Every morning on Broadway, before the box offices open and the rush lines have formed, the performances are already underway. Impromptu groups of theater fanatics, music nerds, and aspiring actors gather at the corner of 51st Street and burst into song. Commuters on their way to work catch strains from Wicked and Spring Awakening. But the performers aren’t prepping for auditions or busking for change—they’re waiting for a table at Ellen’s Stardust Diner.
Inside, the dining experience at Stardust is controlled chaos. In between taking orders and delivering milkshakes, servers belt out a constant stream of Broadway classics and pop hits. They strut atop glittering red banquettes and lob straws like confetti in all directions. And over generous plates of burgers and fries, Stardust’s customers beam and cheer, as the lines outside continues to grow.
"This place is a circus, and that's what I love about it,” server Marissa Miller told Gothamist. Like each of her colleagues, Miller is an established performer, and had to both apply with a serving resume and sing in an audition before she was hired. Stardust demands that its staff has a musical theater pedigree (Miller toured nationally with Wicked for three years before applying), and management strives to accommodate the actors’ busy schedules. A tip bucket gets passed between tables roughly every hour, and the staff pools the money to pay for lessons.
“This job has changed my life, really,” Miller said, pausing on a break after the end of a busy morning shift. “It really has. It's so flexible. It's all actors, everyone understands, everyone's willing to help you out if you have an audition. I know it might sound silly because we're just singing songs, but it gives you an opportunity to be creative in a way that you want to be creative, not based on what an audition room is demanding of you.”
The “singing waiters” idea that draws Broadway-lovers to eat (and work) at Stardust belongs to its founder, actress Ellen Hart Sturm, a former Miss Subways beauty queen who got her start in the restaurant business in 1969 operating Ellen’s Cafe near City Hall. When that closed down, she moved on to Stardust, which opened in 1987. It's now owned by her son, Ken Sturm.
During multiple trips to the Stardust this spring, the scene was consistently exuberant and raucous. On a packed Saturday night the room erupted as server Danny Brooks crooned through “New York, New York,” straws flying everywhere. Outside, a waiting group of middle schoolers from Arlington, Massachusetts sung “Tale as Old as Time.” Hours later, Monique Morgan serenaded a late rush with a Gershwin standard. And amidst it all, a deft team of food runners, emcees, bussers, and hosts kept the show moving.
"Expect a busy, noisy place at Stardust,” manager Scott Barbarino told us. “Expect a lot going on all around you. It's not a place that you go with somebody for a quiet meal."
For nearly three decades, the Stardust has run as a well-rehearsed machine, outlasting some of Broadway’s most highly-acclaimed musicals. But last year brought waves of internal strife and bad press for the diner. Under a new management team, over 30 servers were fired for what many of their colleagues considered to be minor—even arbitrary—infractions. In response, servers formed a solidarity union (Stardust Family United) and multiple lawsuits were filed against Sturm.
The workers are bargaining for improved communication, "higher wages for nontipped employees, protection from what they describe as a campaign of arbitrary discipline and a measure of job security, which they believe they have lost under the new management regimen." This spring, the union delivered a signed letter requesting a cohesive disciplinary guideline.
“It seems political almost, using fear tactics in order to get servers to stay in line, and you never know when it's going to happen,” said one Stardust server, who asked to speak anonymously because of the tension with management. Members of the union wear pins while on the clock, and happily discuss their organizing if a customer inquires. “We’re seeking the freedom to speak up when something could be improved. It’s is a magical place, and we want to keep it that way."
On any given morning, the line outside Stardust represents a wide array of ages, nationalities, and, if you listen long enough, musical ability. One Thursday morning in May Thomas Nilsson and Lisa Wingder, tourists from Gothenburg, Sweden, stood near the front of the line while just behind them, a couple from Scotland was preparing to make breakfast at Stardust their New York meal before flying home.
Farther back—easily a 40 minute wait—high school senior Hannah O’Brien stood with the rest of her choirmates, visiting from Hurricane, West Virginia. An aspiring actress herself, O’Brien had been looking forward to the Stardust Diner for weeks.
“I just love seeing all the talent, it’s just awesome. The different styles of music that everyone can sing, I can’t wait to feel inspired.”
Ellen's Stardust Diner is located at 1650 Broadway at West 51st Street.