‘Sit Down and Shut Up’: My Lunchtime Ordeal at Karen’s Diner | Restaurants

Masochism as entertainment has long been the business value of the 21st century: Gordon Ramsay yelling at aspiring chefs; malicious old Kevin McCloud comparing someone’s billionaire Grand Design to a car showroom. Even in this age of #BeKind, we still hunger for ritual humiliation.

So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of ​​a restaurant experience that is meant to be as unpleasant as possible. Blame the Aussies for Karen’s Diner, new to the UK, which advertises with the tagline: “We hate good service.”

Some journalists infiltrate despotic regimes. Others create elaborate identities to lure the powerful into corruption. My lunchtime assignment was to go undercover at Karen’s in Prestwich, a Greater Manchester suburb of Bury that was once home to the late Mark E Smith, the autumn singer whose uncompromising rudeness was less a trick than a form of life. Karen’s Diner would have represented everything Smith hated about modern life, where insults come from the script and not from the heart.

A member of staff makes customer children clean up at Karen's Diner in Prestwich.A member of staff makes customer children clean up at Karen’s Diner in Prestwich. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

My cover story fell apart at the first snag when the scowling maitre d’ noticed the notebook sticking out of my coat pocket. “What’s that?” she barked. I stuttered an unconvincing answer. She directed us to table 22, the worst in the house, right next to the restrooms.

A waitress threw menus in our general direction. Another brought us chef hats full of insults. Work experience student Hope, no doubt quickly reassessing her career goals, received one that read “Tory.” Mine said: “I gave Boris a push.” A woman strutted through the bathrooms with the confidence of a supermodel, perhaps forgetting that she was wearing one that said “dumb scum.”

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A surprising number of children dined with Karen. Those under 16 must be accompanied by adults, with the website warning “We are not Disneyland”, and expect profanity. They’re not kidding. Within an hour we saw several boisterous elementary school kids being told to “sit down and shut your mouths”. Three 10-year-old boys seemed excited. Their mothers: less.

Born in Sydney last year, Karen’s Diner is named after an internet meme that rose to prominence in the late 2010s. A classic for babies from the 1970s, the name has become a way abbreviated from a particular type of woman, white and humorless with an inverted bob that is longer in the front than the back, who asks too quickly for the manager. Those of us who know and love a Karen (sorry sis) feel very guilty about perpetuating the age and sexist stereotype, even if it comes with pretty decent burgers.

Why would any sensible person pay money to be insulted? Ask a dominatrix. Sometimes it feels good when it hurts. But did I enjoy hearing the waiter ask, “Do you want me to wipe your ass too?” when I dared to ask for mayonnaise and ketchup. Not so much. My teenage self probably would have loved it. There are some ground rules: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no body image comments, no capable comments.

Service with a smile.Service with a smile. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Guardian

Karen’s is just the latest example of a hospitality venue that is more about theater than food or drink. Like Dans Le Noir, where London diners have been eating in the dark since the early 2000s, or any of the miniature golf and ax-throwing bars so popular with stag parties, it’s less for foodies than exhibitionists. .

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The meanest looking waitress came over to our table as we finished our burgers. Hope was ordered to spin a wheel of misfortune, a collection of challenges. She landed on “Romantic Karen”, and she was forced to go and use her best line of conversation on a tough looking guy wearing a hat that said “Budget Danny Dyer”, eating with her children. The waitress then asked the father how “hard” he was, on a scale of one to 10. She didn’t mean hard.

Then the staff pretended it was my birthday. I was serenaded with a swear-laden version of Happy Birthday and served a shot of some kind of milky dung served in a miniature toilet bowl, delivered with two middle fingers. The experience ended as it began: with impressive rudeness. I struggled with the door. “It’s push, not pull,” said one waitress. “Fucking idiot”.

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