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Newly arrived in New York City, twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job as a "backwaiter" at a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant. What follows is the story of her education: in champagne and cocaine, love and lust, dive bars and fine dining rooms, as she learns to navigate the chaotic, enchanting, punishing life she has chosen. As her appetites awaken—for food and wine, but also for knowledge, experience, and belonging—Tess finds herself helplessly drawn into a darkly alluring love triangle. In Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler deftly conjures with heart-stopping accuracy the nonstop and high-adrenaline world of the restaurant industry and evokes the infinite possibilities, the unbearable beauty, and the fragility and brutality of being young in New York.

356 pages, Hardcover

First published May 24, 2016

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About the author

Stephanie Danler is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School. Sweetbitter is her debut novel.

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5 stars
10,872 (15%)
4 stars
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3 stars
23,746 (33%)
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1 star
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 7,900 reviews
Profile Image for Offbalance.
533 reviews92 followers
August 18, 2016
If Sweetbitter is the book of the summer, then clearly I need a new season. I could not find one reason to understand why the reviews of this book were as good as they were. Most of them seem to center around how well they say the author describes food. As someone who has been deeply interested in food writing since high school, I can deem her merely adequate. This book is the ne plus ultra of terrible MFA writing. The self-indulgent meandering that the reader is forced to endure as the dimwitted main character blunders around life only is saved by the occasional inadvertently funny passage, or moment when one of the other characters rightfully give the main character shit for being a complete moron.

What little plot exists centers around the narrator landing in New York with no drive or direction to anything except, like, I dunno, live or something? So she decides to get a job in a restaurant so closely based on the Union Square Cafe I hope Danny Meyer sues the writer's ass. Naturally, as only a privileged pretty white girl can do, she bats her eyes into a job at a pretty damn prestigious restaurant and proceeds to get away with all sorts of incompetent bullshit due to her youth, as far as I can tell. The character is supposed to be from some Midwestern city, and though anyone who's ever even only been adjacent to a copy of Food and Wine knows, food outside of New York consists of more than toast and canned soup. All of the other raves about the "look inside the restaurant industry" must have come from people who never read Kitchen Confidential or Blood, Bones & Butter . (This just in! Sometimes people use cocaine! Shocking, I know.)

Our idiot heroine literally begs one of the older staffers who she idolizes into being her friend and mentor, in turns so pathetic they're incredulous. She also, naturally, falls in love with a beautiful boy behind the bar with the personality of her favorite food (which is toast, btw) but she can't figure out if he actually likes her. All of the "growth" she experiences boils down to her learning how to order wine like the kind of douchebag most of the people I know who have worked in the serving profession want to murder (describing a white she orders as "flabby but adequate"? Bitch, are you for real?). When the end mercifully comes at last, the last 40 pages are so breathtakingly incomprehensible as to only possibly belong to another book. Perhaps if the developments came earlier (and there was less wanking about Oysters and wine and whatever the hell else) there would have been, I dunno, a plot? Instead, we got a rundown of Chowhound.com's greatest hits from 2005 (dropping Sripaphi's name like it's a new thing? Come on now. Everyone's hip to that trick.)
Do yourself and avoid this. All it will make you do is want to set the book on fire (especially not recommended if you have an ebook), and sing the Internationale and hope that idiots like the characters in this book are first against the wall when the revolution comes (and perhaps starting your own revolution to facilitate this).

The book can only be summed up as follows: description
Profile Image for Trin.
1,847 reviews567 followers
June 23, 2016
I work in a bookstore in an affluent neighborhood. Today, the following conversation occurred:

Customer: I want to return this book! (plunks Sweetbitter down on the counter)

Me: Okay, what was wrong with it?

Customer: It was stupid!

Me: Oh, I really liked it! But I could see how someone could find it kind of pretentious.

Customer: Yeah, all those waiters going around quoting Kant and Fitzgerald. It was ridiculous!

Me: (surprised, as this had not been what I'd meant at all) Oh...

Customer: A whole book about someone wanting to become a good waitress. I mean, who cares? What does it matter?

Me: (After a few beats of dead silence that stretch a little too long) Why don't you go ahead and pick out something else?

What I wanted to say, but couldn't -- because like the main character in Sweetbitter (you know, the waitress) I am in a service position that requires me to hold my tongue even when someone insults me to my face -- is that I thought Danler's depiction of her protagonist's aspirations and growth were gracefully handled. The style is indeed a little pretentious -- with short passages of all dialogue and other experimental stunts -- but for me it created an almost dreamlike quality that meshed beautifully with the main character's whirlwind of new experiences. This is a book about a young woman finding herself in a big, strange city, and starting her career, and gaining life experience. And yes, she does all of those things as a waitress. (You condescending bitch.)

I would hate to see how this customer tips.
Profile Image for Kat.
270 reviews80k followers
Shelved as 'will-not-finish'
December 1, 2021
y’all ever relize a book is gonna annoy the shit out of u after about 7 seconds of reading?? lol DNF @ 2% 😅😅😅
Profile Image for Frances Dowell.
Author 38 books392 followers
June 1, 2016
This is one of those "I really wanted to like it" books. The sentence-level writing is gorgeous, and the subject matter--working in a high end NYC restaurant--is (for some of us) nearly irresistible. And at first I liked Sweetbitter very much. Young girl moves to New York, gets an amazing job, is immersed in the life of the city ... What's not to like?

But after a hundred pages or so (maybe even fewer), I started to get frustrated. While I was enjoying protagonist Tess's introduction to fine food and wine, I kept waiting for, well, a plot. Eventually I could no longer deny what I'd begun to suspect: there was no plot, unless you call a 22-year-old backwaiter falling in love with the attractive-yet-troubled bartender a plot. It's not.

Tess's relationship with Jake the bartender is as tedious as you'd imagine. The more interesting relationship is the one between Tess and Simone, the restaurant's doyenne and longest-serving server. Simone takes on Tess as her protege, teaching her about wine, urging her to go deeper, learn more. Simone in many ways is who Tess wants to be--well-traveled, at home in the world, mysterious, cultured.

The problem is neither Simone or Tess (or Jake, the troubled bartender) are fully developed characters. And they're the main ones, so imagine how unmemorable the secondary characters are. Simone is intriguing, but ultimately she seems like a type instead of real person. Same with Tess, same with Jake. But they're so close to being more than that! I finished this book wishing it had gone through one more round of edits (you will grow tired of the drinking and the snorting and the vomiting, I promise; you will begin to skim), in which the author had gone more deeply into her main characters. I had the feeling she didn't want to reveal too much about them because she was holding back for the penultimate reveal ... but to be honest, what we learn at the end of the book doesn't have much of a payoff. I think it's supposed to be shocking, but it isn't. Or it's not really that interesting--so, mildly shocking in a boring kind of way. I'd rather have real characters.

Anyway, if you're twenty and living at home in the suburbs this summer, dreaming about how great life will be once you're shed of your parents and your job at the mall, you'll like this book more than I did. If you're me, you'll read to the end (after vowing to give up in the middle), skimming as you go, because you're curious how things will turn out. But of course you already know how things turn out. They always turn out that way.
Profile Image for emma.
1,869 reviews54.7k followers
August 22, 2022
this is a book about a few of life's greatest gifts: food, and pretentious people, and bad behavior, and gossipy drama, and women being intrinsically more interesting than men.

sure, it strayed too far into interpersonal conflict and shouting for me at times, but i love books like this one - introspective, coming of age, girls who think too much and the completely normal people they obsess over just for having happened to be there.

simone is so much more interesting than jake or even tess, but then i am a woman fan.

this was addictive and fun!!! and i have literally 0 interest in watching the show.

bottom line: the fun kind of unpopular opinion!



review to come / 3.5 but super rounded up

tbr review

leah said people hate this book because it has pretentious dialogue, and i immediately added it
Profile Image for Jennifer.
784 reviews24 followers
June 1, 2016
It's weird - I couldn't put this one down and at the same time I was slightly annoyed the whole time I was reading. The descriptions of working in a restaurant are good, as are the food and wine discussions/descriptions, and they kept me going thru all the bar scenes and bumps of cocaine and thoughts that seemed too mature for a 22-year-old who was the opposite of mature.
Enjoyable but just not my favorite.
Profile Image for Joachim Stoop.
754 reviews518 followers
July 3, 2016
I apologies in advance for sounding hard and harsh in this review...

So... one of the most anticipated books of 2016 according to some (literary and press) sources.
In their reviews and in the first GR-reviews it was said to be 'Anthony Bourdain meets Jay McInerney with a sprinkling of Siri Hustvedt.'

So Anthony Bourdain? Tough luck I just read his Kitchen Confidential. Sweetbitter is supposed to 'engulf your gastronomic senses'. Except for a short episode of eating a first oyster, the first (and one of very few) real recipe descriptions was an omelet with cantaralles on page 106! Kitchen confidential had by then collected an entire Jamie Oliver Cookbook.
And wow: I encountered some namedropping of wines that weren't the usual Chablis or Bordeaux! Maybe it's 'cuz I'm a European gastronaut (pun intended) but as Shania Twain exclaimed once: that don't impress me much.

Siri Hustvedt? It felt that the writer didn't dare to choose between full-on incrowd food porn and, euhm, a good story.
It felt that the writer just adored to show off her talent (which she has!) of writing playfull dialogues.
It felt that the author went out to play, while the reader wasn't invited to play along, sitting and staring annoyed on a courtside bench. "Look y'all, with no hands"

So, it's not that much more than yet another girl leaving everything behind to go to the big city tabula rasa to wait tables (another pun intended).
And of course there is a likable/lickable waiter that our waitress is crazy about, untill she kisses him and he doesn't seem to remember afterwards...

Sometimes I wonder if some readers on Goodreads actually read the novel, or just the promo talk...
But, I know, it's all about taste... except for the topic of this 'culinary novel'...
Profile Image for Samantha.
387 reviews186 followers
June 3, 2016
Hmmm . . . Where to start when reviewing Sweetbitter? My desire to read it can certainly be attributed to the Hype Monster and a serious case of Cover Lust. People were raving about this one long before the release date, and it was hotly anticipated ever since Stephanie Danlier's book deal was announced. Also, the cover lured me in the first time I saw it. I mean look at at it; it's just so striking.

I went out and bought the novel right away because of the glowing reviews and that striking image on the front. Unfortunately, I don't think Sweetbitter lived up to the hype, or was as good as its gorgeous cover.

Sweetbitter follows Tess as she arrives in New York City to escape her empty life in Ohio and have all the experiences she can. Tess isn't an aspiring anything—she gets a job at a fancy restaurant in Union Square as a backwaiter and that's enough for her. Just to live in the city and to be immersed in restaurant life is living her dream. Tess is subsumed into the culture of her profession. She drinks too much. She stays out all night. She does coke. She injures herself on the job and can be found crying in many a corner. Rinse and repeat.

Aha! But there is something to shake up Tess's routine of toil and debauchery! There is the older woman, Simone, a senior server with affected, European ways who teaches Tess about Wine and Life and Literature. Enter a lot of platitudes. Tess, being a motherless child is soon in thrall to Simone. But she's even more captivated by Simone's closest companion, Jake, the moodily handsome bartender at the restaurant. The nature of Simone and Jake's relationship isn't clear, but one thing's for sure—Tess is ready to get in the middle of it.

Tess was proclaimed by various shout-lines and reviews to be "uniquely beguiling" and "unforgettable." I found her to be neither. These lines from Tess's own lips more accurately sum up her character: ". . . I'm their pet. Their puppy. They need me to follow them around." Tess spends the whole book following her coworkers blindly, allowing them to mistreat her and determine the course of her life at every turn. I didn't really get her as a character, or feel for her, or like her. I can't say I cared about any character in this book. Not only are they an unlikable host of people (and I like a well-done unlikable character, don't get me wrong), they are an uninteresting bunch—beset by a cliched host of demons and addictions and foul mouthed one-liners. We've seen these people before, and they're not interestingly wrought here.

The New York Times declared that "Sweetbitter…[is] an unpretentious, truth-dealing, summer-weight novel" and Kirkus Reviews (which gave the book a starred review) says it has "only occasional lapses into unintentional pretentiousness." I have to disagree. I found the majority of Danler's writing, in Tess's first-person narrative voice, to be pretentious. It was like she was trying too hard to sound literary. Here's how she describes figs: "Each one with a firm density that reminded me of flesh, of my own breasts." Um, okay. Here's how Simone talks: "I know you. I remember you from my youth. You contain multitudes. There is a crush of experience coursing by you. And you want to take every experience on the pulse." I'm sorry, but does anyone talk like that? A lot of the dialogue is stilted like this, just doesn't ring true, isn't the way people converse. The book also tries some ambitious narrative shifts that I don't think work. It switches from Tess's first-person narration to second-person narration, where Tess refers to herself as "you," and then there are passages dropped into the work at random of stream-of-consciousness dialogue, overheard from the guests and the waitstaff. It doesn't come together as a cohesive whole or illuminate any special meaning in the story.

There is no plot to speak of. There is no driving force in the novel that keeps it interesting. There is a scene where finger-banging is supposed to be the sexiest, and it's not, it just ends up being ick. There are some well-written passages where Danler shows promise as a writer. But they're overwhelmed by the pages and pages of try-hard literary fiction. The book never lives up to its promise and I was left thinking, what's the point?

I can't say I liked Sweetbitter. It left me feeling meh when I wanted to be wowed.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews618 followers
February 9, 2022
Update --
Chat about the Series?/! ....
Has anyone watched this? Thoughts?

Paul and I just discovered it (Amazon Prime Video). The interesting, diversified cast makes the show intriguing.
The leading actress, "Ella Summer" (an English actress best known for her role as Jackie in the Showtime drama series Yellowjackets, which I haven't seen) ... must be 'THE MOST BEAUTIFUL' (drop dead gorgeous) actress in show business. Its hard to take your eyes off of her -- (and speaking of 'eyes' > WOW > they are huge) --

Paul and I are both liking the series -- terrific (even better) than the novel.

This was a spontaneous audiobook pick ..... available through my library overdrive.
I never had any serious intentions of reading it when it first came out. I had pre- judged it unfairly.

I 'assumed' the writing would be amateurish. WRONG! The words that Stephanie Danler used in her sentences were invigorating- delicious-and thought-provoking.

My original thought was, "what gifted author writes about a 22 year old female looking to reinvent herself in New York City?" I wanted to change the channel on this story before it even started.
But for kicks - I pushed 'AUDIO-PLAY'.
This story 'wasn't' about a girl with big dreams on being an actress - a singer - or dancer looking to be discovered. Tess actually just wanted a job.....away from America's heartland.

I found myself intrigued during a job interview that Tess was having. The interviewer asked her questions that didn't seem related to the job whatsoever. He wanted to know what she was reading. She debated about telling the truth or not. Given that Tess was applying for a waiter job at the most popular New York restaurant.... The interviewer asked her to tell him about a problem situation she faced with her last job and how did she solve it.
The entire interview had me on the edge of my seat. This book now had my respect!!!!!

Tess gets hired as a back waitress. She learns to fold napkins correctly- set the tables -deliver the dinners but not take the orders - and clear the tables when the guests are done eating. She becomes infatuated with the wine expert name Simone and the bartender named Jake. Between Tess's lifestyle of alcohol, food, ( which you can almost taste), drugs, sex, and the dealings of the complexity of relationships... we get a personal back scene tour of the sweet, the sour, the salty, and bitter shenanigans.

I definitely got an inside look and expanded appreciation into the restaurant industry..... THE AUDIOBOOK HELD MY ATTENTION.....'most' of the time....
but what surprised me more than anything was the writing itself.
I enjoyed the way Stephanie Danler put words together. They were innovative!!!!

NOT BAD FOR A LIBRARY FREEBIE!!! I liked it!!! LOVED THE WRITING... awesome sentences! Very impressive & enjoyable!

3.7 rating
Profile Image for Siena Mirabella.
64 reviews6,696 followers
December 5, 2018
I have a new appreciation for this book, reading it the second time. One of my favorites. I adore Stephanie's writing, sis needs to come out with another one 🙏🏼
Profile Image for Leigh Ellis.
41 reviews3 followers
June 9, 2016
I love a good coming-of-age story, but 98% of this book was/is unbearable.

Here's a sampling:


""Your eyes. It's unmistakeable," he said. He thumbed my cheekbone. "Veiled melancholy has her sovereign shrine."

His hand moved up my cheek, flushing me, into my hair, where he tugged, his fingers dry, nonchalant. His other hand pressed into the bruise on my thigh, as he could intuit the blood below the skin.

When he kissed me I said, Oh my god into his mouth but that, like everything else, was swallowed up."


"Our three glasses touched and I pulled a mouthful of wine. The joints in my spine softened, like butter going to room temperature."

! DRAMATIC DIALOGUE ! *This is all one scene, mind you.*

""Fuck you," I said to a man I didn't recognize. "You want to repeat the names of things? You want to make out?"

That person disappeared.

"I serve people!" I yelled out above the music.

"Sasha, you think my life is easy 'cause I'm pretty? It's not. I get a fucking door opened for me now and then. Being pretty...well..."

"I wanna fuckin' record this shit right now."

"It sucks."

"Baby Monster, how 'bout you shut your face 'fore I break your face."

"I hate you," I said to Will, but he was asleep on coats."

OK, after typing these quotes, I'd like to amend my review to state that 100% of the book is unbearable, UNLESS, that is, you're drinking and reading it aloud to friends (or by yourself #summertimesadness).
Profile Image for Shasta.
182 reviews3 followers
June 10, 2016
This book is completely full of itself and full of shit.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,794 reviews4,438 followers
February 10, 2017
It's a coming-of-age story, not the one about all the realisations that come with entering your teens, but the more painful and laborious one about becoming an adult, learning to look after yourself. It's the year of your life you learn that you can't transform into someone you idolise through mimicry alone, and idiotically debasing yourself for love will get you nowhere worth going. The protagonist is twenty-two when she drives into New York: Let's say I was born in late June of 2006 when I came over the George Washington Bridge at seven a.m. Her plan is to walk into restaurants until I got hired; she's hired by the restaurant her roommate tells her is the best in New York, old-fashioned, unpretentious, but eminent. In a city where everyone's trying to be a writer or an artist or an actor or a musician, she has no ambitions beyond the immediate moment. Her life is swallowed up by her job as a backwaiter and bartender.

Our narrator is fascinated by two colleagues in particular: enigmatic Simone and smouldering Jake, who share an intimacy that evokes siblings one day, lovers the next. Her name – Tess – is not spoken until halfway through the book, and it's no coincidence that its utterance marks the moment she arrives at the restaurant – in the sense of recognition, that is. She wins one of a series of joke awards given out at the New Year's staff party, and becomes aware that, at last, she is a visible part of this community, this makeshift, volatile family. It's also the occasion Jake really seems to see her for the first time, and insults her, moves her to tears. The inevitable next step is their seduction of each other. Yet it's Tess's inability to remove Simone from the equation that really forms the backbone of the plot.

Sure, many ingredients of Sweetbitter are unoriginal. New York City. The emotionally unavailable older boyfriend. The drugs. That the main character is, of course, beautiful. But. This is a story which acknowledges that a job in the service industry – implicitly, any job – can be exactly as transformative and revelatory as something a thousand times more glamorous. That you can have wild nights and lonely days. That you can be young and gorgeous and still desperately want someone who doesn't want you. That friendships are not some infallible salvation. That you can live in one of the most exciting cities in the world and not have ventured much beyond your immediate neighbourhood, that one bar. That you're never indispensable. That you can be an adult and still fantasise about a future vision of yourself; still rely on a crush to give your days colour. It swerves cliches so gracefully that I felt continually relieved. I felt exhilarated and comforted at once. Vertiginous with recognition and affection.

And the writing is spectacular. Stephanie Danler's prose shimmers and sings; it flows like water, clear and lucid. But the dialogue of group gatherings, whether across the kitchen or in a bar, is messily layered and can be difficult to pick apart. Sweetbitter doesn't always let you in on the joke. It leaves a lot of things unexplained, so you just have to keep going and learn on the fly, exactly like Tess.

I could say I never wanted the book to end, but that wouldn't quite be true. It's self-consciously finite – four seasons counting down to the one-year anniversary of Tess's arrival in New York – and that's part of its beauty. You will see it coming. First jobs don't last, obsessive love burns out, but everything leaves its mark.

Coming-of-age stories either work for you or they don't, and I suppose that's a lot to do with personal experience, whether they awaken particular feelings or dig up particular memories or push none of your buttons at all. I've lost count of the number of them I've found unrealistic bordering on comical, only to see someone I know or follow saying wonderingly of the same book, it's so true to life. So I can't promise this will work its magic on anyone else like it did on me. All I can say is that I felt validated by it somehow. I felt more alive while I was reading it. What a book, what a fucking book.

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Profile Image for Larry H.
2,514 reviews29.5k followers
June 5, 2016
"I wanted to say, My life is full. I chose this life because it's a constant assault of color and taste and light and it's raw and ugly and fast and it's mine. And you'll never understand. Until you live it, you don't know."

When we first meet Tess in the summer of 2006, she has just left home and driven to New York without any real plans, just a rented room in an apartment in Williamsburg. She somehow manages to find a job as a "backwaiter" at a famous New York restaurant, and it changes her life in ways she cannot even imagine.

Sweetbitter chronicles a frenetic year of Tess' life—one of excess, exhaustion, enthusiasm, emotion, and education (not necessarily in that order). Those who have never waited tables or worked in a restaurant don't really understand that it's a far more difficult job than you could imagine, and when you work at an exclusive restaurant, the pressure on everyone, from the dishwashers and the food runners and the bartenders to the servers, managers, and hostesses, is brutal. Tess finds herself in the middle of a sea of employees, many of whom have been at the restaurant for a number of years, and have fought battles with each other and the customers over and over again.

It's not easy being the newbie in a pressure-filled sea. Tess gets screamed at by the chef, tasked with cleaning out drains no one has touched in perhaps forever, falls down stairs, but starts to realize she is tougher than she thought and enjoys the job more than she could imagine. She builds a relationship with Simone, a senior server at the restaurant whose tip totals are legendary, someone whose section regulars request to be in. Simone becomes a sort of sensei for Tess, teaching her about wine, taste, the beauty of using all of your senses, and, of course, about life in the process.

"You're only beginning to learn what you don't know. First you must relearn your senses. Your senses are never inaccurate—it's your ideas that can be false."

Tess also becomes infatuated with Jake, one of the restaurant's bartenders. He is enigmatic and elusive, simultaneously flirting with her and keeping her at arm's length, and Tess is warned by many of her colleagues that Jake's demeanor isn't artfully sullen, but rather hides a great deal of emotional complexity. Yet her attraction to Jake makes her both vulnerable and courageous.

I thought this was a pretty fascinating and well-written book. I worked as a server at a few restaurants during my college days, and while none were as high-end as this one, I certainly recognized some of the situations and the personalities that Stephanie Danler described. At times pretentious, at times emotional, Tess is a really interesting and flawed character. She annoyed me at times, but I can only imagine what someone so young might experience in a world populated by late-night drinking, drugs, food, and the hotbed that the pressure cooker-like environment of the restaurant world can be.

Danler is a really talented writer. There were sentences and paragraphs that wowed me, even as the characters frustrated me, and that was one of the aspects of this book that definitely elevated it. Some people have likened it to Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential , which I don't quite see, but I think this is a book that is compelling in its own right. If you've ever wondered what it's like behind the scenes of a well-known restaurant, you'll enjoy Sweetbitter . But don't read it on an empty stomach if you're a foodie!

See all of my reviews at http://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blo....
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,720 followers
July 25, 2016
I couldn't finish this book. I checked it out because the novel had been hyped, and generally I like foodie stories, but the writing in this was too on-the-nose and I was groaning by page 5. For example, in the beginning she writes about driving to New York to "escape" from her hometown and its "twin pillars of football and church." ARGH.

I skimmed ahead and didn't see much to improve my opinion. Maybe you will like it more.
January 22, 2021
I kept wanting to get to the part where I cared. The book started out promising, but then just dissolved. Much like the restaurant being condemned for its "architecture", this book falls apart because it becomes a drunken, drug-filled morass.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,677 reviews2,666 followers
June 5, 2019
I’m willing to go out on a limb and call Sweetbitter my novel of 2016. Twenty-two-year-old Tess arrives in New York City by car in June 2006. Two days later she interviews at a restaurant in Union Square and gets a job as a backwaiter and barista. Camaraderie makes the restaurant not just bearable but a kind of substitute home. Tess is most fascinated by two colleagues who stand apart from the crowd: Simone, the resident wine know-it-all, and bartender Jake. Try as she might, Tess can’t work out the dynamic between them.

To mirror her one-year taste apprenticeship, the book is broken into four seasonal parts, headed by short sections in the second person or first-person plural. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing. It’s hard to believe that Danler is a debut author rather than a seasoned professional. This captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia.

See my full review at Shiny New Books. (I also interviewed Stephanie Danler.)

Related reading:

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma (about friends who pull together to survive in recession-era New York City)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (another debut with a foodie theme and a nebulous main character whose life is revealed piecemeal)
Profile Image for Skyler Autumn.
229 reviews1,403 followers
August 26, 2018
5 Stars

This book was everything I didn't know I was craving in my next read. A rich and immersive ode to the service industry, an industry I currently work in because writing is not paying the bills just yet. Maybe I'm slightly bias but this romanticized nod to a less then glamorous job and lifestyle made me revaluate and actually appreciate the hectic, frustrating and at times unbearable atmosphere that is the behind the scenes at any major restaurant.

Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age novel centred around our fresh faced and wide eyed protagonist Tess and her journey to New York and inevitably the ins and outs of her job working at a fine dining restaurant. Tess is pulled into the industry more based on her charm and appearance then actual skills and starts off this novel as a bumbling, idiotic and completely out of her depth back waiter. Her new job is a shock to her system as it is for any newbie in the industry. The fast pace insanity that can come from serving is an onslaught for the senses not to mention navigating the eclectic and dysfunctional staff of any restaurant. In Tess's case that includes her obsession with the two older senior staff members; the dream boat brooding bartender (aren't they always) Jake and the older, wiser and sophisticated Simone. These two are a weird double edge sword they are beautiful yet tortured, sophisticated yet shallow, smart yet simple they are just like the industry itself sweet and bitter.

This novel has a lot of mixed reviews and weirdly enough I totally agree with the negative reviews: YES! Tess and every other character in this novel is full of poor choices and is unlikable but hell so was I at 22 years old. I can now look back at those shady decisions with an older and smarter mindset but in the heat of the moment everything was a hectic blur of zero self control or self awareness.

YES! This book really has no plot but I like stories that feel like windows into a person's life. I like snagging a peaking into a different world. I don't always need a storyline just an interesting setting I can immerse myself in.

YES! This book is overly descriptive with metaphors up the wazoo but it made for a really visual reading experience that made me crave a fine meal and night out on the town.

YES! The love story in this book is BULLSHIT! The dude is a 30 year old temperamental loser who has no direction in life, is disrespectful to Tess, and is in weird co-dependent relationship with Sloane. But what I perceive now as a loser at 27 is what I believed to be an artistic, tortured, and mysterious man at 22. I totally get why 22 year old Tess found Jake appealing I would have too because dating those type of men is what taught me to avoid them at my age now.

So ya, I completely agree with why certain people didn't enjoy this read but for me all those negatives were positives in my eye. I can't help it I'm sucker for a book that kind of is Swan Song for an industry that has been so integral to my 20-something life. This book is definitely not for everyone but if you're a fellow server or use to be and have been in those trudges, I'd be surprised if you don't crack a smile at the cliches that seem to circle every servers life including Stephanie Danler.

UPDATE: Do not watch the TV Show the TV Show is so bad it's almost painful it does a detriment to how good this novel is. BAD TV SHOW!
December 10, 2021

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Okay, so I found this book in a Little Free Library and it looked really fun. I'd actually heard of it-- and I'm usually the last to hear about anything, so that said something. Looking at the critical reviews kind of upset me, though, because one of the common complaints I saw was that it was unrealistic for people working in a service position to be so familiar with literary references and allusions and aspire to, you know, the sweet life.

Whether you love or hate the book, I think that kind of thinking is classist because it kind of implies that only people with "good" jobs are intelligent and if you have a "bad" job, you must be either stupid or not book smart. But there are plenty of people working in service positions with college degrees-- especially now. I used to be one of those people and it was a truly miserable experience.

I worked in a service position where people proceeded to treat me like absolute shit. I had people threaten to call corporate and get me fired because we were out of Turkeys on fucking the-day-before-Thanksgiving. I had full on adults throw TEMPER TANTRUMS because we were out of Anna and Elsa dolls the day before Christmas. I got called "bitch" and all sorts of other fun names for telling people "no, this isn't a trading post, I can't exchange the mountain of goods you don't have a receipt for for a brand new XBox" and "ma'am, please stop trying on all the lipstick, we have to throw out the used ones." I had a guy try to scam us with fake coupons and throw a bitch fit in front of his kids, before telling them, "We're not having Christmas this year, because this woman doesn't want you to have your presents." And then the kids cried. Thanks, Worst Dad Ever.

One of my favorite incidents happened on Christmas Eve, though. This lady was with her grumpy teenage daughter and they were being your typical harried holiday customers. I was putting up a display of holiday decor and the lady and the daughter were fighting about her college plans. And then the lady said, quite clearly, "If you don't go to college, you're going to end up like that woman right there." *points at me*

At this point, I was just done. Done with the holidays. Done with this woman. Done with the display that wouldn't stay up. So I said, "Actually I went to [good college] and I still ended up here. Sometimes you just really need a job and you have to take what you can." Well, daughter's jaw dropped and woman looked horrified. I thought she was going to apologize but then she said, "Oh really? How did you get into your school? Do you have any admission tips for my daughter?" Sincerely and without any shame. Fuck this woman.

So, you know, it's totally possible to work in the service industry and not be *sniff* dumb pleb, you snobs. And honestly, people in the service industry work pretty damn hard, college degree or no, and it seems pretty fucking rude to spit on them from your ivory towers. I've often said that everyone should be required to do at least two years of waitressing or retail. I think it makes you a nicer person.

And throughout all this, did I aspire to greater things? Oh yes. Oh, God yes. So this is one element of SWEETBITTER that I actually really appreciated. It feels semi-autobiographical and you really get a sense of Tessa's sense of angst and ennui working in an industry that is so adjacent to the rich, while she's being treated like stage dressing or a prop. The writing is gorgeous and the descriptions of food are probably the best part of this book. The reason I'm giving it a two is that it is kind of boring. Not a lot happens, and feel like it would have been better either as a short story, an actual memoir (if this is, indeed, a semi-autobiographical work), or maybe as a romance. I don't know, I just felt like the book was trying too hard to be more than it was and it ended up not being all that fun to read.

I can see why they made it into a TV series, though. And you might like this book if that sort of wistful appeal for luxury and finer things is something you relate to. It seems like a lot of people jumped on the hate bandwagon for this book-- for things that aren't even necessarily the book's fault-- and I actually liked a lot of the things other people complained about. I just wish it was a little more memorable.

2 to 2.5 stars
Profile Image for Dianne.
567 reviews935 followers
October 30, 2016
I really liked this coming-of-age story set in the milieu of a high-end New York City restaurant. It does get off to a slow start and the writing style takes some getting used to but if you like complex and often unlikeable characters, this may be for you.

Tess comes to New York City as a young adult with no plans and no resources. She unexpectedly gets a job as a backwaiter (plate clearer, drink bearer, dinner deliverer, table service setter) in a very upscale restaurant. The story traces a year in her life as she moves from being "the new girl" to an integral part of the restaurant's infrastructure. I loved all the details of restaurant life and the almost claustrophobic relationships between the various employees - owners, managers, servers, bartenders, cooks, dishwashers, hostesses, etc. Tess falls for a moody and aloof bartender who seems to have a strange co-dependent relationship with an enigmatic older woman, a senior server who serves as a mentor/tormentor to Tess. It's a complicated tale, with lots of shifting allegiances, betrayals, drinking, drugging and casual sex.

This won't be for everyone - my Goodreads friends who have read it are either "love it" or "hate it," with nothing in between. Much like the exotic food and wines lovingly described in this tale, this book is most definitely an acquired taste. I ate it up! Great debut novel.
Profile Image for Blaine.
782 reviews660 followers
June 2, 2021
Somewhere inside Sweetbitter is a good story. A young woman from a small town moves to New York, and spends a year working in a restaurant learning about food, wine, and love. Not an original story, mind you, but at least a good one.

Sadly, Sweetbitter is not that book. Tess is a rather frustrating narrator: naïve, and determined to make certain mistakes no matter how many people warn her beforehand. Jake, the object of her affection, is more of an archetype than a developed character. The only real question about their relationship is how it will end. Simone, Tess’s mentor, is a more interesting character, although her relationship with Tess is ultimately unsatisfying. And the ending is ... problematic.

But the real problem with Sweetbitter is the writing. Or, to be precise, the overwriting. There are occasional passages—often almost a stream of consciousness—that really capture the controlled chaos of working in a restaurant. But large sections of the story are told in a style that just feels wildly pretentious, and after a while it becomes difficult not to transfer that sense of pretentiousness to Tess.

Goodreads tried to warn me. Even for literary fiction, 3.29 is a mighty low rating. Sweetbitter sounds intriguing, but is ultimately much less interesting than it sounds. I’d recommend reading something else instead.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,111 reviews1,414 followers
December 29, 2017
Sometimes when I'm reading a novel I picture one of those kids' toys that's basically a rectangular box with holes in it, and the toddler is meant to use a toy hammer to pound different-shaped pegs into the holes. (This is a real toy, right? I'm not imagining it?) When I picture this toy it's usually bad news for the book, because the pegs are never all pounded in the way they're supposed to be. They're sticking out all over, and no one has bothered to take the time to make everything fit together the way it should. It's unwieldy and unsatisfying.

On the other hand, when I'm reading a novel where everything seems to work together perfectly, I tend to picture it as some kind of weaving, a tapestry maybe. Every element of the book is a different color thread, but it all forms one whole. That's the operative word: whole. What's the point of creating a large work, like a novel, with a lot of different elements, and then not taking the time to make it all fit?

Stephanie Danler took the time. Sweetbitter is packed with characters of varying degrees of importance, with details about food and wine and the restaurant industry, with love and lust and heartbreak and dive bars and shabby NYC apartments and drug use in gross restrooms. But it all works together just as it should. It's not a perfect tapestry—there are a few broken threads in the form of characters not quite as well developed as I would like—but for the most part it's all unified by the point of view of Tess, a 22-year-old main character who makes some terrible choices, but no worse than those a lot of 22-year-olds would make in similar circumstances. At least she's alive; at least she's really living. At its heart, Sweetbitter is a coming-of-age tale, familiar but also singular. Danler's clear desire to weave it all together and her undeniable ability to make it happen set her apart from a lot of her contemporaries in the current fiction landscape.

This talk of tapestries might make Sweetbitter sound labored or dull, but it's not. It's fun! It's juicy, like a soap opera—and given that it's going to be a half-hour series on Showtime, I'm clearly not the only one who noticed this quality. I loved getting immersed in the world of this high-end restaurant and all the weirdos and lost souls who worked there. As time has gone by I look back more and more fondly at Tess and her clueless behavior—probably the way Tess herself would look back at her 22-year-old incarnation with the benefit of years and hindsight. Didn't we all mess up a lot at that age? And if we didn't, we probably should have. When else would we ever have that kind of freedom?

I follow Stephanie Danler on Instagram and she's always posting bits of the poetry collections she's reading, which doesn't surprise me, because this book was written by someone who cares about structure and cares about language. I genuinely hope she hasn't gotten so distracted by Showtime that she's neglected to start a new novel, because I'm already impatient to see what she comes up with next.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,301 reviews450 followers
July 31, 2016
I started this book without knowing exactly what I would find. Some reviewers considered it their best book of the year, others found it just ho-hum, some hated it, and more than a few abandoned it after a few pages. I decided to jump in because I love reading about food and wine and behind the scenes action at restaurants. I figured I could DNF it if it proved no good.

I was enthralled from the beginning. A 22 year old lands a job at a high priced Union Square restaurant in NYC. From a rube who has to turn around because she doesn't have money for the toll to get into the city on her first day, she turns into a person who loves the city, loves her job, and loves her co-workers, in particular the bartender, Jake, who has some pretty heavy baggage to deal with. "A year in the life", so to speak.

I think this book appealed to me so much because I saw a lot in it that I could relate to. It's been a long time since I was 22, but I can remember the feeling that everything was new and exciting, so much to learn, loves and hates, everything was there just for the taking. I have never worked in a restaurant, but I did work in a big box retail bookstore for 10 years, and service industries of any type have a lot in common. Hatred/ridicule of corporate policies, tolerance of bad customers and respect for the good ones, fellow employees who became family because of shared experiences, and the way everyone worked together on days that seemed endless. This novel spoke to me because I understood the backstory underneath.

This is not a book that I can whole-heartedly recommend to anyone, because it doesn't really fit into a category that will appeal to genre readers. It's personal. Suffice it to say if you're interested, give it a chance.
Profile Image for Theresa.
232 reviews143 followers
December 3, 2019
This book just wasn't for me. Stephanie Danler shows promise as a writer (this is her debut novel), but she's not a natural storyteller. "Sweetbitter" has zero plot, and the characters were paper thin. The protagonist, Tess, lands a job in an upscale restaurant in New York City, and that's pretty much the whole plot. "Sweetbitter" was pretentious as hell. Ugh. Tess basically speaks in a bunch of random, confusing thoughts about herself, her job, and her bland co-workers. Big whoop! I didn't feel connected to her at all. It was like watching paint dry. No personality or complexities as a young woman coming-of-age in a hectic city. The only thing I took away from Tess is she's a people pleaser, gullible, and spineless. She dabbles in drugs, binge-drinking, and meaningless sex just because all her co-workers are doing it. Peer pressure is no joke, folks. She was immature and lacked self-control/awareness. No character development. The best thing about this novel was the cover, (so gorgeous) otherwise this stinker is definitely bitter, bitter, bitter. The ending was disgusting. It made me dislike Tess even more, she makes terrible, terrible choices. Danler is a whiz at metaphors, but as an author, she lacks intensity. I love beautiful writing, but I NEED a plot.
Profile Image for Bonnie Brody.
1,215 reviews188 followers
April 1, 2016
Stephanie Danler, a new-comer to the literary scene, has a poet's flair for words. The only unfortunate aspect of the novel is that the narrative is extraordinarily boring. It revolves around a young woman named Tess who drives to New York City from America's heartland in order to make a life for herself. She finds a shared apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and quickly gets a job at one of the top restaurants in Union Square (think Union Cafe). From there on, the reader is informed about the goings on of all the folks who work and eat in the restaurant along with Tess's perceptions of them and her surroundings.

Tess is infatuated with Simone, the wine expert, and Jake, a bartender. Simone attends to Tess a bit but Jake, at first, acts like she doesn't exist. A relationship between Simone and Jake is alluded to but not revealed until later, much later. While Ms. Danler has a wonderful gift for writing, I wanted her to tell more of a story, one that was more interesting than the comings and goings of a restaurant crowd. Anthony Boudain, in non-fiction, can keep the writer interested but Ms. Danler had me hanging on to her words while I begged for a story.

It is my guess that this novel is semi-autographic. It reads like the work of a young person who very much wants to know the world and those who people it. I applaud that effort but it just doesn't work as a novel. I rate it '5' for the beauty of the writing and '2' for the story line.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,535 reviews
June 9, 2016
You know how sometimes you can't stop hearing about some fabulous restaurant in town, that one you have to try and have to get reservations really far in advance if you don't want to go at 9:30 on a Wednesday night, that one with the famous chef who's really a white girl but makes amazing Spanish tapas and has changed the food scene forever? And then maybe you go and it turns out it really does taste like food that was made in a gas station, and not in an edgy way but in a gas station way?

This is like that with books.

To be clear: that famous tapas restaurant really is amazing and you should stop hating on that famous chef. That other food really does taste like it's from a gas station (a clean gas station, but a gas station nonetheless). This book is the gas station kind, not the famous tapas kind.
Profile Image for Marie.
143 reviews44 followers
August 31, 2016
“Appetite is not a symptom,.. It’s a state of being, and like most, has its attendant moral consequences.”

Sexy, racy, indulgent.. .an enlightening dive into life within a restaurant. It felt authentic and raw, a full sensory & gustatory experience.. for which reason, I recommend this book be read accompanied by a glass of wine. With all the drinking, drugging, and embarrassing mistakes made by the protagonist, you will need it. She bares her soul and the soul of the restaurant industry. I have not had the pleasure of working in a restaurant, but have had friends who have and this novel definitely sheds light on the subject.

“Sweetbitter” was written by Stephanie Danler drawing on her own experience as a backwaiter in NYC. The protagonist in the novel, whose name you do not learn until half-way through is Tess. She presents herself as naive, unpretentious, inexperienced and unworldly, but is out to prove herself to survive and achieve in the restaurant which is modeled after Union Square. She comes under the wing of Simone, who is older, experienced, worldly and uncomfortably close to the bartender that Tess is fixated on. Tess learns about terroir, and develops an appreciation of food and wine. She gets swept up in the late night partying, which is part and parcel of working in the restaurant. She becomes involved in a love triangle. She makes ridiculous choices. She is a character you root for, though. Through her, you gain insight into the secret life of a restaurant, how it becomes all-encompassing, lending itself to late nights with drugs and alcohol, to relationships that lack depth, and self harm.

I felt transported to the time after college where there is so much to learn, to experience, where anything can happen, where so many relationships are fleeting. I cannot imagine being Tess, alone and new to a city without any friends or family nearby, not returning home for the holidays. My heart ached for her loneliness, her desperate yearning to fit in, her poor choices. However, I also felt the energy and excitement of this time in life, the possibilities, the opportunities, the relationships.

I loved the book for the most part. It’s an exciting and fun read. I recommend it to anyone interested in the restaurant industry, who enjoys reading about food and wine, who’s looking for a spicy book to read.

For my wine & spirit notes, see http://www.book-chatter.com/?p=552.
Profile Image for Britany.
992 reviews434 followers
September 8, 2022
Drugs, Binge drinking and sexual tension--- ah, life in the hospitality industry.

I think I was a good way into this book before I realized it was fiction and not a memoir! It reads like a poetic flashback of the grime and spotlight that is being a bartender and server at a nice restaurant in Manhattan. We follow Tess as she moves to the city to start her life, with all of her belongings in her car and a dream of figuring it all out. She interviews with Howard- an eclectic older man that owns the restaurant that she ends up working at. The usual crew takes their places in this novel- you have the men that sleep around, those that binge drunks and alcohol, and those that don't take life too seriously. Simone, the sommelier intrigues Tess and she orbits her world like the sun around the planet.

This was good, not great. It's not life changing and I'm sure while most can agree that this is the way the industry works at times, it was an interesting snapshot of life in the city hustling to make a living.
Profile Image for Stacey.
889 reviews161 followers
November 9, 2018
I finally read this novel. It has been on my tbr list since it was published. It was everything I thought it was going to be.

Tess is 22 and finds herself in New York City wanting to make a start somewhere exciting. A tough place to be without a plan, but she finds a job in an upscale restaurant despite not having experience. She carves a space for herself in this industry starting at the bottom as a backwaiter. Following her ups and downs is a pleasure to read. The people, management, food, wine, and let's not forget about the drugs is what makes Tess's experiences authentic.

I enjoyed Stephanie Danler's writing. She can write about food and wine and have me running to the store! If you have worked in the restaurant industry, Sweetbitter will resonate with you.
Profile Image for Christine.
839 reviews
June 29, 2016
I was invested in the beginning of this book, but quickly lost interest. The characters didn't do anything for me. I couldn't find any character growth, and the writing style was quite choppy (fitting perhaps since the book is focused around food, I don't know). I kept waiting for the moment that I would care about the characters, but I mostly felt like I spending time with people I didn't want to be around. I was so disappointed in this novel.
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