With the sounds of New Orleans-style brass bands heralding her arrival, Queen Zuri began her reign on College Street.
Truth be told, Queen Zuri isn’t a queen. She’s a 17-year-old future queen, and she was at school. Her mother, Kim Soto, is the actual queen of the newest restaurant to come to downtown New Haven, which had its official grand opening Monday.
Soto, a native New Orleanian — her husband is the Nutmegger — unofficially opened the restaurant’s doors on Nov. 30. The New Haven location is the latest iteration of a restaurant she started in Shelton and then moved to Milford. She originally opened Queen Zuri in 2013, but got such a good receptions that she moved to Milford just last year.
When some folks from Yale Properties came through her doors last August and suggested she consider opening a second location in New Haven, she was intrigued. But she didn’t say yes right away.
“They felt that we would make a great mix to the area here,” she said. “I kept thinking about it and praying about to make sure that it was something that I really wanted to do because I had just opened my other restaurant. Did I really want to undertake it?”
Turns out she did. Soto said her gut let her know that it was the right move to take the restaurant to the next level in March of this year. Since the end of August she has been busy transforming the first floor of 230 College St. into a New Orleans house-style restaurant. With its high ceilings and chandeliers, Soto said she went for an upscale but homey feel like one might find at the famous New Orleans restaurant Clancy’s.
“The decor is black and gold, and it is New Orleans colors,” she said. “They say black and gold until they cold. So they going in the grave with the black and gold, so the colors have really evolved out of New Orleans colors.”
The cheetah print that graces the rug going up the stairs is also present in the Milford restaurant. She said that’s her personal touch of style.
“I love cheetah,” she said. “I just wanted it to be warm and friendly — that’s really how I wanted the environment for when people came in.” She also wants them to feel as if they’re experiencing a bit of her hometown, so the music is New Orleans brass band, zydeco and jazz. On Sundays, it’s gospel. Soto said her faith is important to her and the basis for her business. She gives 10 percent of her earnings to her church, and she prays with her staff before they open their doors each day. She also makes it a point to hire provide job opportunities for people who have disabilities.
“We just welcomed God early into my business,” she said.
The Holy Trinity
“New Orleans style food is really a food of love and seasoning,” she said. “That starts with the holy trinity — bell peppers, celery and onions. We put that in everything, literally almost everything. The food is just rich in flavor. Like I tell the people that work for me, I’m concerned with flavor, not so much the way it looks. That’s what we really base our food on, flavor.”
Queen Zuri boasts a menu filled with delicacies that one doesn’t often find on a typical New Haven menu. Oysters and shrimp you’ll probably recognize, but not mufaletta and fried alligator. None of that seemed to deter the lunch crowd that filed into the space Monday.
In a press release, Lauren Zucker, Yale University’s associate vice president of New Haven affairs, called Queen Zuri a “terrific” addition to downtown New Haven’s restaurant scene.
Soto got her Creole cooking skills from her grandmother, who began teaching her to cook when she was just 5 years old. In addition to being a restaurateur, she is also a state social worker with 25 year on the jobs. Her brother helps manage the day-to-day operations of both the Milford location of Queen Zuri’s and now the New Haven location.
She said her husband, a retired police captain, keeps reminding her that they’re supposed to be gearing up to enjoy their retirement years. But she keeps opening restaurants. Soto said she’s not planning to slow down any time soon.
“I went into it because I missed New Orleans. I missed the love of the food. And there was nothing like that here, so I wanted to bring it to the city,” she said. “Everyone thought I was kind of crazy for doing that, but people loved it once I opened it. I thought I was going to have just this small little restaurant that people were coming to, but it’s just turned into more. And it looks like it’s just evolving to a lot more than I thought it would ever be.
“I just feel like that is the path that was really created for me,” she added. “I know that I was built to do this. People say, how do you work, how do you do two restaurants? I know I was built to do this. I was built to provide great food, great atmosphere, and that’s just what makes it so easy for me and then I have great staff.”