“You break stuff,” Stephanie Danler says. “You drop plates. You’re moving a hundred miles an hour.” Such is the breathless world of restaurants that Danler knows well – as a young woman new to New York, she jumped into service at Union Square Café and later worked in the wine program at Chelsea’s Tia Pol. She was working as a waitress at the cozy West Village restaurant Buvette when she passed a manuscript for the book she was working on to an editor who frequented the bistro.
The book, called Sweetbitter, sold for six figures; it's out today. In it, Danler exquisitely captures the world of restaurants in writing that is equal parts dreamy and sharp-edged. A vibrant celebration of taste, wine, pleasure, and New York City, the novel is about a young woman's first year working at a Union Square Café-like restaurant and all of the heartbreaks and glorious discoveries that come with it. Food & Wine talked with the 32-year-old Danler about the strangest things she overheard in restaurants and the best wine for writing.
Did you open a nice bottle of wine to celebrate your six-figure book deal?
I’m partial to Billecart Champagne. Their Elizabeth, the rosé, is such a special bottle. In the month after realizing that Sweetbitter would be published by Knopf, I drank what some might call a grotesque amount of Billecart. But I thought it was appropriate.
I was also given a beautiful bottle of Burgundy by my future editor when we had the Knopf meeting. He was a regular at Buvette and he gave me a bottle of Premier Cru Burgundy that I drank immediately. It was a 1990 Vougeot. I drank it with a salad. I definitely went for it.
You describe tastes so beautifully in the book. What’s your most visceral taste memory?
When I moved to New York, my first job was at Union Square Café, which is practically on top of the Union Square Green Market. I remember the first time I had an heirloom tomato and thinking: Okay. This is what a tomato tastes like. I have never tasted a tomato until this moment. I'm 22 years old.
Your protagonist, Tess, has several stumbling blocks while learning to work in a trendy, fast-paced New York restaurant. Did you have things you had to pick up quickly?
The three-plate carry is something that I had to pick up when I got to New York. At the restaurants I had worked in before moving to New York, women didn’t carry the food. Then, in New York, we essentially were bussing our own tables. It was an incredibly physically demanding job. Moving wine boxes, restocking the bar, hand-washing certain dishes, and cutting all the bread—it’s just physically active.
Do you have any food obsessions?
Always and forever, anchovies. I bring them to other people’s houses when they're cooking for me. It’s incredibly rude. They’ll be like, “I'm making a salad.” And I'm like, “Great. I’ll bring the anchovies over. Don’t worry about it.” And they’re like, “I don’t think I like anchovies.” And I quickly make them forget that.
What about when you’re writing? What are you eating and drinking?
When I'm really writing, I can't really cook for myself. I kind of picnic at my desk and I will eat cheese and cornichons and bread and olives. That sounds very unhealthy, but in small snacking amounts it’s really satisfying and kind of refined.
I like to sip on something while I'm writing if it’s the appropriate hour, but you have to be very careful. It’s a slippery slope. One glass of wine, fantastic. Two glasses of wine, you know, you think you’re God. And then, in the morning, not so much. I drink Campari sodas sometimes during the late afternoon. If I'm day-drinking I’ll have a Campari. But I don’t drink any hard alcohol. I never have. And I’ve gone through phases with beer but it hasn’t stuck.
What’s the best wine for writing?
It just depends on what I'm really into. Right now I love the Loire Valley. My daily bottle, like my house white, will be a Muscadet. But Chenin blanc is really special – it’s a grape that they excel at in the Loire. It’s a wine that you can serve to people if you had people over but also a little bit elegant if you’re by yourself.
I love the passages in the book with snippets of conversation overheard in restaurants. What are some of the craziest things you heard?
The subject matter flows so quickly between the best kind of Chinese food, texting problems with a boy, work emergencies, then back to questions about the kind of shrimp. That’s what it feels like when you’re working a dinner service. You’re hearing 40 different things at once, and you never get to finish the conversation. You are just understanding fragments of people.
You worked at Tia Pol in Chelsea on their wine program, and I know you were thinking of opening a wine shop when your book deal came through. If you were to open a shop, what would it be?
I worked at a wine store in Williamsburg called Uva. It’s a really special store. It focuses on natural and biodynamic wines and has this very esoteric selection of stuff from the cellar. It’s run almost like that record store from the movie Empire Records. There’s always rock music playing and all the boys that work there are musicians and obsessed with wine. It’s just this knowledge base that’s really geeky but accessible. If I ever opened something that is the vibe I would go for.
NYC is such a character in Sweetbitter. What are your favorite restaurants here?
I'd have to say Grand Central Oyster Bar – my number one for any solo dining adventure. And sometimes I will allow people to come with me, but I mostly go by myself. Buvette because I worked there, but also because I'm still in love with the food and everything chef Jody Williams does. It’s food I have never gotten sick of. I'm obsessed with Tia Pol. They have this secret perfect Spanish wine list. It’s filled with these affordable bottles. And I'm not just saying that because I designed it a million years ago; a lot of industry people end up there. It’s open late, and it’s fantastic. And I lived in Williamsburg for 10 years and I love Marlow & Sons. Marlow is where I celebrate.
You’ll be traveling a lot for your upcoming book tour. What’s on your list of must-visit restaurants?
I just put the feelers out to everyone for everywhere I go. Chefs make the best restaurants lists. I'm a huge fan of the handwritten list, or just the very personal weird list. My San Sebastian list is from a Catalan chef that works in Barcelona. It’s handwritten. The handwriting is terrible. It had Ganbara on it before Ganbara got huge. And Etxebarri, which is in the Basque country and they do everything over charcoal. It’s a destination. I scanned the list and I gift it to people. It’s my favorite thing. It’s like this secret map.