Masochism as entertainment has long been the stock in trade of the 21st century: Gordon Ramsay yelling at budding chefs; bad old Kevin McCloud comparing someone’s multi-million pound Grand Design with a car showroom. Even in this #BeKind era, we remain hungry for ritual humiliation.
So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea for a dining experience that aims to be as unpleasant as possible. Blame the Australians for Karen’s Diner, new to the UK, which advertises itself with the slogan: ‘We hate good service’.
Some journalists infiltrate despotic regimes. Others create elaborate identities to lure the powerful into corruption. My lunchtime task was to go incognito to Karen’s in Prestwich, a suburb of Bury in Greater Manchester that was once home to the late Mark E Smith, the singer of Fall whose uncompromising rudeness was less a gimmick than ‘a way of life. Karen’s Diner would have represented everything Smith hated in modern life, where insults come from a script rather than from the heart.
My cover story fell apart at the first hurdle when the scowling butler noticed the notebook sticking out of my coat pocket. “What is that?” she barked. I stammered an unconvincing answer. She directed us to table 22, the worst in the house, right next to the toilets.
A waitress threw menus in our general direction. Another brought us hats stained with insults. Work experience student Hope, no doubt quickly reassessing her career goals, received a “Tory” reading of it. Mine said, “I sniffed Boris.” A woman strutted past the toilet with the confidence of a model, perhaps forgetting she was wearing one that said “slag dopey.”
A surprising number of children dined with Karen. Under 16s should be accompanied by adults, with the website disclaimer “We are not Disneyland”, and expect foul language. They are not joking. Within an hour, we saw several rowdy elementary school children being told to “sit down and shut your mouth”. Three 10-year-old boys looked delighted. Their mothers: less.
Karen’s Diner was born in Sydney last year and is named after an internet meme that rose to prominence in the late 2010s. The name, a classic for 1970s babies, has become shorthand for a particular type of woman – white and humorless with an inverted bob longer in front than behind – who is too quick to ask the director. Those of us who know and love a Karen (sorry, sis) feel very guilty for perpetuating the sexist, ageist stereotype, even if it comes with pretty decent burgers.
Why would a sane 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 really. The teenage me probably would have loved it. There are a few ground rules: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, no body image comments, no ableist comments.
Karen’s is just the latest example of a hospitality venue that’s more about theater than food or drink. Like Dans Le Noir, where London diners have been dining in the dark since the early 2000s, or one of the crazy golf/axe-throwing bars so popular with bachelor parties, it’s less for foodies than for exhibitionists.
The nastiest waitress approached our table when we finished our burgers. Hope has been ordered to spin a wheel of misfortune, a collection of challenges. It landed on “Romantic Karen,” and she was forced to go use her best chat line on a tough-looking guy wearing a hat saying “Budget Danny Dyer,” eating with his kids. The waitress then asked the father how “tough” he was, on a scale of 1 to 10. She didn’t mean tough.
The staff then claimed it was my birthday. They serenaded me with a swear-laden version of Happy Birthday and served me a shot of some kind of milky slime served in a miniature toilet, delivered with two middle fingers. The experience ended as it began: with breathtaking rudeness. I struggled with the door. “It’s pushing, not pulling,” said a waitress. “Fucking idiot.”