It wasn’t the long line of diners waiting to get in that surprised me, but the strong and trained voice singing “I Will Always Love You,” with such emotion that the hustling and bustling inside Ellen’s Stardust Diner grew quiet. Of course there’s a line to get in at Ellen’s, the popular and historic eatery at on the corner of Broadway and 51st, but the level of the talented musical waitstaff is enough to stop you in your tracks. The place is busy, with the center tables almost touching, rows of seats around the perimeter, and a balcony overhead with even more tables. The interior is crowded, don’t get me wrong, so if you’re looking for an intimate dining experience, this ain’t it. It’s dining, New York Style: loud, great food, attentive and friendly staff, in a venue with a great New York story.
Ellen Hart Sturm (Photo courtesy of Ellen’s Stardust Diner)
But it’s also the story of diner owner, Ellen Hart Sturm. And what better time to focus on Ellen than during Women’s History Month? Queens born, and still a student at Jamaica High School, Ellen was selected to be the Miss Subway in the spring of 1959, joining a long line of other women chosen in an advertising promotion to get subway train riders accustomed to start paying attention to the ads being placed in the subway cars. Though developed with a “beauty pageant” concept, the Miss Subways were, however, regular women, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and in a variety of careers: some were students, others were secretaries or aspiring actresses and singers.
After this experience, Ellen married, and in 1979 opened up Ellen’s Café in downtown Manhattan, near City Hall where it remained a staple for politicians and civil servants, and as her bio reads, “Mayors would come in on their birthdays and would donate as many pies as their age to charity.” This success led her to open the 1950’s-themed diner in Times Square almost ten years later where it became the “launching pad” for waiters/vocalists who went on to join touring companies and Broadway musicals. I’m sure many a producer looking for a new voice would visit Ellen’s for not only a great meal, but perhaps that next great musical star.
On this winter afternoon, we were serenaded by songs from a variety of eras, ‘50s to Broadway to today’s pop. At one point we listened to a rousing rendition of Taylor Swift’s “You’re So Mean” as audience members joined in between bites. The MC of the afternoon, in gold sequined outfit, wanted diners to know that the staff on duty now had been working since seven that morning, and would be ending their shift at three, and then stopped at each table as the tip jar filled. These kids had earned it. While one waiter sang, I watched as he had one hand on the mic, then handed a diner their bill, took a payment from another table and didn’t skip a beat on his number. It’s truly an exercise in an organized chaos – which is also part of the fun.
The diner temporarily closed in March 2020 due to Covid but reopened in November 2021. We asked Ellen about the struggle as a diner owner. “We were temporarily closed for a year and a half during the pandemic, and it was tough,” she says. “Not only was it a financial burden, but it was hard for all our entire staff from waiters, managers, kitchen, and beyond, and we weren’t sure if we were able to reopen again or not. But we took a chance, invested in unexpected repairs, and reopened to the public in November 2021.” As for staffing, the diner opened once again with talented singers, she says. “We feel lucky since many of our Stardusters returned after our temporary closure, since there aren’t many other places in New York City, where they can practice, perform, and fine tune their skills before auditions. They all want to be in show business, and we provide a platform where they can be in the spotlight and earn a living before they’re on stage.”
She’s thrilled to be back, welcoming guests and visitors “from all over the globe 365 days a year, seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Other photos by MJ Hanley-Goff