During the early 1990s I worked in Chelsea, a few blocks north of Union Square. Taking walks during the day helped me manage my fatigue; my day began and ended with a two hour commute to the western suburbs of Philadelphia. Union Square Greenmarket was bustling several days a week, and a great place to walk during lunch and treat myself to something to be enjoyed at home. It was one of the first farmer’s markets of its kind in the city, and the first I had ever encountered. I was amazed by the vast variety of produce available at the market, all of it grown within a few hours of the city, and I was intrigued when I learned of nearby Union Square Cafe, the then ten year old restaurant that was to New York City what Chez Panisse was to San Francisco, the originator of the farm-to-table concept.
This past summer, an intriguing book rested comfortably on the NYT Bestsellers list for months. The cover features scrawled lettering and a broken wine glass, just a splash of red wine remaining at its base. The book is the debut novel of former Union Square Cafe backwaiter, Stephanie Danler and the title is Sweetbitter. I’m not sure how I missed the connection to Union Square Cafe, otherwise I would have read it immediately. This book is entertaining and relatable — for me — on so many levels. My connection to Union Square, my former life in college as a waitress, albeit never at restaurants as fine as Union Square, and of course, my appreciation for fine food and food memoirs. The fact that Stephanie Danler is such a gifted writer is the proverbial icing on the cake, or should I say the cranberry syrup and the whipped creme fraiche on the pumpkin cheesecake! The pages practically turned themselves as a I read Sweetbitter, This is a mesmerizing debut from a truly gifted writer.
Sweetbitter is a memoir, yet it is also a novel. (With a dash of kitchen confidential expose thrown in for good measure.) The lives of the staff at the restaurant begin when the restaurant closes. They are young, they are intelligent, beautiful and all living in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. They work very hard to create memorable evenings for those lucky enough to finagle a table at the restaurant and then they play very, very hard, frequently staying out at bars and clubs until the first rays of sun meander through the skyscrapers to the Manhattanites below.
The main character, Tess, has arrived in New York City without a plan. A midwesterner without a clue, she drives straight over the George Washington Bridge in June of 2006 without realizing she needs money for the toll. From that moment on, the New York lessons hit her in waves, nearly extinguishing her enthusiasm for her new life. She wings her interview at the restaurant, arriving sweaty and disheveled, and miraculously is given a two week provisional position as a back waiter (read busboy). An incredibly lucky break, by any standards. The wait staff is less than welcoming, this is the server equivalent of hazing, yet she survives and is rewarded with a permanent position, a locker, and her “stripes”, the trademark striped oxford shirts worn by the staff.
I’ll stop a moment here to mention — again — that Stephanie Danler is an incredibly talented writer. That’s where the novel part of this debut figures into the picture. The plot incorporates the lessons she learns from senior staff about everything from identifying the origins of an oyster by taste, the development of her palate, her burgeoning knowledge of wine…wine regions, varietals, terroir, how to pronounce, taste, sell and properly present and uncork a bottle at a table, and, the four tastes accessible to us through those funny sand papery bumps on our tongues — sweet, bitter, salt, sour. The plot deftly develops a map of the hierarchy of wait staff and the relationships within and outside of the restaurant; in short the back stories that make her colleagues interesting to her and to us, as readers. Tess’s relationship with an older server/mentor and the handsome, bad boy bartender does occupy a significant portion of the novel’s focus, too much at times, but the restaurant is the epicentre of her life, and as such, so are her fellow employees.
There is no lack of restaurant drama here. I found myself having mild heart palpitations on a night when one of the servers — her mentor — is shaken by a guest and loses it, retreating to the wine cellar and leaving her tables in limbo. The restaurant is immaculate by New York standards but as filthy as you would imagine a kitchen that serves three seatings seven days a week would become. Her descriptions of fruit fly infestations and the evening the health inspector shows up are riveting.
Stephanie Danler’s talent is on full display with her often sensual sometimes shockingly raw descriptions of all of these: food, excessive drinking/drugging, sex, the life lessons learned by a young twenty something living in New York City for the first time.
By the time the novel comes to a close, Tess has been treated less than fairly. I fumed as I read the last pages of the novel detailing her setup and eventual demise, yet she remained grateful for the experience, stoic and the opposite of bitter. I am thrilled that she was able to transform her experience into this remarkable and highly acclaimed debut — there is a large plate of karma being served up here, to be sure!
The venerable Union Square Cafe closed about two years ago, citing rent increases. It is scheduled to reopen sometime this fall at a new location, not far from the greenmarket. I would give anything to be one of the those fruit flies on the wall, the evening Stephanie Danler saunters into the restaurant and is seated — hopefully — at the best table in the house. She deserves it!
Staff of Wellington Square Book Shop