Karen’s Diner comes to Auckland: Chef and ex-hospital worker review worst service in town

Lyric Waiwiri-Smith is a Stuff lifestyle journalist who worked the counter at a burrito chain for four years and is now dating a chef.

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This is my second attempt to step into Karen’s Diner, the whimsical Australian pop-up restaurant that has just landed in New Zealand.

My boyfriend Joe, a commis chef, and I, a former burrito artist, selfishly showed up six minutes early for our 11:30 a.m. reservation and were coldly turned away even though only one restaurant table was in use.

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Before we could even walk into Karen’s Diner, we had exactly what we were here for: the worst food service of our lives.

She may seem nice, but the servers at Karen's Diner are trained to ignore and abuse customers.


She may seem nice, but the servers at Karen’s Diner are trained to ignore and abuse customers.

Karen’s Diner is a 1950s Americana-themed restaurant that opened in Sydney last year and operates purely on the philosophy of the Karen stereotype.

The Karen of the Internet is the woman who calls the manager for the slightest thing, the woman who intimidates the waiters, the woman who thinks the restaurant revolves around her – at Karen’s Diner, the staff have regained their power.

Having worked in customer service for four years, I was jealous of the servers.

Karen's Diner empowers hospital staff.


Karen’s Diner empowers hospital staff.

Working in the hospitality industry may be considered “unskilled labor” by many, but it is work that can completely break a person.

Auckland’s Karen’s Diner is tucked away in the affluent suburb of Mount Eden, where Karens are bound to congregate in droves.

The interior is bright with neon signs shouting “I want to file a complaint” and “Where are my fries!”.

The walls of the 50s Americana themed restaurant are decorated with some classic “Karenisms”.

Waiwiri-Smith/Stuff lyrics

The walls of the 50s Americana themed restaurant are decorated with some classic “Karenisms”.

We are seated, reluctantly, by a young woman who returns later to scatter cups and slam a bottle of water onto our table.

It might be his long red hair, but Joe almost immediately becomes a target. They call him an “Ed Sheeran lookalike” and a waiter returns the bird to him.

It all sounds terrible in writing, but in real life, we laughed. It’s a bit like having dinner at a comedy show, and everyone is in on it. What’s good is that servers aren’t allowed to base their slurs on racism, sexism, or homophobia (though the red-haired gag ruffled Joe’s feathers a bit).

Joe ordered a milky way shake and got vanilla instead (my float was awesome though).

Waiwiri-Smith/Stuff lyrics

Joe ordered a milky way shake and got vanilla instead (my float was awesome though).

A waitress comes to take our drink orders and then leaves when we take too long to decide. (don’t worry, they eventually come back).

Our drinks arrive, as does a real problem: the Milky Way milkshake Joe ordered came out vanilla.

This raised a very important question about Karen’s Diner: what happens when the staff mess up your order?

Will you be abused for complaining about your food when there is a problem? Would they actually want to fix it or would they leave you with food you don’t want? Unfortunately, we never found the answer because I begged my boyfriend not to complain because my fear of confrontation was stronger than my curiosity.

The pop-up concept started in Sydney.  It's his first time in New Zealand.


The pop-up concept started in Sydney. It’s his first time in New Zealand.

Once we started ordering food, I was tempted by the I Want The Manager burger just for the name, but settled for Karen’s Best Breast.

Joe, who is celiac, opted for the loaded fries (gluten-free burger buns are available for an extra $4).

Another problem arises – they don’t have the breast fries he wants, so Joe is told (very literally and very rudely) to order the chicken and bacon fries.

“In a regular restaurant, if you didn’t have beef brisket, the customer would tell you to tell the chef to have some,” Joe said, puzzled.

Joe's loaded fries with no brisket.

Waiwiri-Smith/Stuff lyrics

Joe’s loaded fries with no brisket.

We’ve just started eating (my burger a little cold and Joe’s chicken a little too dry) when one of the waiters grabs a microphone and tells diners how pathetic they are to have dinner here at 12pm on a Thursday .

As she intimidates the crowd through a quiz about Karen, I wonder how the hiring process at this place must go.

Joe notes that he hasn’t received any utensils and that a lady at the table next to us is in desperate need of napkins, but everyone seems too scared to ask the staff for help.

“It’s more nerve-wracking than going to a normal restaurant…you have to manage on your own.” You can’t rely on service from waiters or waitresses or food coming out of the kitchen,” Joe says.

About 20 minutes later, the game master returns again, this time for a game of spinning the wheel.

A group of older women next to me are forced to parade, and the restaurant has to cheer on the person with the worst attire.

We are then told to shout “f…off Karen!” to one of the older ladies in the group, and the staff members join in the vitriol.

I feel incredibly shy as I walk to the counter to pay, not knowing what to expect. The young woman and the man at the counter ask for a tip.

How to say no? Thank goodness I pay on the company card.

Would I go there again? Although it made me laugh, it was a little too anxiety-inducing for me.

Of course, it’s just a joke that everyone is involved in, and the addition of games throughout the meal service makes the experience interactive and fun, but I can’t imagine being a regular at this. a restaurant that treats you terribly.

The food here is a bit pricey – the cheapest burger is $22 and the most expensive is $28, while Joe’s milkshake is $12.

I assume you are paying for the service.

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