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MSQ Review: Don't Tell Mama

A new piano bar brings a New York state of mind to West Hollywood

Any show queen who has ever spent time in midtown Manhattan (and frankly what show queen hasn’t?) has no doubt has stopped in at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. It isn’t known for its food; it's the diner where the waitstaff sings. It was inevitable that the Times Square attraction make its way to Los Angeles. What baffles me is how they got the rights to use the name Don’t Tell Mama.

Don’t Tell Mama, a New York institution, has recently opened in West Hollywood filling the piano bar gap left by last year's closing of The Other Side. While the Silver Lake bar was small and intimate, Don’t Tell Mama is large, open and bafflingly laid out. The piano and performance space is at the back of the restaurant, which would be fine if it didn’t mean that I was watching the staff go in and out of the kitchen all night long. It's distracting, and it's a missed opportunity to put the stage near the front of the house so passersby can see what’s going on.

I heard three different pianists the night I attended and each had his own style. They each had to play a lot of music because the singers here are also the bartenders, which means instead of hearing from the multitudes of talented Angelenos, we got to hear two or three bartenders plus the pianists when they chose to sing. The website for the NY location says there is “an open-mic where any audience member can get up and sing,” but those opportunities seem almost non-existent in WeHo. Though there were many people who could sing, there was never any invitation for them to do so. It’s as if the staff is the only entertainment we need. If that remains true, I can assure you Don’t Tell Mama will have a very short lifespan. Not that the bartenders weren’t talented, but how often do you need to hear them? 

That might also explain why it took more than 10 minutes to be greeted by a server. As I started to order a drink the singer had to put me on hold while she sang harmony with another bartender who had been singing. Yes, the bartenders don’t just make drinks, they walk around with microphones for these impromptu moments. The menu is uninspired and doesn’t seem suited for a city known as much for its health food and allergy issues as Los Angeles.

I love Don’t Tell Mama in New York, and it shares some of the same characteristics as the L.A. outpost does. They have the advantage of cabaret rooms (and Los Angeles could use a really nice cabaret space; The Gardenia doesn’t qualify) and a more theatre-friendly location. Though Liza sings that making it New York means you can make it anywhere, more of a Los Angeles mindset and less of a New York state of mind will be important here.