I’ve got to be honest when my other half suggested adding Ellen’s Stardust Diner to our edible itinerary ahead of our trip to New York last month, I wasn’t exactly cock-a-hoop.
Having visited the city a fair few times before, the big bright lights of those world-famous tourist attractions have sort of lost their shine a bit for me now. I mean don’t get me wrong, the skyline by night will never fail to make my heart skip a beat and I’ll never tire of strolling around Central Park but as I get older and more familiar with New York, I want to explore it’s underbelly. I want to know more about it’s independent scenes and its most treasured hidden gems; live more like a local whenever I visit.
So when Times Square‘s tackiest tourist spot wormed its way into our plan of action on day one in Manhattan, I wasn’t exactly expecting great things from The Home of the Singing Waitstaff. However this blog post is all about why I stand firmly corrected.
With it’s clashing red and blue branding, well-worn diner-style decor and location right opposite a massive McDonalds, I remained sceptic as we queued outside for a table for two to become available. I’d been pre-warned about the lines which often snake around the block to get into the Stardust Diner but thanks to jet leg, we were up and at ’em bright and early so only found ourselves three small parties away from the front.
Okay sure, once we got inside, the restaurant wasn’t the cleanest venue I’ve ever been in and the restrooms could have done with a bit of attention but it was what happened after we shoe-horned ourselves into our seats that really impressed me. More about that in a moment though because I just have to tell you about the Chocolate Chip Pancakes ($14) we ordered. Uh, those pancakes!
Like I said, at this point I still wasn’t a Stardust convert. After the stunning pancakes we had had earlier in the week in Reykjavik’s Egill Jacobsen, we were hankering after second helpings but I wasn’t anticipating anything amazing here. I was tempted by the Rainbow Bagel but figured I had already scratched that itch back home. Plus, if you can go to a bonafide American diner and not have pancakes for breakfast then you’re a stronger gal (or guy) than I am.
Well hold the damn phone because these pancakes were in-sane. In a battle of Egill versus Ellen, I’ve gotta say, it was neck and neck.
They came as a stack of three buttermilk pancakes which came served hot with slightly salted butter for spreading, maple syrup for pouring, whipped cream for dunking and a generous dusting of icing sugar for good measure. The image above doesn’t really depict the true size of each pancake which was definitely as big as my face but easy to conquer as the vanilla-based mixture was as light as a feather. If you don’t fancy climbing Mount Pancake, go for the Short Stack ($17) which is two pancakes (or waffles) topped with an egg and your choice of ham, bacon or sausage.
To level out the avalanche of sugar we were shoving down our gullets, we also ordered a spinach & feta ‘Golden Greek Omelette’ ($15.50) which came served with a portion of crispy Tater Tots. For anybody who doesn’t already follow any kind of #foodporn account on Instagram, tater tots are basically like little hashbrown nuggets and these were a bloody fine example. Just like the pancakes and typical of the US, portion sizes were more than ample and kept us full until dinner at Root & Bone later that evening.
But it wasn’t just the edibles that were a pleasant surprise..
Back to why I’ve had a complete change of heart about Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Times Square…
The waiter who had ushered us to our tiny table slap bang in the middle of the two-floor diner was called Chris. He sat us down, placed our All Day Breakfast menus in front of us and then told us he would be back in a few minutes to take our order. Presuming this meant he was going to register a check or clear another table ready to be filled by one of the many eager people peering in through the windows from the growing queue outside, we waited patiently.
Thirty seconds later, there Chris was, large as life on the makeshift stage down the middle of the seating booths, belting out his rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody into a microphone. Chris is just one of the many, many singing servers that have come and gone over the decades since Ellen’s Stardust Diner came to be. The unique dining concept was inspired by a 50’s Broadway actress who, funnily enough, was called Ellen and aims to help all of its staff make their way onto the Broadway stage themselves one day.
It works too. Behind us was a wall of fame full of professional headshots from former Stardust staff who had gone on to have their name up in lights in the famous New York Theater District. In between songs from each singing server, an optional donations bucket was passed around into which we chucked $10. Whatever goes into this bucket is separate from standard service charges or tips and divided between the staff, only to be invested in things like acting, singing and dancing lessons.
What a bloody brilliant idea – give aspiring actors and singers a chance to practice and perform in front of their target audience every single day whilst working towards making their biggest dream a reality. If overindulging in fairly-expensive pancakes and refillable Pepsi goes anywhere towards making this happen faster, well then sign me up.
And that, my friends, is why Ellen’s Stardust Diner is not just the Times Square tack I had prematurely tarnished it as.