Spoilers for the May 13 episode. Tess is the new girl in town on Sweetbitter, and while she certainly feels out of place both in New York City and at 22W, the very high-class restaurant where she now is training to work, her fish-out-of-water status is even more apparent after the restaurant has closed. Tess may not know anything about serving, but she certainly doesn’t know anything about how servers choose to unwind. Home Bar from Sweetbitter isn't real, but the episode "Now Your Tongue Is Coded" spotlights late-night restaurant post-shift culture, and from the looks of it, it seems a lot like high school.
Fresh off the high of a successful (you know, for Tess) shift, Tess is ready for one thing as she preps to walk across the Williamsburg Bridge — dinner. But alas! She discovers that she’s forgotten her wallet at 22W and must head on back to the restaurant to get it. When she comes back, all of her fellow staffers are getting turnt on shift drinks. And she gets one, too! The group departs to Home Bar, their watering hole of choice, and Tess stays behind, telling Simone (who is too good to go out with the rest of the group, or probably just not invited) that she likes to be alone. But because she has not yet learned that nothing good happens after 2 a.m. (thanks, dad!), Tess accompanies the group into the wild-and-crazy post-shift life.
The scene that follows with her in Home Bar is reminiscent of the Mean Girls scene where Janis Ian is explaining the cliques of the school to Cady Herron. This time, though, everyone is able to drink, there’s a lot of cocaine, and the patrons of the bar are divided up by restaurant, not club participation. The one good thing about Home Bar, though, is that everyone there has seemed to have found their tribe. Though the groups stand apart and no one really mingles together, there is a definitive sense of belonging. Some may find this atmosphere smothering, if they’re looking to bust out and try something new, but Tess finds it comforting, especially because she has no friends. (The post-shift spot in the Sweetbitter book is Park Bar, which is a real establishment in New York City; the scenes for the series were filmed in M1-5 Lounge, per AM New York.)
Tess is comforted enough by having a group that she decides to help Sasha try and find his green card wife (and she gets belted across the face by a former sex worker for it), do cocaine with Ari, and drink to excess with everybody else. But it all makes sense, because who among us didn’t do stupid things in high school for the sake of fitting in? None of Tess’ actions feel genuine, but she blazes forward anyway. She doesn’t have much of a choice, because the alternative is not feeling like she belongs.
Will explains to Tess that Home Bar is where the servers go to blow off steam and be their real selves after spending the whole day being the idealized version, serving patrons and acting endlessly charming and gracious. The nighttime Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations do make sense for the others, because the other servers at 22W have an idea of their core beings. They’ve lived multiple lives with different mistakes and problems; they have identities. But Tess is still figuring herself out. She’s just starting out, and she’s not prepared to pick a side.
As the night ends, Tess finally gets that food and walks across the bridge, only to vomit everything — the food, the night — up onto the street. It’s a fitting metaphor for Tess’ place in the world at this moment. She may think she’s ready to dive in head-first to this dimension of equal parts customer-service madness and excess, but she literally can’t stomach it. Tess is in over her head, and the difference between this and high school is that she can’t escape this clique.