perfectly cooked eggs with gooey centers dripping over a smoky slab of ham or a bed of spinach, dressed in hollandaise with just the right amount of tang. It’s a masterpiece of Sunday morning satiation. My daughter is loyal to the fluffy scramble with gently spiced country potatoes and a side of meaty bacon. And once I had an omelet filled with a heap of spinach the size of my fist that tasted positively indulgent. Spinach! Indulgent! This woman knows how to cook.
The dining room at Queenie’s enjoys generous natural light thanks to the large windows looking out across Highway One to the Pacific beyond. Warm wood finishes, formica tables, and red walls give the space a warm and easy feel, like you’re stepping into the home of a friend. Above the wainscoting the walls display painted wooden signs with cheeky queen references—“Viva Viva Regina,” “Queen Parking Only,” and “Queen of Frickin’ Everything,” to name a few. The rumble of laughter and relaxed expectancy of deliciousness-to-come create a casual atmosphere of warmth and welcome.
Lynn has now run her own show for 17 years, keeping butts in seats and bellies happy with an approach that is uniquely her own. It is equal parts vigilant attention to detail, insistence on ultra fresh ingredients, and egalitarianism. To be a good cook, she says, “the most important thing is you need to care.” Any cook that just goes through the motions with a “they’ll eat it anyway” attitude won’t last long in her kitchen.
Likewise, quality, fresh ingredients are essential. As food costs rise, Lynn has noticed other restaurants respond by replacing fresh ingredients with canned or processed alternatives to eke out a better profit margin. Not at Queenie’s. She’s a regular at Wednesday’s farmers market in Fort Bragg and takes advantage of the fresh produce from Albion’s L&R Farms when it’s in season. Prep chefs are kept busy as every dish is made to order, so customers taste these choice foods at their best.
To complement their exacting standards for ingredients and cooking skills, the kitchen maintains a heartfelt respect for every worker. “You can’t do anything if everyone isn’t doing their job. We need clean plates as much as we need the food that goes on them,” Lynn comments. This egalitarianism extends to the customers. Anyone is welcome to walk back into the kitchen to say hi, and you can make any kind of request you want without fear of an eye-roll from your server.
This unusual degree of accommodation is based in Lynn’s genuine affection for people. After a rush, she will often come out of the kitchen to visit and joke with the customers. She muses,“I like breakfast and lunch. I prefer the atmosphere and the people. This is what I enjoy. Being with the people. Being myself and feeling the love that comes back.”
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Queenie’s location in cool and foggy Elk reminds Lynn of San Francisco, where she grew up. “I love being across from the ocean. It helps me feel calm and connected,” she says. A devotee of Julia Child’s cooking show by age six, at age nine Lynn began slipping extra spices into her mother’s food behind her back. Exasperated, her mother invited her to try and do better, so Lynn jumped into home cooking and had some respectable chops by the time she graduated high school.
Her first job waitressing at a coffee house in Culver City brought Lynn face to face with some unpleasant realities of the time. She’d hoped to work her way into a cooking position, but when an opening in the kitchen came up, her application was ignored. She applied repeatedly, as time after time, kitchen jobs became available and were filled by men. She finally complained to the union, but it was 1976, a time when it was legal not just to deny her the job based on her sex, but even to bar women from the kitchen entirely. She was fired for the double sins of speaking up and being a lesbian. Apparently the 70’s were not as groovy as the polaroids lead us to believe.
Not to be deterred, she applied for the woman-owned Lou’s in Concord, where the owner sussed out pretty quickly that Lynn had not been entirely on the level about possessing previous cooking experience. “I don’t think you’ve done this before, but it looks like you have what it takes,” she said after observing Lynn’s first day. It worked out okay for both of them—Lynn worked at Lou’s for five years, eventually becoming its manager.
Then in 1982, Lynn came to Mendocino to visit a friend. The coast had a different food scene then, more greasy spoons than anything else, but that didn’t stop Lynn from falling in love with the area and relocating to Albion. Unfortunately she again encountered discrimination. She managed a local diner for a few years before getting fired for being a lesbian. When she worked in the kitchen of a high end restaurant on the coast, their fancy head chef from San Francisco insisted on calling her by a man’s name despite her repeated requests that he use her real one. He was also known to comment that she was “good enough to be the man in the morning”— both a jab at her orientation and a reference to the myth that all professional cooks worth their salt were men.
Complaining to management about his disrespect got her no more than a “that’s the way it is” shrug, so she left to make breakfast for B&B guests down at The Harbor House in Elk. The toxic-free work environment was a welcome change, but Lynn wanted to stretch her wings a little wider than the daily breakfast-for-20 routine, so when the restaurant attached to the mechanic’s garage became available in 2001, she signed on the line and Queenie’s was born.
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Queenie’s gets its name from Lynn’s nickname, bestowed upon her by roommates who teased her for being the last to get up, first calling her “Queen” and then “Queenie.” Other friends picked up the habit and it spread. A close friend suggested it was the perfect name for her new café, and after some thought, Lynn agreed.
The establishment brings all sorts of people through its doors. Weekly regulars come from up and down the coast, and Elk’s cool summer attracts folks from Ukiah and Santa Rosa, who come for a good meal and a day out of the heat. One fellow from Petaluma treks up once a year for the wild rice toasted pecan waffles. Over the course of the day he’ll order it four times before heading home.
One couple from Australia were so impressed with Queenie’s online reviews they built their itinerary around a stop there. (Now those are some travelers with the right priorities.) Other visitors come in when they see the rainbow flag hanging out front, even if they’re not looking for food. For people from one marginalized group or another, traveling in a remote, unfamiliar area can be unnerving. “Customers often thank me for that. They see the flag and know it’s a safe place,” says Lynn.
This open-hearted attitude is part and parcel of Elk’s spirited and involved community. Lynn shares a local joke: “When Noah’s ark passed by, it dropped off three of everything, and we all manage to get along.” The community center a few doors down brings people together for fundraisers, community dinners, and the annual Great Day in Elk. Lynn has served on a number of its boards, believing that “giving back to community sets a standard that you aren’t just here to make a living.”
And she’s true to her word. The civic club uses the cafe for their meetings. She’s watched kids grow up over the years, first feeding them and later employing them. She and the staff circle around to assist them with homework if low grades threaten their work permit, and they’ve held fundraisers for college money to see them off on their next adventure. She’s sold t-shirts to raise money for the local volunteer fire department since the day she opened, and last October she joined with the Jewish Justice League to raise money to help DACA applicants—each application requires a $750 fee. The fundraiser attracted 225 people, resulting in 17 scholarships. “It helps me feel less helpless in the current political climate,” she says.
This generous spirit came back around when Lynn was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2013. She faced a year of treatment and recovery and wasn’t sure how she was going to keep the restaurant going. She remembers, “It was astounding how it all came together. The amazing people of Mendocino County came out in support, raised over $30,000—longtime customers from out of the area, people I didn’t even know . . . “ The money allowed her to pay her bills and keep Queenie’s open while she got better.
Lynn has been cooking in restaurant kitchens since she was 19 and will turn 60 this year. She stays in touch with eating trends and will adjust the menu accordingly (example: the Eggs Benedict has a gluten free option that replaces the english muffin with a potato patty). To satisfy health conscious diners, she cooks with minimal oil and gently steams all the vegetables to vibrant tenderness. While the menu and cooking methods shift with the times, her dedication to serving fresh, homemade breakfast and lunch never does. For her, it’s all part of Right Livelihood, doing work she loves, and having pride in it. When asked about her favorite aspect, she doesn’t hesitate—“Seeing folks like my food. I never get tired of a compliment.”
Queenie’s Roadhouse Cafe
6061 South Highway 1, Elk
QueeniesRoadhouseCafe.com • (707) 877-3285
Open every day except Tues & Wed, 8am – 3pm
Torrey Douglass is a web and graphic designer living in Boonville with her husband, two children, and a constantly revolving population of pets and farm animals.