This is a review of the Sydney pop-up of Karen's Diner.
So what is a “Karen” anyway? What originated as a useful shorthand to describe unreasonable, entitled white women who weaponise their privilege at the drop of a hat has since become more of a catch-all cuss for all manner of righteous impatience. We’ve all seen cringy videos of ‘Karens’ unloading on a hapless service professional, and likely vowed never to be that petty.
Which is why Karen's Diner is such a surreal concept. The brainchild of the team behind boozy escape room-style experiences like the Wonderland Bar and the ooky spooky Wizard’s Den, guests at Karen's are invited to “live out [their] Karen dreams and be rude to the waitstaff”. But if you're not naturally inclined to kick up a stink, get ready for an existential crisis.
When we visit, we find that many of the staff – dressed in cute, retro, pastel-perfect American diner uniforms circa 1950, apropos of, well, nothing – are just there to punk us. They make a habit of obnoxiously yelling at each other across the restaurant and treating punters with cartoonish disdain. From the moment you walk in, the maître d' lays it on thick with the eye-rolling.
But wait, am I the Karen? Are the staff the Karens? Is everyone Karen!? Are they projecting what a Karen sees when she feels narked enough to accost a service worker? Is this dinner theatre or a psychological experiment? I soon slip into the first of many identity spirals. I am shaded for my ‘box dye’ hair, ridiculed for the state of my cuticles, and told I need to learn how to blend my eyeshadow – all as I get increasingly flustered trying to make a selection from the menu. Considering that many of us are still on waiting lists for hairdressers and salons, some of the barbs feel a little cruel. And the third was an artistic style choice, I swear!
While it's clear they want to get a rise out of me, I find it tough to slip into sass mode when I’m aware that the person insulting me is a working actor. Both the colleague I roped in and I have many years of working in hospo behind us, so we also have an inherent aversion to being assholes to staff. But it’s actually a good way to rip off the bandaid of post-lockdown awkwardness, and we soon decide to join in.
But then again, what choice do we have? Menus are slammed onto the table, you’re bullied into picking your own drinks up off the serving trays, meals are given to the wrong diners on purpose (maybe take note of this if you have any dietary requirements). And then, horror, the audience participation begins. At various points the pissed-off-sounding staff make announcements on a megaphone. A ‘Wheel of Misfortune’ comes out as diners are lured into games like trivia and truth or dare. You may be forced to stand in front of the restaurant and tell a joke, confess to a time you’ve acted like a total Karen, or do some impromptu karaoke, all while being cajoled and insulted. Sounds like fun, right?
Strangely – yeah, kinda! At one point our waiter scowls at me for the number of serviettes I've used (we were eating sticky hot wings) and feeling emboldened to get in on the joke, I hold eye contact with him as I rip another serviette from the stainless steel dispenser on our table. It’s the last one. The dispenser sits triumphantly empty. It's a hilarious moment and standing there in his little red bow tie, he lets a genuine laugh slip as he walks away, shaking his head. For a brief moment, the fourth wall comes down, and the potential for a good time reveals itself.
You have to wonder, how does it feel to work here? We persuade our waiter to answer our questions and he confirms our suspicions – it is largely cathartic, and a lot of fun. The diciest moments are when dealing with customers who aren’t actually putting it on when their inner Karen comes out. At a time when the hospitality industry has a shortage of experienced staff, this feels a little too on the nose.
As for the menu, they’re not reinventing the wheel with the burgers, wings, and milkshakes, but that’s hardly the point of coming here. There are vegan options too (we’d love to see what happens when someone orders those). If you need a little liquid courage to work up your retorts to the sassy staff, there’s an extensive cocktail list, shooters, wine and beer on tap.
If you're curious, Karen's Diner is opening its doors at 398-400 Lygon Street from March. Head to the website to learn more information and to make a booking.