Ciarán Howley reviews Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a classic New York diner with a musical twist.
In New York City there is a diner like no other. To look at it from where I stood outside on 51st and Broadway, it’s ostensibly an ordinary all-American retro style diner. Colourfully lit and family-oriented, as I queued up for this beloved one-of-a-kind burger joint, I wondered just what made it so different from, say, Eddie Rocket’s.
Everything, you’ll find (no shade to Eddie Rocket’s obviously). For thirty-five years, Ellen’s Stardust Diner has built a reputation as one of the liveliest and most enjoyable dining experiences in New York City for its all-singing waitstaff who belt showtunes and crowd-pleasing bangers throughout the night. Seated with my family at a table directly above the stage, I can assuredly say I’d never seen a waiter serve drinks before bursting into a rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘Keeping the Faith.’
When he returned from his performance to take our order we congratulated him before my aunt ordered the steak.
“Well done,” she said.
“No, I meant the steak. But you were good too.”
It’s safe to say he was slightly less amiable from then on.
Ellen’s big claim to fame is that its alum go on to star in Broadway productions and pursue successful singing careers. Some names that have started off at Ellen’s include Brandon Ellis, Alyssa Umphress, Eric Michael Krop and Steven Tyler Davis and many more who have starred in Broadway musicals like In the Heights, The Lion King and Wicked. One performer even gave a rendition of ‘Defying Gravity’ that blew the roof and was pretty on par with the performance I’d seen in the West End production pre-Covid.
“I can assuredly say I’d never seen a waiter take my order before bursting into a rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘Keeping the Faith.’”
Central to the restaurant is the legacy of its founder Ellen Hart Sturm and her title as winner of the Miss Subways beauty pageant in 1959. With her face plastered on the New York subway, she began a career as an actress, model, singer and performer. Establishing Ellen’s Café in 1987 with her husband Irving Sturm, it became a wedding reception hotspot for newlyweds after sealing the deal at City Hall and for Mayors of NYC to celebrate their birthdays.
Following the café’s closure in 1987 for unknown reasons Ellen’s Stardust Diner was born. Listed on many food and tourism blogs as a must-see in New York city, it manages to blend an exciting novelty with delicious food. For meat-eaters, I recommend the Philly Cheese Steak, decked with sauteéd onions, peppers, and melted mozzarella cheese. While America is a notoriously difficult place for veggies, Ellen’s offers a fulfilling Beyond Burrito with rice, beans and salsa and crunchy waffles fries to boot.
“The song was a country ballad of some sort but I don’t think I’ll forget the sight of a crowd turning on their flashlights to wave along in sync with a man in a mustard costume comically warbling from behind a facemask.”
It’s at this point after finishing my burrito that another performer gets up to start singing; I forgot it was Halloween night and accordingly he’s dressed as a bottle of mustard. The song was a country ballad of some sort but I don’t think I’ll forget the sight of a crowd turning on their flashlights to wave along in sync with a man in a mustard costume, comically warbling from behind a facemask.
Only in New York, I thought.
But be warned: though Ellen’s Stardust Diner may be home to music and merriment but affordable meals it is not. Eating out in America is rarely cheap, especially with the twenty percent gratuity charge. While not obligatory, it’s very much encouraged to tip. On a budget, a main course and a drink at Ellen’s will set you back about $32 plus twenty per-cent tip bringing you to about $38 for a single diner and $76 for two. If you’ve got a bit more money in your pocket, appetisers range from about nine to as high as twenty dollars and desserts likewise.
At some point during the festivities, the emcee Tyler will send around a donation bucket for funds that go back in performers’ pockets to get dance and singing lessons. He recounted his own experience of using the fun to get tap-dancing lessons which he hoped to put to good use at an upcoming audition in a Broadway play.
I was tempted to ask a waitstaff how true this was, recalling an industrial dispute in 2017, where fifty members of staff informed management they had formed a union in dispute of poor working conditions, unfair treatment from upper management and the harsh reality that some employees were not receiving a fair share of tips. The New York Times chronicled this bitter war in-depth, which was settled that same year before it could reach court. It seems all is well in the magical kingdom of Ellen’s Stardust Diner, for now. Fittingly, the final song that saw us off was the Irish classic “Uptown Girl” originated by Billy Joel, and later re-appropriated (improved…question mark) by boy-band Westlife.
Should you find yourself in New York seeking a touch of Broadway magic without the expensive ticket (and a hot meal), Ellen’s Stardust Diner is just the place.