ellens1On our most recent trip to New York City, I decided an appropriately ‘fun’ surprise would be to take my husband to Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This was my second choice, after reading online that late-1990s favourite Mars 2112 had declined significantly in the intervening years. So Ellen’s it was! I helpfully neglected to tell him indoors that the main feature of Ellen’s is the restaurant’s singing wait staff, who sing songs from Broadway musicals. Did I mention that his favourite musical was this?:

i.e., THAT HE DOESN’T LIKE MUSICALS?

(This makes me a really bad person, doesn’t it?)

So apart from this being a place that most likely didn’t float my husband’s boat as much as mine (I LOVE musicals), was there anything else for us to dislike?

Unfortunately, yes.

First of all, there was the line. I know that it was a Saturday night in New York City, in what was beginning to be high season (early May). However, there was nothing on the website that indicated that you ought to reserve a seat or indeed that this was even possible (looking at it again, they only accept reservations for parties over 20 people). So to find a queue that literally stretched out the restaurant door, round the corner and along the pavement was a little bit of a shock. To have to wait half an hour to even get in the door, for something that you know won’t be gourmet cuisine, is never the best start to the evening, despite the concierge’s clear efforts and communication showing that they were doing everything possible to get everyone seated quickly.

But eventually we got in, and were ushered to one of the balcony/gallery seats, which doesn’t affect your view of the action, as the singing waitstaff are naturally moving around constantly to serve food and to sing. There’s certainly no danger of you not hearing the action, as the acoustics are certainly loud even if they’re not very refined or balanced. (Singers sometimes missed their cues thanks to the noise of the restaurant drowning out the backing track.) The loud music serves to make this the main event, rather than the 50s diner-inspired food, which is in some ways a good thing (or perhaps not, if you don’t like musicals). More on this later.

We all know that wait staff in America are paid badly and rely heavily on tips to make a living, which to me seems inherently wrong. What seems even more wrong (if that’s possible) at Ellen’s is that staff effectively beg for even more tips by passing around a bucket as ‘payment’ for their singing. Of course customers aren’t obliged to pay up, but it does make you wonder: just how badly are they being paid? Are they being exploited, or just maximising their resources?

This all serves to distract diners from their food, which is average at best. The ice-cream soda I had at the start was frankly the best bit, and probably only for the novelty of it. Our main courses (Brooklyn Brisket – a steak and provolone sandwich served with potato pancakes – and Stardust Nachos) were huge and greasy. I know it’s America, but surely smaller, better-quality portions are the way forward? Or is the hope that you’ll be so distracted by the singing that you won’t give a monkey’s about what you’re eating?

This all came to $50, including tax and the requisite tip, which seemed too much for what we got. (Bear in mind we ordered no desserts, no side dishes, and no drinks other than the ice cream soda.) Yes, I know it’s New York, on a Saturday night, at the beginning of high season, at what I understand is a relatively high-profile establishment. But surely quality of food has to count for something? We were left feeling disappointed at the mediocrity of the whole thing and generally poor value for money. It’s probably a good visit if you go with mid-week with friends who love musicals as much as you do, and if you just want to eat ice cream. But apart from that, we came to the conclusion that we’d rather stay home, make our own food, and watch the Simpsons’ musical version of Planet Of The Apes, as all Ellen’s did was make a monkey out of us.

1650 Broadway @ 51st Street, NY 10019

Reservations only accepted for parties over 20 people. Phone 212-956-5151.

http://www.ellensstardustdiner.com/

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