The new Starz series Sweetbitter follows Tess, a 20-something from a small town, as she moves to New York city in 2006 and snags a position as a server at an exclusive restaurant near Union Square. The experience turns her life upside down: There’s drinking, there’s drugs, and there’s plenty of workplace romance — but is Tess’ experience on Sweetbitter accurate to what it's actually like to work in an upscale New York City restaurant? We spoke to restaurant industry professionals about how much of the show lined up with their own experiences.
Dubbed “the Restaurant" in the novel written by Stephanie Danler and 22W in the Starz adaptation, the restaurant that Tess, Will, Sasha, Jake, and Simone all work at is fine dining personified. The tablecloths are white, the wine lists are extensive, and the training to even be allowed to serve customers (or guests, as manager Howard calls them) is extensive. Tess is invited to work at 22W, but she has to pass a series of tests and exams before she can be offered a full-time serving job — and it isn’t easy. And this rigorous training process for a full-time serving job is indeed pretty standard for fine dining restaurants in New York City, according to Arianna R., a former server at a Brooklyn hotspot. “There were multiple tests and training manuals to make sure we understood the menu, since we were so often explaining it to the diners,” she says.
Amanda H., who waited tables at fine-dining a Mexican restaurant in New York City, agrees, explaining that getting a job at her restaurant was a multi-week affair. “It felt like the American Idol casting call. I went to like four different interviews… We trained every day from like 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. for three weeks before the restaurant opened.” And the training didn’t stop there. "We had to memorize every ingredient on the menu, know like any allergens, every single wine pairing,” she adds. “We took written menu tests. We did relay races with trays of wineglasses. We did soft openings.”
While Sweetbitter’s extensive training is the norm in fancier restaurants, Amy S., who waited tables in the Village in a more casual setting, says that because the restaurant she worked at was more relaxed, her training was, too. “I had to go in, I think it was one day of going through the menu with the manager and them having me go home and memorize it,” she says. “They would show me a couple of things, show me the kitchen, the plates. I don’t think the training lasted more than two days at most.”
And it’s not so strange that someone like Tess with virtually no serving training could at least get a shot at a job at a place like 22W. Most of the servers questioned had little to no prior serving experience. Tanja T., who worked at a seafood restaurant, says that she got the job because of her cousin, who was a regular at the restaurant. “She had gone to this restaurant constantly,” Tanja says, “And one day, she was like, ‘The manager said you can show up.’”
22W is where the characters work, but New York City is where they blow off steam at night by drinking, hooking up, and doing drugs. And no matter the restaurant caliber or size, all servers interviewed for this article admitted they had gone out after work with fellow servers or at least knew about all the other partying that went on. “Yes, yes, yes,” Arianna says. Leigh B., who served at a West Village bistro, agrees. “We occasionally went out, but we were all pinching pennies so drinking for free at the restaurant usually made the most sense. Drugs were somewhat common but whip-its were the only thing being done openly.”
On Sweetbitter, the servers do a lot of cocaine, and Amanda corroborates that this happened in her experiences, too.
“Here’s the thing — I started reading Sweetbitter when it came out, and my chin dropped to the floor because the year that [Stephanie Danler, the author of the novel] is writing about, I was the same age working in the same type of restaurant," Amanda says. "We were all in that same area of Union Square… there were definitely the industry bars that pretty much everyone went to after a shift… I’m sure there were people drinking on the job. There was 100 percent a lot of cocaine. I wasn’t involved in that, [but] I know it was around.”
On Sweetbitter, Tess is clearly infatuated with fellow server Jake, and she’s also into Will, who serves as her guide during her training. This type of work love triangle is apparently commonplace, especially with the long hours and tough work that comes with being a server. “There was always restaurant drama with some couples, people hooking up behind the scenes and not telling anyone, and of course, then people find out,” Tanja says. Some of these relationships didn’t end as badly as it seems Tess' will end with her fellow servers. “I married the chef I'd been crushing on since day one,” Arianna says. “[But] there's a lot of flirting, hooking up. Shift drinks happen whether your shift ends at 3 p.m. or 1 a.m., and you just end up knowing a lot about each other. It's a high-pressure job, and working that stress off together at a bar creates uniquely intense bonds, unlike what I've experienced at any other job.”
What was more of a problem, though, according to Amanda, was when (mostly male) higher-ups would date (mostly female) servers, which is a clear abuse of power. “It wasn’t something that was allowed, but we knew it happened. If HR, if corporate knew it was going on, I’m sure they’d have a huge problem. But it still went on,” she says. Amy agrees, citing rumors of inappropriate hookups and affairs that happened between servers and managers, as well as anger over the dress code. “The only thing that really pissed me off was that the women had to wear skirts and a low-cut shirt and the men were allowed to wear pants,” she says.
And besides the on-the-job sexual harassment from managers and colleagues, the New York City servers interviewed expressed that they’d either been the target of unwanted advances from clients or had seen it happen to a fellow server. “I've had drunk men grab me more times than I can count. One man asked if I wanted to see something funny and when I said yes showed me a photo on his phone of... balls? Maybe his? I'll never know,” Arianna says. “You want good tips, you brush it off, maybe roll your eyes and the guy's drunk friends will laugh at him. I told my manager about the photo guy, though, and he told me not to go back to the table, and he got them out of there quickly.”
Sometimes, according to Amanda, the sexual harassment from clients was subtler. “What happened more was backhanded, like a client would talk about how attentive I was to their needs, and they’d slip me a card or a hotel key,” she says. Leigh echoed the sentiments that this was usually dealt with quickly by management.
Though Sweetbitter has just begun its run, it’s hard to tell whether Tess is cut out for the hospitality life. It’s grueling and demanding, and all of the servers interviewed for this story are no longer in the industry. “The hours are tough. It's hard on your body, and your will is tested with hours of being condescended to,” says Arianna. Leigh agrees, saying, “The final decision [to leave] was lifestyle, income, and growth opportunities elsewhere.”
That said, many still cherish the bonds that they made with their fellow servers and guests. “I haven’t worked [service] since like 2009, but I’m still very close with the friends I made there. It was a very tight bond for some of us,” says Amanda.
“I always had many more wonderful customers than bad customers,” Arianna says, “and I loved being able to meet waves of people each night, especially if part of that was starting with a grumpy person and turning their night around.”
Sweetbitter is a classic fish-out-of-water story, but according to those who have lived it and — at one point — loved it, its depiction of the New York City restaurant scene is pretty accurate to what it’s really like to be a server. Tess is sure to burn bright, but if the real-life servers interviewed here are any indication, she might eventually burn out, too.