There’s a whole category of restaurants with service so bad — knowingly so bad — the hope is it will have customers, typically out-of-towners, doubled over in stitches, slapping knees, spitting out water, that kind of thing. Places like Chicago tourist trap Wiener’s Circle or Dick’s Last Resort specifically attract visitors for their appallingly bad service. Now, Australia-based traveling pop-up Karen’s Diner is taking things to a level nobody asked for, as the terrible service gag meets the very real meme of the entitled, usually affluent, and always wanting to speak to the manager Karen. The whole thing ranges from bizarre to (somewhat knowingly?) problematic.
On October 7 and 8, Karen’s Diner will take over Portland’s Rue Cler Marketplace on Southeast Milwaukie Avenue. The gist: Rude staff take hapless diners to task, flipping the typical the-customer-is-always-right dynamic. “The infamous Karen meme was going viral at the same time as our staff were having to enforce vaccine passports and other restrictions, which meant they were on the receiving end of a lot of unnecessary ‘Karen’ behavior from customers,” cofounder Aden Levin told Perth Now. “We understood that people were just frustrated with lockdowns, but it did make us think about a concept where we could flip the hospitality mantra and create a diner where staff could be rude to the customers and get paid for it.”
Portland Monthly writes the pop-up diner, complete with burgers and fries for $47, has reached colossal levels of popularity; the business does gangbuster numbers on TikTok, claiming it has received somewhere in the range of 1.5 billion views. Now, Karen’s Diner, which launched in Australia, even has a host of permanent locations. The company advises buying tickets in advance, though purchasing through the business’ online events portal doesn’t seem to work.
While the origins are somewhat contested, many point to comedian Dane Cook for popularizing the framework of the Karen caricature as the friend who annoys everybody. In 2019, comedian Jay Pharoh took the bit to new heights by layering on Karen’s affluence, privilege, and whiteness. The meme reached a zenith in 2020 when that “let me speak to the manager” energy became weaponized toward Black people simply going about their daily lives; an infamous example would be bird watcher Christian Cooper’s harrowing experience in Central Park.
What a Karen is, exactly, and how that plays into the dining experience at Karen’s Diner seem at odds. Interestingly, given its source material, the business has a set of house rules for staff and guests to abide. No racist, sexist, or ableist comments; no body shaming; no sexual harassment; no damage to property. At Karen’s Diner, the idea is that the intentionally rude wait staff are Karens; unlike rude service tourist traps, the entire body of people at Karen’s Diner — staff and customers alike — are encouraged to be contemptuous, a kind of hostile social experiment akin to the Stanford Prison Experiment but with a basket of fries.
Transforming one of the terms that emerged from the American zeitgeist of the early 2020s — one full of targeted killings of Black women and men and more public demonstrations in a summer than ever witnessed in the country’s history — into a zany caricature for the sake of generating online attention is part and parcel of the United States’s playbook. This company may hail from Australia, but it’s still pretty strange to ask diners to engage in a cosplay that has become inextricably tied to violence against Black and brown people. If that isn’t enough to go anywhere else, a burger, fries, and soda, while being yelled at by performers, is just not worth $47. Hit Medieval Times instead.
Karen’s Diner hits Portland October 7 and 8 with tickets (possibly) available online.