Stephanie Danler’s story is the stuff of great myths. I read about her luck one night during a time when, if I couldn’t sleep, I would Google: restaurant fiction, waitress novels, books about serving. The headline read: Waitress Is One of Many New Writers With Big Book Deals. An article in the New York Times. And her photo, which normally wouldn’t garner too much talk, yet the editor was smart to feature a large image before the type, so midnight readers could see her eyes—crystal blue—perfect hair, coy smile. Most writers are unremarkable. I had a feeling Danler made great tips. I clicked, Preorder.
I read that Times article over and over while waiting for the book to ship. Peter Gethers, senior vice president and editor-at-large for Penguin Random House, was a regular at an upscale restaurant in New York, where Danler, an MFA grad with a novel manuscript, was waiting and writing. The story is almost too saccharine to enjoy. Still, I was eager to read Sweetbitter. Writing restaurants, it seems, is sub-genre solely distinguished for chef memoirs, but the waitstaff, a lower echelon in restaurant hierarchy, rarely receive a point of view. Aside from Merritt Tierce’s 2014 novel Love Me Back and scenes of secondary characters serving our protagonists food and drink, the front of the house is tragically offstage in contemporary writing.
I devoured this book—fast—in a matter of four sleeps. It’s good, really good: Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is something delicious. It’s like that saying, The proof is in the pudding, only this time, instead of pudding we’re tasting crème brulee.
As an experienced server, I’m most invested in this first section of the book, titled Summer for the season our narrator Tess moves to New York City and starts working at an upscale restaurant in Union Square, a story not unlike the author’s. Tess is hired because she is a fifty-one percenter, which is restaurant speak for having personality, nerve. The other forty-nine percent is mechanics: “You know, just memorize the table numbers and the positions, stack plates up along your arm, know all the menu items and their ingredients… Know how to show up on time.” Danler is meticulous with the forty-nine percent, and readers learn about folding linens, wine varietals, steps of service, all the details of training down to hiding barmops and buying expensive nonslip work shoes before she’s awarded her stripes—a uniform. Tess screws up more than once as a backwaiter, whose duties include running food, bussing tables, making espresso, polishing glassware, and opening wine. It’s all too familiar and uncomfortable to read episodes of restaurant stress, but Danler makes it new by restructuring the scenes of chaos into centered paragraphs of stream-of-consciousness poems:
Table 43 is industry—Per Se?
If one more bitch cuts me off to ask for Chardonnay—
If one more person asks for steak sauce—
What the fuck?
Carson is in again—without the wife,
That’s twice this week.
Like a chorus, these poems give voice to a crazed cacophony of teamwork, which shifts into the restaurant’s omnipresence as character. Danler uses this technique to manipulate time, “all of service condensed, as if [Tess] only worked one night stretched out over the months.” These sections are bound to puzzle a reader not versed in restaurant culture, but there’s authenticity in the writer who uses unapologetic jargon, who orders, “Pick up!”
Summer ends when Tess is invited for a “shift drink” after one busy night. Her coworkers start in their own restaurant, finishing open bottles of wine and playing bar for each other while doing side work. They head to the local watering hole for last call, and then afterhours, and then more. Wide-eyed Tess asks, “Do you do this every night?”
Experienced readers already know the answer as Autumn begins, and Tess forms inevitable friendships with her coworkers, alcohol, cocaine. In the inherent debauchery, though, there’s a second narrative building: one about a beautifully cold bartender named Jake and the lead server Simone. Tess is obsessed with both of these characters, likely because they’ve reached an untouchable status in the restaurant, and while I understand both relationships, Tess’s awe with Simone is more complicated, and therefore, more rewarding. Simone is “Wine-Woman, a tree of knowledge, regulars demand to sit in her section,” the kind of woman who says, “Your self-awareness is lacking” as a means of backwaiter training. Simone works a server even when she is not clocked in, feeding Tess fancy wine, loaning her books about grapes, teaching her jazz, oysters, chanterelles—an exotic teacher to Tess’s student. However, the façade of Simone eventually unravels, and she, too, like Tess’s other coworkers, becomes painfully human—sad, even. Because readers and Tess receive the realization of Simone’s truth at once, it’s barbed and shocking and wonderful. Danler’s descriptions of Simone are spot-on, envious. Their fallout is unexpected and heartbreaking.
The third section of the novel, Winter, focuses on the evolution of Tess’s sexual relationship with Jake, which is predictable, only because Tess is so young (read: naïve) and Jake is a total fuckboy (read: bartender, tattoos, manbun). I won’t spend much time here because I have dated a Jake at every job, and so have you. The appeal is irresistible and obvious. Some of us read to learn, but there’s an exquisite delight in recognizing, Me too.
Perhaps the most resounding part of this novel, outside of restaurant specifics, is the writing of New York City as character, accurate with street names and businesses and real-life locations—the novel’s centrifugal force. Danler writes that Tess is “born” as she drives across the George Washington Bridge, and while I don’t relate to New York personally, I understand the buzz of living somewhere new for the first time. With all the obstacles at the restaurant, the love triangle between Jake and Simone, Tess’s only confidant becomes the city, and soon everything foreign transforms into the familiar like a kind of magic. After a sharp scene of too many drinks and not enough Jake, Danler writes:
The city was radiant and I felt untouchable. I experienced the boundlessness that ships cut from their moorings must feel. I experienced again that feeling of having money, paying the tolls, of being allowed to enter the race. Yes, I felt the freedom again, even if I couldn’t quite recapture the hope. I could have walked all night. All the times I’d been denied entrance, all the times I’d asked permission—but it was my city too.
In the end, Sweetbitter isn’t about New York specifically, or the restaurant, or even the love story. Tess ultimately settles into the most important thing: ownership of herself. And so we no longer have a novel about how to work, how to wait tables, the forty-nine percent, but rather, the fifty-one, “the tricky stuff,” put simply—how to be.