Oh, to be young and impressionable in the aughts and score a plum job in “the best restaurant in New York City,” where food means everything: theater, art, rock-and-roll, sex and, sometimes, even food.
Stephanie Danler’s debut novel, “Sweetbitter,” examines that frenzied moment at an unnamed establishment clearly modeled on Union Square Cafe, where the author once tended tables. The book is true to its title: a smart, delicious, coming-of-age tale about a young woman already drunk on the idea of New York before her true education begins. And, yes, I devoured it. Better yet, the novel doesn’t flail at the end, the sinkhole of many writers, novice and veteran.
“Let’s say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. with the sun circulating and dawning,” Danler writes, “the sky full of sharp corners of light, before the exhaust rose, before the heat gridlocked in, windows unrolled, radio turned up to some impossibly hopeful song, open, open, open.”
The narrator is dubbed “the new girl,” and for more than half the novel, her background and name fail to exist, reflective of her lowly status as a mere squib in the organization. There are hints of an impossible childhood and flight from hard quarters. Someone finally calls out to her at the holiday party: “It dripped into my head, from some neglected faucet, thickly, painfully, that I was Tess.”
The world Danler illuminates is intense and prescribed. Tess is hired not as a “server” (too mighty) but as a “backwaiter” to serve “guests” (never “customers”). Nights are endless and pocked with injury, not only burns and shattered glass, but insults lashed by the tribal staff members who view themselves as the Marines of “the Industry,” superior and distant from the quotidian world. The crew works hard, then drinks and snorts itself stupid into the wee small hours, only to begin anew.
Simone is Tess’s teacher in the ways of wine, a skilled, hardened pro who seems to love the work, the world. She’s distinct from all the hyphenates: the server-actors and server-screenwriters who yearn to move beyond the restaurant yet remain held there by the weighty paychecks and perceived self-importance.
Naturally, there is a guy, a bad boy, trouble at 30 paces: Jake, a bartender. “When he laughed it was rare and explosive,” Tess says. “He could turn himself off like a switch and I stood in the dark, waiting.”
“Sweetbitter” is not a story of love but of lust and abandonment and thrashing about to satisfy appetite in inappropriate places. The triangle formed by Simone and Tess and Jake is bound for ruin. Rather than a romance, Danler has created something far more interesting: a sexy, sweaty book of sensory overload.
She offers delectable insights, a gift for eavesdropping and description. “Don’t trust the French with your vegetables,” a chef tells Tess. “The Italians know how to let something breathe.” The greatest crisis the restaurant faces is not a bad review or a downturn in the market, but bugs and health inspectors, the Javerts of the foodie world who can shut down the place in minutes.
As Tess slowly — and only partially — reveals herself, “Sweetbitter” also tackles the ephemeral passport of beauty. The narrator, unaware of her voltage, turns out to be a stunner. Jake cautions her about coasting on surface charms: “Maybe you don’t have to compromise yet, but you’re going to have to choose between your mind and your looks. If you don’t, the choices will become narrower and narrower, until they are hardly even choices and you’ll have to take what you can get. At some point you decided it was safer to be pretty.”
That stings. Tess wants nothing to do with being safe. Why else come to New York? But serving, for all the restaurant’s drama, is also safe. It’s a fun house, an opera with white linen, but so detached from reality that she constantly marvels at the city during daylight: “When I saw the trees in Central Park I laughed out loud.”
No longer the new girl and getting a bit too good at backwaiting — there’s a goal — Tess must decide if she wants to negotiate the greater, possibly duller real world and distinguish herself (as a writer, perhaps) or remain, like Simone and possibly Jake, intoxicated by the restaurant’s frenetic demands, drunk on the perception that busy means important and dining signifies everything.
Karen Heller is a Washington Post writer.
By Stephanie Danler
Knopf. 356 pp. $25