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Karen's Diner


20 Feb 2024


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Written by:

Ronan Doyle

What should we know about Karen’s Diner?

It’s the stuff of marketing intern nightmares: your Boomer boss, investing more faith than finance into their basic bitch product, pops their head around the door and asks the dreaded question with cheery cluelessness, “how do we make it go viral?” You want to cry out that engagement can’t be engineered, but boy have we got a restaurant for you.


Australian-based The Viral Group (yes, literally) boasts of billions of social media views and millions of followers for Karen’s Diner, the most lucrative brainchild – or child, anyway – in a stable of hospitality experiences from a Brick Bar (just don’t call it LEGO™!) to, give us strength, a Hot Tub Cinema Club. Press Up, don’t even think about it.


The schtick is simple-ish: it’s the worst service you’ve ever had. We’ve got to confess we got a bit tied up in knots at the concept, a nod to the stereotypical white woman who plays trigger-happy with wanting to speak to the manager: is this some service industry wish fulfilment fantasy for how to kick back at such complaints? A vision of what the world would look like staffed solely by Karens? Is it both? Are we Karen? Are they? Are you? You’d think pegging a place to a years-old meme might not be an obvious recipe for viral success, but we get the sense recipes aren’t something Karen’s Diner cares much about – more on that later.


Where should we sit?

You’ll sit where you’re fucking told, and you’ll be told in exactly those tones too. Dare to arrive ahead of your booked time and you’ll be forced back out the door – we’ll begrudgingly concede this on-brand way of making it look like people are queueing up to get in is a smart example of the way Karen’s Diner has been marketing strategised to within an inch of its life.


It’s better to wait to be barked at for your name than to open with “We’ve got a reservation”, lest the entire restaurant be invited to applaud you. At every turn the staff will do their best to do you down, from mocking your clothes – pity the poor stripy-topped girl ahead of us who was addressed as Dennis the Menace all night – to throwing the menus at your feet as you take up your booth.

The more sheepish among you might hope that a back corner booth or being tucked up against the wall might spare you the spectacle of being summoned up to spin the wheel for the frequent games that break out during dinner, but the more you look to avoid engaging, the more tempting a mark you make. You know what you’re getting yourself in for, don’t try getting out of it now.


What’s on the menu?

Nothing interesting enough to explain the intense attention you’ll notice people paying to it – we saw most punters staring intently down at the bland selection of burgers and fries, visibly hoping their turn wouldn’t soon come to be plucked up to the front and subjected to… well, whatever this is. Look, we get the appeal – novelty is a whole niche in a saturated hospitality market and we all like the idea of a different kind of night out – but Karen’s shock factor schtick gets very old, very fast.


As we haggled over which of us would subject themselves to what, one especially resistant older man was dragged up and forced – if you can you imagine the indignity of it – to finish the song lyrics read out to him. And while we filled out our order on the pad that had, of course, been thrown down on the table in front of us, another was made to do a lap of the room on all fours. The appeal of the place, such that it is, is in its sense of risqué randomness – this all skewed closer to a kid’s birthday party that got a bit bold.


Still, we soon found ourselves envying yer man on the floor – it seemed a more appetising prospect than the food that landed before us. For all Karen’s Diner honestly pitches itself as more an experience than an actual restaurant per se, it does take some measure of pride in the kitchen – “five star food, one star service” is among the riffs on the concept you’ll find scattered across its channels. In the spirit of the place though, allow us to call bullshit: this stuff is slop, with taste never seeming so much a factor as the bottom line.


The Karen’s Turf War vegan burger is nothing short of an ordeal to eat, from the fridge-cold bun to the gruesome congealed gruel of a patty that’s alleged to contain avocado and spinach – all we could taste was regret. The staff reserve special scorn for vegans, inviting the entire restaurant to chorus “fuck you vegan” at any that identify themselves. Trust us, two hours straight of that would still be a more pleasant experience than taking a bite of this.


After that anything would have seemed gourmet, and the Karen’s Hot and Bothered chicken burger isn’t anything close to such an atrocity. It’s also not really any good either, with neither hot sauce nor blue cheese mayo delivering any real trace of flavour. Even in the fast food stakes, O’Connell Street isn’t exactly bursting with great competition, but Karen’s Diner manages to solidly slot in at the bottom of the league.


Coming in at a whopping €24 is the bacon double cheeseburger ‘I Want to See the Manager’ Karen, which puts it at twice the cost of a similar offering in some of Dublin’s best casual burger spots. What are you going to do, complain? You needn’t be too sharp to spot the price difference between this and the Basic Karen is more than the (obscene) individual add-on costs of the extra patty and bacon that set it apart. Maybe they’re daring you to be difficult and order it all that way to make a minor saving.


All are served with a scattering of skin-on fries. Could they really be made in-house? We doubt it. For all the sight of the skin got our hopes up, these have the tell-tale taste of having been cooked from frozen. They’re at least edible with a side of ketchup – steer clear of the bizarrely sweet mayo – which is more than can be said for the appallingly overcooked sweet potato fries we added on. Chicken tenders did not offend - with a menu where the bar goes so low it’s like playing limbo, this is as good as it gets.


What are the drinks like?

Not nearly strong enough to endure a lot of what we experienced – or strong at all, actually, given the alcohol licence hadn’t yet landed on the night of our visit. We can’t imagine any amount of stiff drinks making this place much more fun, but we would have been willing to try. All €8 of a salted caramel milkshake was what we slumped for instead. They certainly had shaken that milk. It was awful.


How was the service?

Karen’s trades on a kind of dread unpredictability, the sense that anything could happen and might happen to you. Maybe that yielded funnier results in Australia, but this is ultimately more a cast than a staff and they’re only as strong as the script they’ve been fed or their ability to ad-lib when the moment arises. And outside of a couple of quick-witted jibes, things fell flat time and again. The only good laugh we got all night was when we were given the wrong food and quickly copped it wasn’t part of the joke – the wide-eyed panic of our server as he visibly thought through how to figure out what went wrong, and fix it, and do it all while staying in character and without seeming to want to help, kept us in stitches the rest of the night.


And the damage?

To our souls, incalculable. To our bank balance, just shy of €80 with a pre-added 10% service charge.


What’s the verdict on Karen’s Diner?

While this is not, to put it lightly, our usual kind of place, we’re not here to judge those whose it is – it takes all kinds to make a city. But it’s hard to imagine anyone getting anything much out of this take on the franchise, where the only thing that successfully takes the piss is the pricing and produce. Look, part of the smart business pitch of Karen’s Diner is that it’s basically bulletproof to customer complaints and critical reviews – if anything, they only help things along. Chances are the aghast write-ups in the national broadsheets – they swore! at children! – will only get more people curious. Believe us please, there is nothing remotely offensive about the place but how boring it all is.


And, in the end, how cynically commercial it all is too. Let’s not be pearl-clutchingly precious about it: awful fast food and a solid chance of being sworn at are nothing new to O’Connell Street – a grand European boulevard it isn’t, and hasn’t been for a very long time. But we can do better than cede the street to late capitalist schtick like this. That’s just throwing in the towel, and leaving lazy franchise food joints like Karen’s Diner laughing all the way to the bank manager.

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