Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler tells the story of Tess, a 22-year-old woman who moves from Ohio to New York City and becomes a waitress at Union Square Cafe. There are prominent parallels between the protagonist and Danler’s own experiences moving to the city. As a college student at the New School, Danler started writing this novel, inspired by her various jobs working as a waitress.
However, as Danler told Vanity Fair, she was opposed to writing a strict memoir as she wanted to “create characters that were composites of all the incredible people that [she’d] met.” While waitressing at a restaurant in New York City, she met Peter Gethers, a publisher who gave the manuscript to a colleague, leading to a two-book deal at Alfred A. Knopf.
As Tess adjusts to the demands of city life and her fast-paced job, she makes friends with two other employees: Simone and Jake, but this friendly relationship soon morphs into an beguiling love triangle throughout the course of the novel.
When published in 2016, Sweetbitter was met with mixed reviews. Some have found fault with its simple plotline, while others have enjoyed its indulgent description. While Sweetbitter has been criticized for being a typical coming-of-age story, the vulnerability and authenticity Danler brings to the story has often made up for it. Gabrielle Hamilton of The New York Times has said it would be a “tired” story were it not for the “brilliant writing” behind it. Danler is also praised for her unique descriptions of food which is inextricably tied with sensuality and sex. Danler states that a restaurant can be a “highly sensual environment and a highly sexualized environment,” proving this notion with her seducing language surrounding food.