One of Queenstown’s restaurants turns 20 this week. Celia Williams looks inside legendary local institution Lone Star
It’s a Saturday night during Queenstown’s shoulder season and while other restaurants are quiet, Lone Star is positively humming.
Country music resonates from the Brecon Street building and diners of all ages ogle at generously-laden dinner plates brought from the kitchen.
Waiter “Pistol” Pete Gaudin takes a seat at a table full of newly-arrived customers and introduces himself.
“I’m here to give you general advice about life”, he says, before rattling off the list of specials and drinks on tap.
Gaudin’s rapport with customers – much like that of his renowned co-worker Basil “Oohh” Saula – is among the ingredients to Lone Star’s success and longevity.
Director Dave Gardiner says the formula is simple: “I believe the key to Queenstown Lone Star’s success and growth has been its consistency. The consistency of its meals, its meal sizes, its atmosphere, its staff, its standard and quality of staff and the service they provide.
“We can never get complacent about what we do here because just like an athlete, we know we are only as good as our last game.”
Bursting on to the Queenstown scene in 1991, Lone Star was built on Brecon Street – an area then considered off the beaten track – by business partners James “Chief” Whelan and Steve Ward. They headed south after setting up the first Lone Star on Christchurch’s Manchester St in 1988 – now demolished after the Canterbury earthquakes.
Back then it was single-handedly responsible for raising the standard of local eateries.
“I’d like to think so,” Whelan says.
“We were probably ahead of the market where we had a formula that we knew worked in Christchurch, we had an operational system that was market-tested and very successful. We just built on that.
“We did what we loved and it came very naturally to us.”
Over the years, the brand has become world famous with celebrities and sports stars who prefer the laid-back style.
Hollywood actress Brooke Shields, former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton, Wolverine hunk Hugh Jackman and tennis great Andre Agassi are among the big names to have dined there.
Gardiner recalls Agassi’s visit a couple of years ago: “He sat down and Pete who was looking after him told him his name was Pistol.
“Agassi goes, ‘Pistol Pete [Sampras] – he’s my nemesis’.”
Gaudin adds: “I said to him that [Sampras] wasn’t the same calibre as I was. I had a good laugh with him.”
Special treatment isn’t just reserved for big names, Gardiner insists.
“Customer is king. We treat them all the same – as if they were all celebrities.”
That approach is also engrained in Whelan, who sold the restaurant to Gardiner and other shareholders in 2006.
“Our main celebrities have always been the locals. They are what made the Lone Star and they are what continue to make it. They’ve made that business famous. We are humble and polite and very respectful of what makes us successful – our customers.”
Gaudin – working as a professional waiter at Lone Star for 11 years – says the most satisfying aspect of his job is serving local families over the years: “Families come in with their kids and as time goes on, we watch their kids grow up.”
Iconic Tongan staffer Saula has been waiting tables for 18 years and is the longest-serving employee. He’s famous for being able to remember detailed meal orders for tables of 30 people.
“I am honoured and privileged to be part of it,” he says.
“It is an institution for more years to come, I am sure of that.”
Whelan, now based in Christchurch, thanks Queenstowners for their part in Lone Star’s success.
“To last 20 years in any town is an achievement but to last 20 years in Queenstown – particularly in our trade – is a fantastic achievement and it’s a huge part to do with the people,” Whelan says.