Ellen’s Stardust Diner almost did not survive those dark days of the pandemic. “I thought I might not open,” recalled Ellen Hart, the Ellen of Ellen’s Stardust, former Miss Subway and self-identified survivor of all that life and New York can throw at a person.
“We were afraid to open.” But reopen she did. Which is more than many others have been able to do. The list of pandemic loss runs long, including Caroline’s on Broadway, the Comedy Club that was just a block south of Ellen’s Stardust. Others are still struggling. For a Great City still short of good news, the revival of Ellen’s Stardust is a bit of a lift, like the show tunes performed every day by its cast of singing servers.
“We’re back,” said Ellen Hart. Ellen’s isn’t just back, in fact. Its business is as good as ever, and ahead of the overall recovery of Times Square, the Broadway Theatre and other entertainment and tourism offerings that are so central to the city’s economy.
Overall, the theatre, and tourist venues like the Circle Line, are back to about 80 to 85 percent of pre-pandemic levels, promising but still challenging. Many Broadway shows have been hanging on in the hope that the upcoming Tony awards will boost their still lagging business while the longest running show on Broadway, Phantom of the Opera shut down in April after 35 years.
But at Ellen’s the lines are often down the block again, and attendance, which seems like the right word, is back to pre-pandemic levels, and some days beyond. Some 3,000 customers a day dine on Ellen’s Burgers and Shakes and the downstairs music club, Iridium, is sold out four days in five.
“We see with businesses like Ellen’s that when we have a unique offering, the singing wait staff, and great food, it helps,” said Tom Harris, who as President of the Times Square Alliance is a close student of the city’s recovery. “I think the Broadway themed performances put it over the top. This venue is also ripe for social media postings that drive traffic. There are many diners, but only one where you have Broadway singers both bringing your food and performing.” Other Times Square Restaurants with strong theme’s, like the family Italian at Carmine’s and the ribs at Virgil’s, also seem to have come back strongly, Harris noted.While tourism overall has still not fully recovered, foot traffic in Times Square now exceeds pre-pandemic levels on many days, he added.
“The comeback was really good for us, I have to say,” explained Scott Barbarino, Ellen’s Artistic Director. “There are still a lot of restaurants in this neighborhood that aren’t back where they were before. I wish we could share the business with them somehow.” It might be almost as useful if Ellen’s and the other comeback successes could share their secret. Many explanations are offered. A strong theme. The great burgers. The bargain of getting dinner and entertainment for one price. Scott Barbarino says that with the cost of theatre tickets going up, he notices that some tourists, instead of their pre-pandemic pattern of seeing three shows, are cutting costs by seeing only two shows and spending an evening at Ellen’s.
But at least one factor in the recovery of Ellen’s Stardust has to be Ellen herself, for whom the phrase force-of-nature must have been invented. Force-of-nature, NewYork style. Ellen doesn’t give her age anymore, but we do know she graduated from Jamaica High School in 1959. So if you really need to know, do the math. We know her graduation date because that same spring she was named a Miss Subway and her picture was plastered on subway cars all around the town, from the Bronx to the Battery, as in one of the songs sometimes sung at Ellen’s. Miss Subway led to modeling gigs and invites to sing the national anthem at Madison Square Garden. With her late husband, Irving Sturm, she opened the first Ellen’s Café, down by City Hall. It became an institution. A downtown watering hole for city officials, politicians ,journalists and five mayors, who on their birthdays donated pies equaling their age to charity. Ellen’s Café was iconic. But 22 years ago she suffered one of those New York calamities. Her landlord decided he had a better use for the building and booted Ellen’s Café after 31 years downtown.
“New York is a tough city,” Ellen said. There was personal loss, too. In 2010 Irving Sturm, Ellen’s husband and business partner, died. “If you’ve been married like I was married 48 years and suddenly you’re on your own, that’s an experience. So I realized I’m a survivor. I can do anything. I feel, just keep going.” Out of all that adversity a new Ellen’s rose, uptown, eventually incorporating the Broadway themed singing waiters.
Like most overnight successes in New York, it took Ellen years to build the reputation of her new Diner, which among other things serves an entirely new class of clientele. Where Ellen’s Café was a quintessential New York hangout, gathering movers and shakers from all five boroughs, Ellen’s Stardust Diner lives on its tourist trade. In fact, even though singing servers are a New York invention given a new twist at Ellen’s with Broadway show tunes, most New Yorkers would tell you they have never been, unless it was to take an out of town friend. That didn’t stop business from booming. “Before the pandemic we were very popular,” Ellen recalled, “we had lines around the block.” Then, Covid.
Ellen’s Stardust closed with all of Broadway, tried to reopen and then closed again. Ellen says she considered giving up. “We owed out a lot of different bills when we closed. We were afraid to open because it was possible we wouldn’t make it.”
Her management company convinced her to try one more time. “I said I’m a survivor,” she recalled. “I’ll survive.”
This Thursday (June 1) the revival of Ellen’s Stardust will intersect with another New York story of adversity and recovery. Ellen’s Stardust Diner will host a celebration of Pride Month in collaboration with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Ellen Hart said a portion of the proceeds of every sale in June of the Diner’s legendary rainbow cake, rainbow milkshakes and other merchandise will got to support the work of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, which helps patients and families affected by HIV/aids and other debilitating illnesses.
“On life in general you just keep going,” Ellen said the other day. “You dust yourself off and start all over again. Like the song says. Right?” A Jerome Kerns/Dorothy Fields Standard, written for the movie Swing Time, that you can no doubt hear on occasion at Ellen’s Stardust Diner.
“On life in general you just keep going. You dust yourself off and start all over again.” Ellen Hart, Ellen’s Stardust Diner, citing a Jerome Kerns/Dorothy Fields song