How did the bottom of Queen St become such a hellhole? The work on the City Rail Link will make much of Downtown like a war zone for the foreseeable future (the go-live date is officially a rather vague 2020-21, although I reckon you'd get pretty short odds on 2025, assuming you could find someone to take your money). But for as long as I can remember, it's been an odd mixture of travel agents, banks and souvenir shops selling sheepskin slippers and it's become even odder since the opening of luxury brand outlets such as Dior and Prada.
On a recent Monday evening, the Professor and I, two of the four customers on the terrace of this newish restaurant, gazed down at a street scene that might have been a city under military rule just before curfew. A beggar lolled outside Dior; a busker with an accordion, confident the passing audience wouldn't notice, played La Vie En Rose on endless repeat; fat-tyred, fat-piped cars proved they could reach 100km/h between Customs and Fort Streets. Snipers took up their positions in doorways and on rooftops. Okay, I'm kidding about the snipers. But as a dining destination, it's not exactly the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
I mention the Paris street only because Queens Cafe Bistro, which recently opened for business on the first floor streetfront of the Queens Arcade, purports to offer "a contemporary French cuisine".
This is odd, too, since the French influence on the menu extends only as far as some generic terms, such as confit, brioche and terrine (I'm not counting the chicken "ballantine" because it needs to be spelled "ballotine" to qualify as French), and they are outnumbered by Japanese and Italian words.
The restaurant, in the erstwhile premises of the apparently unlamented Patio Steak House, is a venture that might charitably be described as optimistic. It's open day and night seven days, within shouting distance of the Viaduct, though it pitches $35 two-course lunches, so perhaps it's aiming for neighbourhood barristers down on their luck.
Maybe it will boom, but if it does, it will probably be for reasons other than the food, which, on the night we were there, ranged from the uninspired to the god-awful. Our orders were taken by a breathlessly enthusiastic waiter whose indifferent command of English meant he reacted to every request with a thoughtful frown as though it were a confidence trick. He was terribly nice, even if he seemed to regard my suggestion that he bring us a dessert menu as an flash of insight.
He was certainly better at his job than the cook, whose work was notable mainly for its passion for frying and paprika. He could hardly make a mess of a caprese salad in which "cured parma ham" (there's another kind?) was dumped in piles to obscure the ragged, though quite good mozzarella. The quantity of cherry tomatoes suggested a need to use them up.
My deep-fried squid was like poor takeaways, and I could discern no trace of the promised spices. Perhaps he was saving the paprika for the fries, on which the peppery spice was dumped with an almost maniacal generosity so as to render the chips virtually inedible. A small bowl of "aioli mayonnaise" deserved neither name, and certainly not both together.
I sometimes order fries because it can be revealing to see what a chef does with the basics: these ones, industrial-cut and undercooked, were very revealing indeed.
Of the rest, the less the said the better. This place's website twice describes its ingredients as "New Zealand's freshest", which would be a meaningless boast even if it were true, which it was not that night. The hapuku was far from newly landed - perhaps it had been badly stored. The broad beans and asparagus, neither of which are in season, had a speckled, mottled appearance and the gnocchi, which had been pan-fried, were slightly greasier than the chips, and tasted of nothing at all.
The dessert reminded me that I should never order anything with "deconstructed" in the name. As we abandoned it half-eaten, the beggar lit a half-smoked cigarette, the accordionist threatened to play Thank Heaven For Little Girls but mercifully did not and the waitresses disconsolately cleared unoccupied tables. In the Prada store, an alarm wailed unheeded.
VERDICT: A third-rate addition to a grand old arcade.
Starters $15-$22; mains $28-$34; desserts $12-$15